Glazed and improved
TAC Gallery will exhibit Austin Navrkal sculptures in July
“Good Company,” salt fired stoneware on wood, 43” X 15” X 6”, 2017
Austin Navrkal’s blue eyes flashed bright like flames as he explained his fascination with the science of kiln firing. The Tulsa-based sculptor’s recent work, a growing form universe made of giant loops of convolved ceramic, uses his understanding of kiln science to express in clay its unpredictability and complexity as a dynamic, visceral material.
Navrkal was a mechanical engineering senior at Oklahoma State University when he discovered his passion for clay. A material conventionally associated with pots, vessels, and bowls, Navrkal saw clay as a medium running over with untapped expressive potential. Taking the leap into the unknown by switching majors to studio art was an abrupt course change for him, but he quickly found his footing.
His recent sculptures range from tortuous, tubular shapes with colorful, textured surfaces that hang from a wall, to tall, floor-standing mixed media structures built from a communicating, carefully-fashioned pair of fused ceramic and wood. In each case, Navrkal used the firing process to tell an introspective, minimalist story through the textural nuances of clay.
Navrkal’s sculptures will be the focus of a new exhibition, “The Un(Expected),” which will open during the First Friday art crawl on July 6 at The TAC Gallery. The exhibition will contain 15 pieces drawn from three themed series and will be on display the entire month of July.
“I want to take clay to the next level,” Navrkal said, describing his aim to expand on the groundwork laid by some of his biggest influences. Inspired by the experimental, hand-built sculptures of Peter Voulkos, the visionary abstract forms of Jun Kaneko, and the progressive, outside-the-box methods of his ceramics professor and mentor Brandon Reese, Austin has been seeking to add to the field of ceramics since his first encounters with it in college.
Serendipitously for Navrkal, all the math and physics he’d already absorbed made him a whiz in the studio and a stronger artist. He recounted the first time his classmates watched as he read glaze recipes and quickly calculated the required quantities of each ingredient.
“Everyone’s looking at me like I’m crazy,” Navrkal laughed. “All art students think you’re not allowed to be good at math, and I’m like, ‘First of all, math is 90 percent of the game!’”
Already fluent in this forbidden language of numbers, Navrkal was able to unlock possibilities that allowed him to streamline and accelerate his creative process. The discovery was empowering and immensely encouraging.
“I was on top of the world,” he said, beaming.
Since then, the chemistry, math, and physics skills in his palette have enabled Austin to experiment and refine the sculpting processes that create the details of his art.
The shaping of an engineer into sculptor, and the unpredictability involved in such a transformation, are both examples of the sorts of subjects dealt with in “The (Un)Expected.” The three installments that comprise the exhibit (“Notches,” “Squiggles,” and “Company,” each show change through a different set of symbols.
“Notches” shows progression through textural nicks in the surface of bent loops of ceramic. The smoother, twisting sets of loops in “Squiggles” represent the refinement of the human mind associated with age. “Company” centers on human relationships using the motif of a ceramic body and a wood base coupled tightly as one continuous shape.
“With my artwork, I want people to be able to look at my pieces and see the changes that the clay, and even the wood, have gone through,” he said.
“It’s a representation of my growth as a person, and I’d say it’s even a representation of how people grow in general,” Navrkal said.
He aims to extend the notion of his art as a symbol of his own individual growth to a broader statement about humanity.
“We need to keep developing. We need to keep doing better. We can’t be stuck forever in the same realm.”