Ceramicist Reinaldo Sanguino Employs Full-Body Improvisation

The Venezuelan artist’s inventive furniture has earned him a devoted following. The topless photos haven’t hurt either.

In his New York studio, Sanguino embellishes a stool using his signature impromptu technique.

Reinaldo Sanguino decided to become a ceramicist while on a tour with students and professors of the Cristóbal Rojas School of Visual Arts in Caracas, Venezuela, where he was a freshman. When they arrived at the ceramics studio, a professor wearing jeans, a plaid shirt, and a white apron was throwing a big terracotta platter on a kick-wheel. Sanguino was captivated. “He didn’t even get dirty—he was so good at it, and he was so stylish,” Sanguino marvels in his studio in New York’s Long Island City. “It was amazing to see such a humble material transformed into something wonderful, out of nowhere.”

That was 31 years ago. Ever since, Sanguino has been working with clay, sculpting it into rounded geometric forms and covering it with loose, rich pastel patterns. Recently, he has begun to garner a serious following, thanks in no small part to social media, where he seems to channel some of that professor’s style.

Reinaldo Sanguino’s glazed ceramic "Framed Wall Bubble 01," 2019, exemplifies the artist’s free-form approach to design.

Sanguino’s Instagram regularly features snapshots and videos of him hard at work—punching clay, slapping it with a paint-covered cloth, or tenderly applying glaze—while shirtless or, at the very least, sleeveless, displaying a physique that recalls Michelangelo (the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, not the Renaissance sculptor). He has a trio of kilns in his studio, he explains, and when the temperature rises, it’s only natural to disrobe—and perhaps shoot a quick photo. “People must think I’m half-naked in my studio all the time,” the CrossFit fanatic says. “Instagram is just a tool, and if you take a good picture and people pay attention to my work, why not?”

While Sanguino does not seem concerned about being known only as the topless sculptor, it must be said that photographs fail to capture the shrewdness and intricacy of his actual creations, which reside in the permanent collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Minneapolis Institute of Art; and the Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina. He has an improvisational ease at the wheel, and his works suggest a mastery of craftsmanship developed over a lifetime honing his art.

XL Chair XLC01 (2019) by Reinaldo Sanguino

Sanguino grew up in Caracas and, as a Boy Scout, spent camping trips molding mud into abstract forms. College provided the foundational knowledge that enabled him, about 20 years ago, to make his first ceramic stool—now one of his trademarks—after growing tired of the plastic chairs he used at home.

One of Sanguino’s college teachers, the late American potter Warren MacKenzie, encouraged him to apply for a workshop at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Maine. He got in, visited Manhattan one weekend, and, after graduating from college, moved to New York. Initially, he made pots in a co-op studio and sold them at a flea market on 86th Street. Then he got on the trade show circuit and in 2003 met David Alhadeff, who was about to open his design gallery, The Future Perfect. Sanguino joined its roster, and his star began rising.

Coffee Table with Metal Frame (2019) by Reinaldo Sanguino

Sanguino’s work comes about through improvisation and chance. Never sketching or pre-planning, he uses a range of tools—chisels, knives, and his own body among them—to cut into the clay’s surface after hand-building or throwing it on the wheel. And he makes expressive, scribbled embellishments with matte and glossy glazes, mason satins, ceramic pencils, sponges, and what he calls “crayons,” made by rolling dried glaze into chalk-sized cylinders. Anything he sees could spark an idea for a pattern. “You know the walls of the 68th Street subway station? They have the most beautiful drips of water on them,” he says, smearing a wiggly black line downward with a wet sponge.

Sanguino credits his work with allowing him to develop a stronger sense of self. “I’ve always been kind of shy,” he says. “My work has shown me what I can be as a person. It’s organic and unapologetic and real.”

(All images by Andrew Nemirosk)

This story appears in the March issue of Surface. To experience the complete issue subscribe here.

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