The Sandra Phillips Gallery, situated about halfway between El Noa Noa and the Sandy Carson Gallery on the 700 block of Santa Fe Drive, is a little hard to see as you drive by. Even on foot, the quaint little storefront is easy to miss from the sidewalk. Once inside, it seems even smaller and is cluttered with some funky details, the funkiest of which is the wrought-iron hacienda-style spiral staircase off to one side.
Despite these limitations, however, owner Sandra Phillips has relentlessly filled her schedule with fascinating shows. And every once in a while, she produces a must-see exhibition, as she has with Masters in Clay, which showcases some of the state's most important ceramics artists along with a handful of emerging talents.
Phillips came up with the idea for this show last fall and enlisted the help of Sally Perisho, a ceramics expert and a gifted exhibition designer who brought in some of the featured artists. Perisho also expertly laid out the large show so that it fits into the cramped space.
Because of its monumental size and rich red-orange color, "Red Nike III," by Martha Daniels, is the first thing viewers will see when they walk through the front door. The piece is done in hand-built fired clay that has been glazed and painted.
Daniels has a forty-year career under her belt, and since the 1980s, she's been almost exclusively interested in ceramic sculpture. Like her spiritual mentor, Betty Woodman, Daniels combines various aesthetic traditions, notably Mediterranean and Asian. In terms of subject matter, she has long referred to Ancient Greek mythology in her pieces. As indicated by the title, "Red Nike III" is the third version of the goddess Nike that Daniels has done. The powerful, monumental sculpture is composed of an abstract female nude perched on one leg atop a hemispherical base. The sculpture is headless and has wings, like the famous "Winged Victory" in the Louvre, to which this piece subtly responds. Daniels has finished the figure in a deep red, on which she has placed linear abstract designs in a bright orange-y red.
"Red Nike III" is life-sized, which makes it a remarkable technical accomplishment, especially when you consider that it's a single piece rather than an assembly of demountable components, as would be more common. This speaks to Daniels's expert ceramic engineering, as does the fact that the complicated and precipitous piece is astoundingly well balanced.
The "Nike" sculpture is flanked by a pair of Daniels's signature towers, which resemble obelisks. The whole group evokes a contemplative, spiritual mood, like a passage in the interior of an ancient temple. This kind of theatricality is nothing new for Daniels, who set up a pseudo-cave for her 2000 show Grotto in the Denver Art Museum's Close Range Gallery. (Though not yet in place, the DAM's new modern and contemporary curator, Christoph Heinrich, has announced that Close Range, the museum's regional showcase, will be closed. I think the community needs to change his mind about that, even if it takes forming a mob armed with torches and pitchforks to do it.)
To the left of the Daniels group are two pedestals on which sit two signature Paul Soldner sculptures. These abstract pieces are done in soft brown salt glazes and are as quiet as the Danielses are loud. Soldner, a protegé of the late, great Peter Voulkos, has divided his time between California and Colorado for decades. One of the world's most famous living ceramics artists, Soldner also has a place in the history of the art form for his pioneering abstract-expressionist sculptures.
Around half a century ago, Soldner, like Voulkos, began to twist, pull, tear and pierce wheel-thrown clay vessels while they were still wet and pliable. After being dried, the resulting shapes were fired. This method provides a direct corollary to the "action" techniques of the abstract-expressionist painters, who flung, dripped or poured pigments onto their canvases. Interestingly, these "action" methods are impossible to translate into most other types of three-dimensional work, such as metal or stone compositions, and that makes clay the ideal material for abstract-expressionist sculpture.
Because he lives in the Aspen area and because his work is so valuable and sought-after, Soldner's pieces are rarely, if ever, seen in Denver exhibits, which makes his appearance in this show something of a coup for the gallery. I'd put Maynard Tischler's presence in that same category, because although he's lived here since the '60s (when he was hired to head up the ceramics department at the University of Denver, where today he is a professor emeritus), his work is also only rarely exhibited in town.
While Daniels and Soldner have left the vessel behind and embraced sculpture, Tischler does both, being a sculptor and a potter. His sculptures are the opposite of abstract expressionism and instead are strikingly realistic or crisply constructivist. A charming sculpture is "Prescription Medication Wagon With Side Effects" — done, as are all the Tischlers here, in wood-fired stoneware. For this piece, he modeled a cartoon version of a '40s "Woody" wagon and inserted as passengers a cast of grotesque heads hanging out the windows. In a somewhat different vein is "Tribute to Man Ray," a realistic ceramic iron with realistic ceramic tacks attached to its face. It's a witty comment on "Gift," the famous 1920s dada sculpture by Ray: Tischler's version is handmade, while the original was constructed with a real iron and real tacks.
Also compelling are Tischler's slab-built vessels, such as his "Branch" series of constructivist bottles and vases. These attenuated vertical pieces typically have zigzagging silhouettes and are large enough to hold the branches they're intended to. Surprisingly enough, Tischler also does extremely orthodox Japanesque cups and bowls that are stylistically a world away from his sculptures and slab-built pieces.
In addition to clay stars such as Daniels, Soldner and Tischler, the show features a group of less well-established ceramicists who are also talented. The best-known of this group is Carroll Hansen, who is represented by several small sculptures finished in a flat black accented by a glossy red. These elaborate works are a technical tour de force, and it's a miracle Hansen was able to fire them without their coming apart or collapsing. The Hansens fit in perfectly with the abstract theme of most of the rest of the show.
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That's also the case with the Katie Caron vertical spikes of metal and clay. Based on floral shapes, they look like freestanding plants. In the marvelous "Mullein III," Caron conjures up the ubiquitous wildflower with rusted metal leaves and yellow-green glazed ceramic petals. A young artist, unlike most of the others in this show, Caron is leaving the area this fall to attend graduate school at the renowned Cranbrook Academy in Michigan, though she intends to return to Colorado when she completes her studies.
Next to the Caron sculptures are two architectonic forms, "Tikal" and "Alexandria," by Bebe Alexander, made of slab-built stoneware finished in gorgeous, high-fire reduction glazes. The obelisk shapes these pieces take relate directly to the similar forms Daniels used for her much larger towers.
Finishing out the exhibit are a trio of doll-like figures rendered in full color by Julie McNair and a site-specific miniature roller coaster in the window by Amy Chavez. The McNairs and the Chavez seem out of place in this show, not because they aren't well done — they are — but because they strike a very different mood from that of the other items. Nearly everything else is abstract and very grown-up, whereas the work of McNair and Chavez has a magic-realist quality reminiscent of children's storybook characterizations.
Sandra Phillips needs to be lauded for her ambition in presenting Masters in Clay, a major outing in terms of Colorado ceramics, even if it is fairly small and slightly schizophrenic. She also should be praised for having the good sense to bring in Sally Perisho's expertise and connections, which helped ensure that this exhibit would be worth seeing.