Clever Crafting

When ceramic artist Maynard Tischler arrived in Denver from back East in 1966 to interview for a job in the art department at the University of Denver, he came away with a mixed reaction. Though he liked the sunshine out west, he wasn't so thrilled to learn that the university's art department was housed in a recycled war-surplus barracks that had been hauled to the campus from an Army base.

Thirty years later, Tischler is still plagued by substandard housing--in this case, DU's ghastly School of Art and Art History Gallery. Tischler himself, however, has become an institution in Denver, and the current show celebrating his thirtieth anniversary--a year late, as it turns out--is a must-see attraction, even if it does take place at the DU gallery. But hurry. Maynard Tischler: Selected Works comes to a close next week after an all-too-brief run.

Born in Syracuse in 1932, Tischler first pursued a career in art education, teaching in both the public schools and at the New York State University in Plattsburgh. When he was nearly thirty years old, he chucked his first career--teaching others how to teach art--and entered the prestigious New York State College of Ceramics, a part of Alfred University, with an eye toward creating art himself.

Then, as now, the Syracuse area, including the nearby town of Alfred, was a center for American ceramics. Tischler's teachers comprised a who's who of the functional potters of the day, including such luminaries as Daniel Rhodes, Val Cushing, Ted Randall and Bob Turner. Not surprisingly, during his student days, Tischler was exclusively interested in creating vessels. He didn't expand his repertoire to include sculpture until just before coming to Denver.

Strange as it may sound in today's tight job market, opportunities for ceramic artists were great in the mid-1960s. Tischler got three job offers right out of school. He took the one from the University of Illinois and taught there for two years until a friend told him about a job opening at DU--and about the exciting program then overseen by highly regarded Denver painter Vance Kirkland.

Tischler had never seen the West and figured that at worst, an interview would mean a nice trip. The trip, he recalls, was fine--but not the bare-bones facilities for art at DU. "Art departments all over the country were housed in surplus barracks in the 1950s," Tischler recalls. "But I think DU was the last to give them up."

Fortunately, Kirkland had a trick up his sleeve. "He rolled out plans for the new art building, which he said would be built in a year or two," says Tischler. The Shwayder Fine Art Building didn't go up for another eleven years, long after Kirkland retired. But his promise was enough to lure Tischler to Denver.

Designed by the Denver architectural firm of Slater, Paul and Associates, the Shwayder is itself celebrating a milestone anniversary this year--its twentieth. The building is an impressive if austere late-modernist structure whose entrance is set at an angle to Asbury Street. Its front door is accessible only by a long set of stairs that leads to the elevated first floor--definitely a concept that predated the Americans With Disabilities Act.

But though the building's exterior has presence and even expresses a certain self-importance, it's a different story inside. The awkwardly named School of Art and Art History Gallery is a shabby space filled with distracting elements. These include, but aren't limited to, pillars, windows, vents, and a ceiling so ugly that words fail to describe it.

In what can only be described as an act of mercy, DU last year tore out the filthy wall-to-wall carpeting that had given a stomach-turning quality to every show. The stains left behind by the carpet glue on the concrete floor have admittedly left behind an ad-hoc decorative note. But it's way past time for the university to invest in a full-blown facelift for the facility. After all, isn't this the art gallery for the wealthiest and best-endowed private educational institution in the state?

Maynard Tischler's work, however, could dignify a garage, and viewers are quickly able to ignore the shopworn quality of the exhibition space and focus instead on the art. It helps that, at the suggestion of Denver Art Museum exhibition installer Jeremy Hillhouse, all the three-dimensional work has been placed on three low stages. That way, the gallery's awful ceiling mostly stays out of the sight lines.

Tischler selected the work included in the show and, with the help of a small hydraulic lift, arranged the pieces himself. He hasn't organized them chronologically or even stylistically, instead grouping them roughly by subject matter on three stages.

As we enter the gallery, we are first confronted by the stage covered with Tischler's well-known ceramic sculptures of cars and trucks, efforts that are largely responsible for his national reputation. "They're not meant to be models but exaggerated caricatures," he says of the automotive works. "I want them to look heavy, like they're made of clay."

Tischler says the idea of making cars and trucks first came to him because he wanted to make something that would interest his children. At first he thought of making planters for his yard in the form of trucks. "Six Days on the Road," a glazed and wood-fired ceramic sculpture from 1974, is an early example that was received enthusiastically when it was displayed at the time at the DAM. The sculpture displays a semi-truck in splendid detail. Placed in front is a separate element: a trucker couple embracing. The colors are superb, with beautiful surface effects in olive-green and a gorgeous black.

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