In his most recent exhibition with Modern Art, London, sculptor Ron Nagle presents two series of sculptures: Extraterrestrials and Conniption. Conniption presents a large mix of different formats, inspired by post deco styles and bright, stucco surfaces. On the other hand, the flat, alien-like nature of the Extraterrestrials sculptures demonstrates Nagle’s newfound interest in 17th Century Japanese Oribe-style wares.
We speak with Ron Nagle in the following interview, where he explains more deeply where his inspiration comes from, the details of these two simultaneous shows, and how he names and creates his iconic, small-scale sculptures.
Congratulations on your third exhibition with Modern Art! What’s different about this new one?
It’s the first time I’ve had two shows simultaneously. One is focused on a series I call Extraterrestrials, which could remind one of alien landscapes. Conniption is a larger mix of different formats.
Conniption at Helmet Row emphasises the convergence of a multitude of elements, including colour, textural, and structural design. How does your interest in modernism and contemporary architecture inform the pieces featured in Conniption?
I’ve been influenced by certain architectural styles, post deco styles. The surfaces are influenced by the stucco surfaces that were very popular in the San Francisco neighbourhood of my youth.
It’s said that Conniption is partly inspired by the work of architect Luis Barragán. How has his own combination of color, texture, form, and materials impacted the way you approached the pieces featured in the exhibition? Do you have a favourite piece from Barragán’s work?
I don’t necessarily have a favourite but have been influenced by his work. I am particularly drawn to the large planes of brightly coloured textured surfaces. People have often said that my small sculptures allude to a much larger scale. That being said, I have been working small for years before someone suggested that I look at his work. One of the aspects that I found interesting is his approach to architecture, it was in a way retro as opposed to someone like Frank Gehry. The simplicity and minimalist qualities were also interesting to me. So, I took this influence of broad flat plains of bright stucco color and combined it with a Brutalist Architecture approach.
Extraterrestrials represent a departure from the usual kind of work you produce. What inspired the flatter, space-like nature of these sculptures, as opposed to the usual type of upright sculpting you do?
I make objects. Extraterrestrials only expand on my Stillscape style. I’ve become much more interested in Oribe 17th Century plate or tray forms. These forms were typified by asymmetrical surface treatment and irregular form thus setting up a sort of contradiction. From there my Extraterrestrials have started to evolve, they are evolving even further but the initial influence was from the Oribe ware.
One presentation contains upright pieces, and the other, long, flattened pieces. Are the two presentations meant to complement each other? Or were they designed to be deliberately contrasting? Should exhibition-goers consider these two presentations linked or are they supposed to be viewed separately?
They are equal works but different formats. The Extraterrestrial show was a more specific exploration of a newer format. They were influenced by 17th Century Japanese Oribe Ware. I frequently work on different formats or approaches simultaneously, where each approach influences the other. They could be considered as one body of work during a certain time period exploring different formats.
Did you approach these two projects differently at all? What mindset did you have when you started formulating ideas for these presentations?
I use the same approach. I am just exploring different ideas and formats. Five pieces of the same style that’s where it’s different. I wanted to concentrate on the format and have them all show in the same space.
What does your creative process look like, in general? Do you have a specific starting point for every piece or presentation that you begin?
They all start from drawings. The drawings are then translated into 3-dimensional pieces, models are made, and then surfaces are decided. Mould making or casting or fabrication begins. Once we have all of the components we go through a stack of swatches that I have collected from various outlets and have a colour conference. At this point the colour is chosen. The last thing would be naming them from a list of titles that I keep. Ideas for pieces may come to me from nowhere and I just respond to a vague vision to get started. Once I start drawing, I will modify and do several versions of each idea, frequently erasing or redrawing until it feels right.
When or how do you decide a piece is finished?
I do not have any set rules. It’s just when it feels right and I always trust my intuition.
You’ve previously discussed some of the people and things that inspire you, such as Giorgio Morandi and Philip Guston, and Japanese Momoyama ceramics. Are there certain aspects of these artists’ and art styles work that you draw from the most? What other things in your life inspire you to create?
I am most responsive to the moods of the aforementioned artists’ works. Things like simplicity, essence, directness, and beauty all come into play. Stuff I see in the street, a shape, graffiti, food, or even manicured bushes -anything that catches my attention I take pictures to refer to later.
You’re well-known for the characteristic small size of your sculptures. Other artists tend to create sculptures larger-than-life. Do you think the size of your works influences their impact, or do you just prefer creating them this way?
I just prefer to create them this way. I’ve always worked small. I started as a jeweller in high school and then moved into ceramics. I’ve always liked the intimacy of working small. It's like working inside a secret world.
It seems that many of your sculptures’ meanings are up to interpretation. But some, like Urinetrouble or General Malaise seem to convey rather direct ideas. The combination of colours, shapes, and titles, such as the bright yellow-orange and oozing puddle of Urinetrouble, for example, indicates a very direct association. Have you found that most of your work is interpreted to have a certain meaning, or do impressions tend to vary?
For years I never titled my work and it became obvious that identifying works became almost impossible by referring to the work as Untitled. The titles themselves bear little difference to the works other than being red herrings to enable the viewer to bring their own interpretation or association to the work. Also, being a songwriter I am very fond of wordplay, puns, and humor - I have a list of favourite titles and when the piece is done we name it from the list. There is no specific meaning to any of the titles or works. We choose titles because they feel good or they fit or not.
Your pieces have fascinating and oftentimes amusing titles that utilise wordplay, like Lamb Shank Redemption and North Pole Dancer. Titles also typically have a large impact on how people perceive art. Do you come up with the titles of your pieces before or after they’re finished? Have you noticed that more direct titles stir up similar perceptions, while more abstract titles reactions differ?
Like I said before, the titles come last. And no, everybody has their own interpretation of the work.
Many of your sculptures combine a variety of textures, embellishments, and other elements. You also work with a variety of different materials. How do you decide what elements to include in a piece, or what materials you want to work with?
Some are out of necessity. Some are out of a material that is most conducive to get out the ideas technically and visually. Materials are not necessarily that important. They’re a means to an end to get to the desired result.