Sandra Phillips proves once again that bigger is not always better with Three on Fire

Making the most with the least is a specialty of Sandra Phillips, owner of her namesake gallery on Santa Fe, which opened five years ago. A tiny and cramped storefront with an almost invisible street presence, the facility has little to recommend it from the outside. Inside, there's only a mundane, mid-sized exhibition space and a claustrophobic room under the mezzanine that is accessed by a rickety-looking spiral staircase with a tacky, pseudo-Spanish-mission look to it. Despite these serious limitations, however, Phillips has established a niche for her gallery in a city filled with more impressive operations. And she's done it simply by scheduling interesting and worthwhile exhibitions.

The typical program for a shoestring operation of this sort would be to focus on the work of emerging artists who are little known and therefore available. Phillips has done a lot of that, but she has also brought in Ruth Todd, Mel Strawn and Ania Gola-Kumor, established artists who had fallen through the cracks or dropped out of the show scene — so they were available to be picked up, too.

But the smartest move Phillips made was getting into contemporary ceramics, with the latest example being Three on Fire, which showcases the work of three nationally significant artists.

Colorado has a strong ceramics heritage, but the scene has taken so many hits over the past decade that it's now only a fraction of what it once was. A lot of artists took a powder one way or another. Betty Woodman retired from teaching and left for New York and Italy. Rodger Lang, Jim McKinnell and Thanos Johnson all died. Nan McKinnell, Paul Soldner and Mark Zamantakis are all getting on in years and have either given up or slowed down considerably. And if that's not enough, Maynard Tischler retired from teaching at the University of Denver, and Martha Daniels moved earlier this year to New Mexico. Tischler and Daniels are two of the artists featured in Three on Fire, along with Don Reitz, who taught for decades at the University of Wisconsin but now lives in Arizona and was never part of the Colorado scene.

Although this show is mostly about ceramics, it's impossible to ignore Tischler's three show-stopping textile wall hangings. Tischler, who often branched out into other art forms during his long career, made these gorgeous hooked runs in his idle hours. They're enormous, and each depicts recognizable subjects in realistic detail, despite the fact that the artist has employed looped pieces of yarn — something that's not known for its use in precise illustration. A view of a steam engine, titled "3706," is based on a historic photo and is the real standout. But the other two, one dominated by an old tow truck and the other by pyramids and a pair of crocodiles, are also choice. Tischler has shown these textiles before — they were done between 1974 and 1980 — but this is the first time they've been offered for sale, a decision that I tried to talk him out of.

The train and the tow truck remind us that Tischler has long been interested in depicting machinery, especially cars and trucks, and that he comes from the pop-art movement, which he's been associated with since the 1960s. In this same pop category is the spectacular "This Is Not a Model," a hyper-realistic version of a World War II-era tank. The show at Sandra Phillips includes two examples of the tank, with the other called "Land Mind Explosion." While "This Is Not a Model" sits on a low stand, "Land Mind Explosion" is simply a pile of shards. The broken tank is paired with a DVD that records Tischler packing it when it was whole with explosives and then blowing it up and collecting the pieces. Eccentricity is a longstanding Tischler signature, but meticulously forming, firing and assembling a breathtakingly complicated sculpture only to destroy it really takes the cake. I hope he got this destructive streak out of his system. (Come to think of it, maybe it's a good thing he decided to sell those wall hangings, lest he tear them up for dust rags!)

The second of the three artists, Daniels, is represented by large floor sculptures and a group of zany takes on tea bowls that were done in the last month or so. I'm sorry that Daniels, who now lives in Las Vegas, New Mexico, left, but she says she had no choice. After plying her trade for decades in Colorado, she felt she could no longer afford to live here. So she sold her funky little house in Capitol Hill and bought a compound in Las Vegas for peanuts. It comprises two old adobes — one for her to live in, and the other to serve as her studio.

The unusual style that Daniels has developed combines archetypal forms and finishes from the history of Mediterranean ceramics, with influences from the distinctly different Asian tradition. Mediterranean and Asian ceramics are the two most important bodies of work in the history of the medium, so her interests are on the mark, and they link her to Betty Woodman, who greatly inspired her. Nevertheless, it's obvious when you look at her work that Daniels has followed her own idiosyncratic course.

Fans of Daniels's classic style won't be disappointed, as there are two of her marvelous architectonic towers, which have a totemic character, and one of her abstracted figures. "Tajin Tower" which is being acquired by the American Museum of Ceramic Art, and the brand-new "Cibola Tower" are on display in the main room. "Cibola Tower," like all of Daniels's towers, is a pierced obelisk that's been gold-leafed. The joints of the tower's structural members have been articulated with globe-like forms that are repeated up and down the piece. She made it after she moved, and it proves that regardless of her change of address, she's still following the same aesthetic course she set in Denver. Another recently done piece is "Pomona," a red depiction of a female nude that's closely related to her famous "Red Nike" sculptures.

In the back of the gallery is a quartet from her "Unfolding Tea Bowl" series. Daniels is relentlessly experimental, and these expressionistic bowls with their elaborate multi-colored glazes are her latest push forward. Another important influence for Daniels is French and Italian ceramics of the mid-twentieth century, and the connection between those pieces and the tea bowls is abundantly clear.

The last of the trio at Sandra Phillips is legendary studio ceramicist Don Reitz, who is eighty. In many ways, Reitz is in the same category as Peter Voulkos, Paul Soldner and Rudy Autio — one of the greats of his era — and like them, he put the Japanesque vessel tradition into the context of abstract expressionism. Rietz has had an illustrious career, and his work is in museums around the world.

I can't remember ever having seen a Rietz piece in a Denver show, but he has come to Colorado several times over the years, heading up workshops at the University of Colorado at Boulder and Anderson Ranch in Snowmass. An even more profound connection to Colorado ceramics is the fact that Reitz was the late Rodger Lang's teacher and mentor at the University of Wisconsin.

All of the Reitz pieces are magnificent. His "Cochina #135," sitting in the middle of the room, is a real eye-catcher. The piece takes the shape of a column made up of stacked elements in which Reitz alternates flat slabs of clay and altered vessel forms. More characteristically Reitzian are the two majestic "Teastack" vases, which are the most significant works in his part of the show.

Three on Fire may be small, but it's impressive. The same could be said for the Sandra Phillips Gallery.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia

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