Sticks and Stoneware
Colorado has a strong tradition of producing ceramics. During the early decades of the twentieth century, this was due in large part to the abundance of natural clay. But there's no simple explanation for why the post-World War II era was such a golden age here, and why so many of the state's studio potters and ceramic sculptors became famous. The list of clay artists from this time is long and distinguished, including such figures as Tabor Utley, Irene Musick, Edgar Johnson, Donna Marecak, Nan and Jim McKinnell, Paul Soldner, Betty Woodman, Richard DeVore, Rodger Lang and many, many more.
A number of these artists are brought together -- figuratively speaking, anyway -- in a small book titled Modern Clay in Denver, which was published a few months ago by Gallup House Fine Art and Publishing. It was written by former Denver mayoral candidate Elizabeth Schlosser, a true believer in ceramics' value to the region. During her political campaign, she even suggested that the local ceramics scene could be used as an image-enhancer for the Mile High City. Too bad no one listened. Modern Clay in Denver, available at area bookstores, is admittedly thin at less than a hundred pages, but there are plenty of great photos and interesting facts that make it worthwhile.
Maynard Tischler, one of the twelve artists featured in Modern Clay in Denver, is a living legend whose local career stretches back almost forty years. His work is the focus of the elegant and impressive Maynard Tischler: A Year of Woodfired Ceramics, currently on view at the Victoria H. Myhren Gallery on the University of Denver campus. The show's title is somewhat misleading, though, because in addition to work done over the past year, the show includes a half-dozen early pieces and a group of tapestries, of all things.
Tischler was born in Syracuse, New York, in 1938. As an undergraduate and graduate student at Syracuse University in the 1950s, he studied interior design, painting and art education, just dabbling in ceramics. In the early '60s, he decided to turn his attention to clay and received a second master's degree from Alfred University, which had one of the most significant ceramics programs in the country at the time. While at Alfred, Tischler studied with some of the most famous potters of the era, including Daniel Rhodes, Val Cushing, Ted Randall and Bob Turner.
After graduating in 1963, Tischler was hired by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "There were a lot of jobs for Alfred graduates," he recalls. In 1966, he moved West to teach ceramics at DU, having been hired by Vance Kirkland, who ran the school's art department. Tischler immediately assumed a pre-eminent place in the city's art scene, establishing his reputation with ceramic sculptures. In her book, Schlosser describes Tischler as the immediate successor to John Billmyer, but this is somewhat misleading. Billmyer had taught ceramics, among other things, at DU, but Tischler was the university's first full-time ceramics professor, and his hiring marked DU's commitment to making ceramics a full-fledged department.
A couple of the old pieces in A Year of Woodfired Ceramics date back to a year or two before Tischler moved here, and they reveal that he was a first-generation pop-art sculptor. One piece, "Box of Books," is a realistic rendition of a wooden crate filled with books, on the spines of which he inscribed whimsical titles. "Someone gave me a box of lead or steel type -- I guess because it was obsolete -- and I used them for the books' covers," Tischler says.
Though "Box of Books" is pretty convincing in its modeling, Tischler left it mostly uncolored, so it doesn't look like a real box of books, with the surface revealing only the effects of the firing. "That's wood-fired, too," Tischler says. "So is 'Hopi Pick Up' and the other older pieces, and that's why I wanted to include them with the new pieces in this show." "Hopi Pick Up" is more recognizably Tischler than is "Box of Books," since it's a cartoon-like version of a funky pickup truck, the kind of thing he's done for decades and that's become all but his signature.
"Box of Books" and "Hopi Pick Up" were loaned by Chuck Hindes, a longtime friend and former student of Tischler's who teaches ceramics at the University of Iowa. A couple of years ago, Hindes invited Tischler to come to Iowa and fire his work in a wood kiln there. Tischler took him up on the offer, creating the pieces in his DU studio and bisque-firing them in electric kilns before packing them up and making the drive. He's gone through this multi-stage process repeatedly over the past year or so, and "I'm hoping to find something a little closer than Iowa," Tischler says, with a laugh, pointing out that it's almost a thousand-mile trip each way. With Colorado's pollution and fire laws, though, wood kilns are hard to find in this area.
Among his recently completed works are "20th century Relic, #1" and the essentially identical "20th century Relic, #2," which are clearly the aesthetic heirs to all the other ceramic vehicles Tischler has made over the years. But these pieces are not romantic evocations of the past, like the cute "Hopi Pick Up" or the charming series of Packard cars he did in the '30s: "Relic" sculptures depict tanks. The two here are large, impressive, accurate-looking models of tanks from World War II. To do them with a sense of verisimilitude, Tischler became something of an armchair expert on tanks. The United States used only mid-sized and small tanks, Tischler explains, whereas the Nazis and Soviets employed really big ones. He modeled "Relic" on the mid-sized American versions.
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.
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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