Photos by Susie Goodman

LA artist Peter Shire is a ceramicist extraordinaire. He says, “the smell of wet clay – the distinct smell of a room that has clay work is something that makes my heart ascend.” But at the exhibit Peter Shire: Naked Is the Best Disguise at the MOCA Pacific Design Center (on through July 2nd), you can see examples of his exuberant works in other mediums, from drawings to furniture.

I spoke with him at the exhibit and started by asking about the house where he’s lived for nearly his whole life.

PS: Yes, in Echo Park. I live with Donna, my wife, and a cat named Zorro in my parents’ house that I grew up in – a modernist house finished in 1950. My studio is six blocks away and I’ve been in Echo Park all my life.

ST: You’re known for your colors which are so exuberant.

PS: I always find that I want to impress people that I can suffer. I start working in gray and black and storm clouds are brewing. Then I think “a little red over there would make this all work” and a little red leads to a little yellow and the next thing you know, I feel good and I can’t help it.

One of the big influences for me was Googie’s Coffee Shop on the Sunset Strip. I think it encapsulates a lot of my approach, especially as a Californian. It was a typical Los Angeles storefront, and then an architect shoved a panel into it and it had this goofy lettering and other accents that, at the time, were called “Coffee Shop Modern.” Little did I know until much later who the architect was: John Lautner. To me that’s the LA or California approach: to take all types of history and push them together into something new, a new synthesis. I take design, art, craft, decorative arts, mass culture and shove them all together, along with these meanings that go along with them.

ST: You were part of a movement of fired clay sculpture, weren’t you?

PS: We were sort of second generation. We who went to art school and were involved with ceramics around 1965 were looking at work from the group that is loosely referred to as The Otis Group. So we were very aware of clay being used as a sculptural medium, and moving away from the strict idea of pottery as a container.

ST: One of the pieces on display here at MOCA Pacific Design Center is the Bel Air Chair which you did in 1981 as a founding member of the Milan design collective called Memphis.

PS: I’d been walking along the beach in Malibu and saw this house which I thought was quite fantastic and kind of corny and could maybe be the back of a chair. It turned out to be another Lautner. We were also very involved with asymmetry. One of my friends was goading me saying “you’re actually going to make two legs the same” as I was drawing, so the gauntlet was thrown down. It’s an overblown version of a club chair and it’s got this sort of a beach ball on the back of it, which is completely ridiculous. It was influenced by my first ride in a Mustang, where I got into the back seat and sat down and hit the wheel well. I wanted the chair to have the same sensation of when you sunk down into it, would you hit the ball.

Then there is the Brentwood Chair, which was made for this show. It’s an even more exaggerated version.

ST: Tell me about these lamps.

PS: They’re miniature versions of what I did for the Olympic Village in 1984. The originals were 16 feet tall, and I thought it would be fun to make one for everyone we worked with during the Olympics, so we made a little over 70 of them.

ST: What about the title of the show? What does it mean?

PS: Naked is the Best Disguise. It means you’re always telling people who you are. It came from a book by a guy named Samuel Rosenberg about how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle hated Nietzsche. Doyle’s character Moriarty was inspired by Nietzsche, and Rosenberg compares the physical descriptions of Moriarty to Nietzsche. I just loved this and was joking about it with the curator, Anna Katz, and she said “that is the title of the show.”

Learn more about Peter Shire: Naked Is the Best Disguise, now through July 2nd at the MOCA Pacific Design Center, and see photos of the exhibition here.

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