Sticks and Stoneware

A guide to Denver ceramics, and Maynard Tischler at DU's Myhren Gallery.

The tanks are beautiful, having been slab-built with press-molded details. It's funny, but the wood-fire finish in browns with a little green looks perfect -- which actually makes sense, considering that the color combination is not so different from the desert camouflage paint jobs on real tanks. Unlike everything else in this show, the menacing "Relic" works seem to have some covert political meaning, especially with the war in Iraq providing an automatic context.

Another noteworthy ceramics sculpture is the installation "Outdoor Still Life Calm," a pile of life-sized garden tools leaning against a pair of upended forklift palettes, on loan from the Kirkland Museum. It's astounding how realistic-looking the elements are. And, as with the tanks, the brownish, wood-fired finish enhances the illusion because it takes on the appearance of weathered wood in some places and rusted steel in others.

Tischler is best known as a ceramics sculptor, and that puts him at odds with the mainstream of studio potters in the second half of the twentieth century, who endlessly explored the classic vessel forms. Here's the story: Shoji Hamada brought to the West the aesthetics of Zen philosophy as manifested by Japanese ceramics. For Hamada and his many followers in Europe and America, the goal was not about creating a perfect form with a perfect surface; instead, they believed that a piece should be expressive and informal. They've openly incorporated flaws, seeing them as part of the essential character of the piece. Tischler's sculptures, with their careful detailing, were the opposite of this Zen approach. However, interestingly enough, Tischler has also done vessels throughout his career -- some of which fall into the broad Hamada tradition. Tischler's distinctive versions are as good as any around, and this show includes around sixty -- each of them a knockout.

"Box of Books," by Maynard Tischler, wood-fired 
ceramic.
"Box of Books," by Maynard Tischler, wood-fired ceramic.
"Vase" and "Pedestal," by Maynard Tischler, wood-
fired ceramic.
"Vase" and "Pedestal," by Maynard Tischler, wood- fired ceramic.

Starting off the show are a few more works on loan from the Kirkland Museum, a series of vases with associated pedestals that are unlike anything else I've ever seen by Tischler. These pieces feature a cubist handling of the volumes so that the sides zigzag from top to bottom. Though small, they have a monumental quality.

As an added bonus, the show also includes three hooked rugs that function as murals. "Train Tapestry" depicts an old steam train and "Mountain Wrecker" shows a jalopy tow truck. "View of the Nile" is the odd one out, since its crocodiles and pyramids do not reflect the mid-twentieth century, as the others do. Though the rugs were done decades ago, they still look contemporary.

Tischler is one of the living cultural treasures of our region. A retrospective on his four-decade-long career is long overdue, but until then, this is the next best thing.

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