by Sam Mondros
In San Geronimo, two monumental vertebrate obelisks stand sentinel in front of the home of sculptor, performance artist and professor Nathan Lynch. Scattered in their glossy presence are dozens more. Puffed-up podiums and deflated, cratered soap boxes, a five-foot-tall drooping trophy, bathtubs with ceramic bubbles at their feet and an army of amorphous blobs that look equal parts Dr. Seuss and David Cronenberg, depending on where you stand.
Lynch, whose work is currently on view in a three-person exhibition organized by the design firm Studio Ahead for the SF-based Jones Institute, has been the chair of the ceramics program at California College of the Arts since 2006. Wry and nonchalant, the 49-year-old has a professorial demeanor and abundant energy, evidenced by the work strewn across his property. He approaches art with humor and invites interaction. His sculptures often comment on politics and environmentalism—or the folly that can come with both.
“I think a lot of my work has to do with Americans and their well-intentioned efforts going awry. A lot of these sculptures look like they were inflated and then collapsed. Whether it’s fitness, economics, politics or that salmon ladder on the golf course, it comes up all the time—the folly of improvement. And I’m not being critical, but it’s good to laugh at it. Something about the unlimited aspiration of humans to make things better is endlessly amusing to me.”
Lynch’s work is informed by his upbringing in a conservative pocket of Washington State, where the duck-hunting, football-playing, nuclear-bomb-building ethos has provided plenty of creative fodder in the years since he left. His hometown, Pasco, just minutes away from Hanford, is where three other iconic Bay Area artists (William T. Wiley, Robert Hudson, and William Allan) grew up and where the plutonium for the “Fat Man” bomb dropped on Nagasaki was manufactured.
In school, Lynch was precocious and engaged in various DIY art projects. His first was a waist-high papier-mâché Noid—the alien-like Domino’s Pizza mascot that bounced across television screens during commercial breaks, but was discontinued after it sparked a hostage crisis in the 1980s. Years later, on a family trip, he found a how-to book at an ice cream shop for different papier-mâché monsters and mythical creatures. It taught various techniques for sculpting and a diverse selection of creatures of which Lynch made dozens—scaly green lizards, some as tall as himself, with big, goofy grins. After a high school summer program at Carnegie Mellon University, he decided sculpting was his path. “Being up late in the studio by myself was kind of like a high I hadn’t experienced before,” he said.
After he graduated high school, Pasco’s local paper, The Tri-City Herald, published a full-page feature headlined “Monster talent: Pasco sculptor molds promising future in arts with crazy creatures.” He told the Herald about his inspirations—humor, absurdity and conversation starters.
Lynch had his choice of art schools but eventually decided on the University of Southern California for its forward-thinking approach and proximity to Hollywood. (He initially intended to study special effects.) In his first semester, he signed up for an introductory ceramics class with Ken Price, the legendary abstract ceramicist best known for applying multiple layers of paint (rather than traditional glazing) to his sculptures.
At the time, the divide between pottery and ceramic sculpture was deep. Lynch recalled visiting SF State, where one professor told him ceramicists don’t “paint” their work, period. Price, however, was operating differently, applying auto-body lacquer to his work in the late 1950s in L.A. “Pottery people thought that was really sacrilegious,” Lynch said. “I wasn’t raised like that, though. As I see it, you could use bubblegum or piss or wax to make the work you want.”
Price recognized Lynch’s potential. However, he wouldn’t find another teacher who made as much of an impression until he attended Mills College for graduate school. There, he met Price’s friend and contemporary, Ron Nagle, a sculptor of equal stature. “At the time,” Nagle recalled, “ceramics was pretty narrow in terms of what was expected, but Nathan broke out doing all kinds of neat stuff. He became extremely prolific and started to develop his own style based on stuff he had been exposed to.”
At Mills, Lynch collaborated with dancers, musicians and other artists, inspiring a foray into performance art. On stage, Lynch felt uneasy and vulnerable. To counteract those feelings, he began wearing an orange moped helmet. “If you already look dorky or stupid, it gives you permission to make a fool of yourself,” he said. “ By making himself vulnerable, he became “more open.”
Lynch moved to the East Coast in 1999 after grad school. There, between 2001 and 2004, he embarked on his first lengthy performance project, Where is your Wheel, in which he wore his orange helmet and walked through cities (New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., Las Vegas, Aspen, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Berkeley, Edinburgh) and small towns tugging a long thick rope attached to a two-foot-diameter pine wheel. On his website, he describes the performance as “a hybrid of Neanderthal activity, dog walking, and drag racing…
intended to question the habits and patterns of American culture. It was an idiosyncratic act focused on interaction with the public and aimed to challenge their perception of rationality. What began as a simple Fluxus gesture evolved into an examination of American culture, with increasing references to the environment, energy costs, and transportation.”
“People would be like, ‘What are you doing?’ and I’d be like, ‘I’m going to the post office, what are you doing?’ If you tell someone it’s art, they don’t try to solve the puzzle; they just put it in this category of things they don’t understand,” Lynch said. “Think of this guy in his big American muscle car showing it off. In a sense, it was kind of like the inverse of that.”
In 2002, when Lynch was at a residency in Snowmass, Colo., he applied for a teaching position at CCA. After working part-time for four years, he became chair of the ceramics program. The promotion changed his life, allowing him freedom to model his classes on anything ceramics-related. Examples include classes he’s taught about San Francisco Bay mud and the ceramic shorebird nests he made for the Farallones, Año Nuevo Island and Oahu. “I really enjoy thinking about what the stranger corners could be, would be, should be or might be,” he said. “Open doors, open hearts, say yes to everybody.”
The expansive environments of USC and Mills inspired him to hire teachers who would do the same at CCA. Over his two decades of teaching, he has fostered a new generation of cutting-edge ceramic sculptors. Woody De Othello, for example, was featured in the Whitney Biennial last year and has been lauded in this publication and others (Artforum and the New York Times) for his experimentation with materials and processes. It all began, says the Oakland sculptor and painter, under Lynch’s tutelage.
“Nathan is bulletproof,” said De Othello, who graduated from CCA in 2017. “He’d let you know that you don’t necessarily need to have all of the language as you process things, but you can trust the impetus with making rather than having the reason or logic to make something. He’s a force out here in the clay community and clay culture. To this day, I’ll still ask him about stuff.”
Inverness resident Mariah Nielson started studying architecture at CCA the same year Lynch was hired. She became familiar with his work when she asked if he would fabricate a line of ceramic cups modeled after hand-crafted sets created by her father, JB Blunk. He declined the job but referred her to another studio. Last year, Nielson curated Same Blue as the Sky, Studio Ahead’s first exhibit that featured the work of Lynch and other Marin County artists.
“There’s real humor there,” Nielson said of his work. “The shapes and the propositions and the suggestions. “His work really slips between the functional and the decorative, and I think he enjoys that slippage.” Lynch said prioritizing experience over functionality drives his creativity. “When I was a student, if I made something remotely functional, somebody’s always going to put a fucking flower in it: ‘Oh, it’s a vase!’ If there’s an openness or invitation, that opens up a new thing for me. For me, [a piece is] not finished until a person is interacting with it.”
Doubledrink, a three-foot-tall drinking fountain he made for the Headlands Center for the Arts, features a large basin with two spigots. The piece, commissioned in 2017, requires users to face each other as they awkwardly slurp water. In 2014, Lynch was asked to contribute to Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ seventh Bay Area Now triennial. The tall, shimmering sculptures that now sit on either side of his driveway were part of Dead Reckoning, an interactive exhibition that addressed the precarity of human existence amid environmental and economic fragility. The forms, Lynch said, reference buoys. “San Francisco was really lost coming out of the housing crisis, and I was making these markers for finding our way,” he said. “There are a number of different buoy meanings. The best one is the unknown hazard—the one that says, ‘There’s something below here and we don’t know what it is.’”
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“The Lily Too Shall Function” features work by Nathan Lynch, John Gnorski and Jessica Switzer Green @ the Jones Institute through December 10, 2023. A film by Pavló Fedorov documenting their work screens @ Minnesota Street Project, also to December 10. Artists’ talk: November 16 at 6 pm @ MSP.
A version of this article appeared in the November 2, 2023 edition of the Point Reyes Light.
About the Author: Sam Mondros is an Inverness-based writer and staff reporter for the Point Reyes Light. When he’s not covering western Marin County’s breaking news, he’s exploring its arts and cultural movements, highlighting the importance of legacy and place.