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Mining the ephemeral

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Times Staff Writer

Standing inside Tritch Hardware in Eagle Rock on a recent morning, Patrick Nickell is having a hard time deciding which metal saw blade to buy for his wife. Weighing them in his hand, he seems perplexed by the choices.

The sculptor is a familiar figure in the store, where he can often be spotted wandering the slightly dusty aisles. Just moments earlier, the clerk behind the counter had greeted the artist by name.

But it’s not metal saw blades that draw Nickell to the store. The 43-year-old usually comes by for cotton string, cardboard and glue guns -- the flimsy science project materials with which he creates his art.

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The artworks he creates from cut-and-glued cardboard, crumpled newspaper, plywood or plastic held together with string have a decidedly homemade quality to them.

“I don’t want to be the ‘cardboard guy,’ ” says Nickell.

But “it’s hard to escape what the materials mean -- the inherent meaning of cardboard,” he says, referring to the throwaway quality of his medium. “I’m trying to refine that type of material, bring it to a larger scale, and then to make it more sophisticated.”

A survey of Nickell’s work, currently on view at the Luckman Gallery at Cal State L.A., shows a combination of sophistication and wit. A giant plywood asterisk painted a pale greenish yellow occupies a central spot on the gallery floor. Most of the sculptures hang from the walls like paintings. Some resemble delicate chandeliers -- small connected rings of painted cardboard strips, covered with plastic membranes and hung with cotton string. Light filters through the strings and translucent rings, adding another dimension: shadows on the wall. Other works have a heavier quality, constructed from tin can pieces and fine metal mesh, forms collapsing over themselves against the wall.

“That distinctive tone -- a mix of the mundane and the magnificent -- marks Nickell’s best work,” art critic Christopher Knight wrote in The Times. “Bricolage for a Home Depot era, his work gives value to the overlooked and the homemade.”

As a young art student in the early 1980s, L.A.-born Nickell flirted briefly with clay. At Claremont Graduate School (now Claremont Graduate University), where he received his master of fine arts degree, “there’s this big history of ceramics with a capital C,” he says. “People sit by the kiln and drink beer all night long.”

For Nickell, the kiln was problematic -- his forms kept blowing up, so he began exploring other materials.

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Working part time for a packing and crating company, he found himself surrounded by what would eventually become his media: bits of string, cardboard, plastic wrap and newspaper. “I wasn’t interested in the meaning quotient” of throwaway materials, he says. “It’s fine and all, but it was a pragmatic development.”

As a student, he says, he was struck by something artist Robert Rauschenberg had said in an interview about creating his combine paintings. “He would leave the studio, walk around the neighborhood and collect things within a small distance. So there’s a closeness associated with it,” Nickell says. “It stuck with me -- to use materials that you feel a proximity to.”

After graduating from Claremont in 1985, he began to refine his work. His first exhibition was at LACE in 1988, followed in 1990 by his first solo show at the now defunct Sue Spaid Gallery in Los Angeles. A half-dozen solo and several group shows followed, leading up to the current exhibition. The Luckman show, which ends July 12, is named after that first solo show: “Built for Speed.”

Over the years, Nickell’s sculptures have become increasingly sophisticated and abstract, evolving as he has encountered -- then solved -- certain problems. In the beginning, , he would assemble a sculpture before painting it. Now he paints the parts first. “Then I have all the colors, and I start building with it,” he says. The simpler approach, he says, makes the sculpture more elegant.

But he’s stayed with throwaway materials. His newest work, included in the Luckman exhibition, consists of plywood and cardboard. The 6-foot-tall sculpture juts out from the gallery wall, a free-form elliptical line painted cotton-candy pink.

“The pink sculpture -- that’s right on,” says Nickell. “I love that piece.” Its volume, form and proportions came together just right, making the piece elegant despite its size, he says.

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Back at his studio, he pulls out a couple of related pieces. One is a yellow line, fatter and broader. A pink piece is compressed and curvier. Neither, Nickell says, is successful, but he can’t quite explain why.

He puts the pieces back behind a stack of plywood. His work space is neat and simple: a worktable, a few shelves with older plastic-wrapped pieces.

For the last 10 years, Nickell has divided his time between this studio -- a green converted garage at the bottom of the garden -- and the main house he shares with his wife, fellow sculptor Jacci Den Hartog. Their Eagle Rock home is filled with art by contemporaries and friends: whimsical, colorful work by Sally Elesby, Lynn Aldrich and George Stoll.

Nickell has a small but dedicated group of collectors who buy his sculptures. For them, the throwaway materials are part of the appeal.

Charles Duff Murphy, an attorney and the host of the “Opera Show” on KUSC radio, called Nickell’s sculptures “lyrical.” He first saw the artist’s work at the Sue Spaid Gallery in the early ‘90s. “There was an abstract quality and a temporal quality.” When buying his first Nickell sculpture, the seemingly evanescent quality of the work was as much a charm as a concern for Murphy. A decade later, Murphy found, Nickell’s sculpture is in mint condition.

“It has the appearance of something that might not be there a month from now,” said Murphy, “but it has lasted.”

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Nickell’s new work sells for about $2,800 to $4,500. Like other artists, Nickell supports his art with a teaching job at Otis College of Art and Design. “The work was never that much about money anyway,” he says. “It was always just gravy.”

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Patrick Nickell

What: “Built for Speed”

Where: Luckman Gallery, Cal State L.A., 5151 State University Drive, Los Angeles

When: Monday to Thursday and Saturday, noon to 5 p.m.

Ends: July 12

Price: Free

Contact: (323) 343-6610

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