Richard Jackson has been using one motif over and over for years—a realistically proportioned human skull.
Richard Jackson has been using one motif over and over for years—a realistically proportioned human skull.

When it comes to ceramic art, there’s always a simple way to look at it—and a complicated way to look at it.

Take the work of Richard Jackson. A description of his style always sounds pretty straightforward: He’s been using one motif over and over for years—a realistically proportioned human skull. He glazes them with images that explore themes such as his favorite music and his love of the high desert. The pictures might include an eight ball, a silhouette of Hank Williams, or a wobbly, goopy heart. Jackson’s work has the “lowbrow” aesthetic that was born in 1970s Los Angeles, embracing punk and hot-rod cultures in one big blast of gritty, high-octane, cartoon-like imagery that—50 years in—still has a tight grip on the hearts of many artists and viewers.

Jackson’s description of what draws artists and students to ceramics sounds pretty simple, too: “It’s all earth, oxygen, water and fire.” (The “earth” part means that clay is made from mined ingredients, mostly silica and metal oxides.)

But within the simplicity of the skull shapes and pop-surrealist bytes of imagery, there’s a lot of room to explore, to push the limits of craftsmanship, expression and technique. And behind Jackson’s hyper-condensed summary of the entire medium’s techniques and ingredients, there’s a head-spinning amount of scientific detail.

“I tell my students, if I would’ve known I needed that much chemistry in this job, I wouldn’t have cheated my way through chemistry in high school,” Jackson said. “You have to relearn it all. When you’re making clay and the glazes and firing, it’s 90 percent chemistry.”

For a long time, Jackson’s skulls each wore a hat—dunce hat, pope hat or upside-down Nevada shaped hat, depending on how you want to read them. The hats were the parts he glazed the pictures onto. The current batch of skulls face down toward the floor, and the top of each dome is the canvas.

His work is on view in three separate venues in Reno right now, inside the passenger gate at Reno Tahoe International Airport, in Ferino Distillery and at the Metro Gallery in City Hall.

In the City Hall show, his skulls are paired with wall sculptures by Fred Reid, who works within similar limitations. Reid also uses an often repeated motif—dog heads or duck heads—simplified and boxy, blown up to about two feet, with flat surfaces on each side, where he paints portraits, landscapes or biographical tributes to other artists.

The show’s title, Only Two Ways to Fire, is a nod to both artists’ long-term commitment to the finickiness of their medium. Reid once told Jackson, “There are only two ways to fire” ceramics, high-fire and raku. In reality, there is another way to fire. Low-fire techniques use commercially mixed glazes and yield colors that can be as bright and consistent as you want them to be. But an assurance of guaranteed results would take the magic out of the whole affair for artists like these two. For them, it’s more about embracing the parts of the medium that are harder to control.

“I always say it’s like Christmas morning because you can try and predict everything, then you’re going to be surprised,” said Jackson.

As for his newest work, “I’m pretty happy with it,” he said. “I’m never 100 percent happy with anything I make. … While you’re working on something, you better be thinking about the next thing.”

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