Ceramic artist Maxwell Mustardo draws inspiration from the illustrious former tenant of his colorful New Jersey studio
Before artist Maxwell Mustardo moved into his studio in Quakertown, New Jersey, it was the workspace of the late ceramicist Toshiko Takaezu.
Takaezu, who died in 2011 at the age of 88, prioritized art over functionality. Much of his work is still stored in the studio and has been a lasting inspiration to Mustardo, whose forms are both organic and synthetic, indebted to classical tradition and contemporary sensibilities.
It completely transforms the clay, covering the natural surface with sprayed PVC rubber, sometimes in iridescent layers of changing colors, others in fluorescent hues that come together in matte and rough surfaces.
There are Roman-inspired amphorae, as well as Mustardo’s signature shape, a donut-like shape he dubbed the “toroid” and an elongated version called the “godron”. The work appears both organic and synthetic, classic and resolutely contemporary.
The artist’s first solo exhibition in New York, at Midtown’s Culture Object, features some 30 works, including his largest piece to date, an amphora nearly five feet tall. Ahead of the opening, Mustardo gave Artnet News insight into the space and how it shapes his practice.
Can you send us a photo of the most essential item in your studio and tell us why you can’t live without it?
All my work is done directly by pinching the clay with my hands. It’s a hack answer, but nothing happens without my hands: the tools come after just to polish what they’ve done. My Shimpo strapping wheels are very dear to me and relevant to almost every step of the manufacturing process.
What is the studio task on your calendar this week that you are most looking forward to?
By far my favorite part of the ceramic process is still working with wet clay. Coming back to a big wet chunk of possibility is always exciting – much of what happens next is a series of successive shrinkings of possibility.
What atmosphere do you prefer when you work? Do you listen to music or podcasts, or do you prefer silence? Why?
I don’t have an absolute standard. I listen to podcasts, audiobooks, and lectures when I can easily split my attention, or classical and jazz music when I need to concentrate or when others are in the studio, and sometimes just silence when I have to. I need.
Who are your favorite artists, curators or other thinkers to follow on social media right now?
Glenn Adamson immediately comes to mind – the tireless craftsman, author, curator and critic. He processes and thinks through social media in a very interesting way.
Garth Johnson, curator of one of the greatest collections of American ceramics, at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, has crafted many excellent exhibits illuminating this very brief but very dynamic history. His background as a maker and advocate for craftsmanship at large gives him a particularly insightful and expansive perspective.
When you feel stuck while preparing for a show, what do you do to get out of it?
I firmly believe in working consistently and overcoming any obstacles. I tend to make very little progress without physically working on ideas in the studio. Solutions can be found at different stages of the process: testing glazes sometimes presents a new opportunity for shape, or a design presents a shape that requires new surface treatments, etc.
Shows force me to insert bookends into an otherwise constant production flow, which helps me because I very rarely get stuck and more likely to need settings that help shape and define my production .
What trait do you most admire in a work of art? What trait do you despise the most?
When I browse museums and galleries, I take a constructive approach so that negative reactions don’t play a big role. I tend to prefer work that pushes materials in new and extreme ways. I’m a bit of a formalist when it comes to judging contemporary work. I want to be taken and absorbed by indexical information, rather than esoteric symbols. I often inwardly redeem art that I don’t particularly like by situating it in art history and rejecting the formalist approach. A broader view of history enriches everything.
What images or objects do you look at while you work? Share your view from behind the canvas or your desk, where you spend the most time.
I usually don’t have source material with me in the studio. Drawing and research are essential but are done outside. At work, I tend to accumulate examples of different series at different stages of drying, firing, etc. This interaction can then give rise to new hybrids. My external research, as well as my practice of drawing, helps me to take greater conceptual and formal leaps.
For example, this week I created Robert C. Turner-inspired bottle shapes while listening to lectures on Lucio Fontana and watching Italian estroflessione (shaped canvas) artists like Agostino Bonalumi and Enrico Castanelli. I really enjoy absorbing these disparate takes on gesture and form.
What is the last exhibition you saw that marked you and why?
“Shapes from Nowhere” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art [in New York] was a once-in-a-generation exhibit featuring recently donated items from the collection of Robert Ellison, Jr., and I found it inspiring. It was exciting to see the Met put a spotlight on recent American ceramics, and I look forward to seeing how these items will be incorporated into their long-term exhibits.
What made you choose this studio over others?
I’ve been working at Toshiko Takaezu’s studio on and off since high school, when my mom’s roommate’s ex-husband, Donald Fletcher, brought me in for a visit. Having grown up a mile away, the area is very dear to me and full of lasting relationships. After having carried out multiple residencies across the country and abroad for a few years, this studio offers stability, familiarity and many novelties linked to its history.
Describe the space in three adjectives.
Revered, bucolic, expansive.
How does the studio environment influence your way of working?
Given that Toshiko’s studio space has a venerable history in 20th-century ceramic art, as well as being a literal treasure trove of his work, it’s hard not to hold on to a certain level and to consider the context of my work from this angle. My work tends to evolve mainly according to an internal logic, although the environment (my available facilities and space) both dictates limits and creates possibilities. I’ve been working mostly on a smaller scale for a few years (about 24 inches tall at most) due to setup restrictions and some surgery limitations, but now Toshiko’s 72-inch by 48-inch oven has me drawn into working on a new, larger scale.
“Maxwell Mustardo: The Substance of Style” is presented at Culture Object, 344 West 38th Street, New York, from September 14 to October 28, 2022.
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