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.

Other highlights of the auto show include two of the more than sixty 1937 Packard sculptures that Tischler made in 1986: "Towncar for Babe" and "Mae's Packard," both in stoneware finished with low-temperature glazes. One of the newest pieces in the show makes a reference to the well-known Packard series, 1997's "Do-It-Yourself '37 Packard Kit." Housed in a glass-and-plywood showcase, the tongue-in-cheek effort is made up of some of the components Tischler uses to make one of his Packard sculptures.

Tischler's sense of humor is also evident in "Timberline Express," a 1996 sculpture of a logging truck that's very accurate-looking--except for the gargoyles in the cab. Another offbeat piece in the first group is the life-sized caricature of the artist seen in "Self Portrait as a WW II Ace." Tischler does a notable job of capturing his own features, as well as conveying the leather of his jacket and the denim of his jeans in unglazed clay.

The next stage features Tischler's whimsical and fantastic animals, which, like his cars and trucks, were initially created to please his children. The animal and automotive themes collide in "Lunch Break," a 1972 stoneware sculpture in which a powdery green dinosaur munches on cars while crushing an ambulance under his feet. "Stegosaurus," a 1982 stoneware sculpture with low-fire glazes, is more naturalistic. It even has a romantic quality, as tiny dinosaurs climb the back of the stegosaurus to get at some dragonflies.

The third stage shows off Tischler's latest efforts. This self-described "pottery group" includes more than two dozen wood-fired pots the artist created last year at the University of Iowa. Tischler loves wood-firing, which creates a range of interesting surface effects in pottery even without the use of glazes. But he had to travel to Iowa to make this batch; DU doesn't have such a kiln because of pollution concerns.

"Building a kiln for wood-firing is easy, but putting on an afterburner to eliminate the wood smoke is a problem we're just beginning to work out," Tischler explains. "We've gotten a grant for a feasibility study that's just getting under way."

Having made the trip to Iowa, Tischler made sure to pay particular attention to the firing process on these works. "The firing was my constant concern from the time I started wedging the clay," he recalls. And that care has paid off in spades. These pots are tremendous--and nearly every one of them has been sold since the show opened.

After Tischler throws a vessel, he adjusts its shape twice--once with his fingers while it's soft and wet, and again after it has grown leather-hard (at which point he carves into it). But though his sculptures are time-consuming, sometimes taking months to complete, Tischler describes his pots as relatively spontaneous.

"I want my pitchers to pour; I want the cups to be comfortable in the hand and easy to drink from," he says. "But making them is contemplative and relies on my having the right state of mind at the wheel. I try to come to some sort of bonding between myself, the wheel and the clay."

Also displayed in this last group are two sculptures that mark a different style for Tischler--a contemporary take on the santos tradition of the American Southwest. "San Ysidro," an unglazed sculpture from 1989, is a collaboration between Tischler and New Mexico artist Ken McDonald. The sculpture, which recalls the simplified Hispanic art of the region, was a preparatory study for a bronze Tischler made on commission for DU chancellor Dan Ritchie.

At the same time that Tischler was making all these pots and sculptures, he was also creating wool tapestries. He says he first undertook hooking tapestries when he was searching for a non-toxic art form he could do at home--and ceramics wasn't it. Hooking, which involves pushing a needle back and forth through a backing material, is fairly fast, according to Tischler. The oldest tapestry here is "Hook Brothers Wrecker," from 1975, a piece that neatly sums up Tischler's unique combination of sources. Like his ceramics, "Hook Brothers Wrecker" relies heavily on age-old practices in the crafts. Yet his choice of subject--a tow truck--links this piece with the contemporary pop-art movement.

Tischler's unorthodox blend of styles can be surprising at times--but not as surprising as the fact that Maynard Tischler: Selected Works is his first solo exhibit in nearly fifteen years. It's equally startling to learn that such a revered fixture on the local scene hasn't yet been feted with a Close Range Show at the DAM. Based on this show, that honor is long past due.

Maynard Tischler: Selected Works, through March 20 at the School of Art and Art History Gallery, 2121 East Asbury Avenue, 871-2846.

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