by Glen Helfand
I saw Ron Nagle’s beguiling survey of works from the 2000s more than once in-person before the Covid-19 outbreak temporarily put an end to such pleasures. It opened in January alongside the FOG and Untitled art fairs, a timing befitting Nagle’s stature as a major force in ceramic sculpture since the late 1960s. He learned, dialogued, worked with and palled around with such legendary figures as Peter Voulkos, Jim Melchert and Ken Price. The swirl of ideas generated by these California artists was experiential, conceptual, sensual and iconoclastic. Nagle, who for decades was an influential professor at Mills College, makes work that embodies all that and more. Since then, his reputation has only grown— his 21st century achievements include an appearance at the 2013 Venice Biennale.
This show, provocatively named Handsome Drifter, is booked through August, but it is now physically inaccessible, buried like treasure in one of BAMPFA’s lower-level galleries. As such, it’s easy to imagine
these oh-so-tactile objects having a wild party down there, as if the show were an extended version of that silly Ben Stiller movie Night at the Museum.
But there is no way around the injustice of the situation. Strangely, the museum’s website offers just one image on their website. (Let this review be a noodge to post more photos!) Thankfully for me, his work is so indelible in intent and form that reviewing it, even at a remove of several months, isn’t much of a stretch. A PDF version of the exhibition catalog, with a wonderful introductory essay by curator Apsara DiQuinzio, as well as an extended conversation with the artist, rekindled my initial experience of it.
For a 20-year survey, the exhibition occupies surprisingly little space. That is because all of the works are uniformly small; any one of them could rest in the palm of your hand. Half appear in lit vitrines inset into two walls like jewelry box windows at Tiffany & Co. Displayed this way, they look like ancient artifacts from some fabulous bygone culture: Pompei meets Memphis Group design in contrasting color schemes. The rest are shown in the center of the room on a large rectangular platform, an island with an angular plywood ramp designed by Yves Behar of fuseproject. It functions like a viewing deck, the perimeter of which is rimmed with sculptures in plexiglass vitrines, wheelchair accessible and viewable from every angle. From above, they seem to resemble little beds with abject duvets.
From a distance, the gallery looks cool and formal, a fitting foil to the randiness underneath the clear, minimalist cubes. So let’s talk about what’s inside. The Bad Clown, from the Snuff Bottles series, really stands out; it is incredibly sexual: shimmery blue, breast-like mounds with a squat pipe poking up from
between them with a red stopper, the whole thing akin to one of those coke-dispensing mirrored tables from back in the day. Message to Raphael (2016), a vertical piece split down the middle and flaccidly drooping, conjures food associations (ladyfingers, hot dogs).
Nagle’s objects may seem fragile, but everything about them looms large. Potent, you could say. They pack punches with color and texture, glazes that look like frozen pools of shiny fluid, and with dry, luminescent surfaces, flocked like lunar rocks lifted from a Barbarella pit-stop planet. They beg to be handled, licked and swallowed. Some of these confectionary forms recall the deceptive surface and scent of marzipan, while the titles of others (e.g., Boston Scrambler and Vanity Scramble ) evoke hearty breakfasts. Nagle’s California-native sensibility (he’s from SF) makes me think he composed a 1980s nouvelle cuisine tasting menu prepared by Wolfgang Puck. Duck Salad (2005), Beautiful Noodler (2008), Mesquite Mystery, 2015 (a de-fanged cactus cheese cube), Drab Leg Buffet, 2008, and Karma Gouda, 2014,
are prime cases in point, the latter a cheese course resembling something like a white tissue elegantly puffing from its box. The amuse bouche, Urinetrouble (2015), is a visual a pun with a backdrop of melted American cheese. Clearly, this is an artist who also loves fooling around with words as much as edibles.
Some of the works are cups you could actually drink from, though in scale, refinement and form, they’re ribald and randy in demeanor. Speaking of which: the title of the show is inspired by the main character in one of Nagle’s favorite films, Night of the Hunter (1955), starring a defiantly sensual Robert Mitchum as a man who smolders with compromised morals. (The movie was directed by Charles Laughton, a man also known for his appetites.) The film reference is as instructive as it is colorful, and points to Nagle’s firm embrace of both high and low culture. As to the former, he has often cited the serenely focused paintings of vessels by Giorgio Morandi as inspiration. (In the catalog he describes that artist as “a guy who drew pots with soul.”) The show’s title piece, from 2015, is like a stage for a Western, a glowing-orb sunset, covered in a Sherwin Williams dousing of shiny red, dripped onto a luminescent brick. Atop this, like an actor, is an L-shaped worm-turd form, poised between rising and perhaps lowering itself into the pool of color.
You can’t think about Nagle’s artistic output without acknowledging his list of pop culture accomplishments. He wrote songs for the theatrical, satirical 1970s SF band, The Tubes. (Barbara Streisand even recorded some of his compositions.) He contributed devil sounds to The Exorcist, a 1973 film with its own relationship to vibrantly colored goo. So you get the sense that there is a lot of life channeled into his objects. Oozing fluids notwithstanding, they make you realize just how much work it takes to have so much fun.
The show also includes 17 graphite drawings of sculptural forms executed on lined sheets of yellow and pink notebook paper, the existential nature of their comic-book treatment amplified by sensuous curves and mottled textures articulated with pen pricks. On these humble surfaces, the drawn forms exude surrealist overtones — Morandi mixed with touches of di Chirico isolation. With a monochromatic palette, they reveal a vulnerable skeleton. They are handsome drifters but also lonely dreamers, as we all seem to be during this strange moment in time.
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Ron Nagle: “Handsome Drifter” @ Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive to August 30, 2020.
Glen Helfand is an independent writer and curator, as well as an associate professor at California College of the Arts.