August 7, 2023
For a lighter and more categorically summery Santa Barbara Museum of Art encounter than the subtle, enigmatic survey of James Castle’s dusky spit and soot drawings, proceed to the smaller Emmons Gallery and bask in the colorful, sly-witted fare to be found in the exhibition WARES! Extraordinary Ceramics and the Ordinary Home. Here, elements of pop art’s fusion of high and low culture and carbonated irreverence meet in the realm of contemporary/modern ceramic art, a medium still deserving more love in the fine-art world.
Highlights in this mix include both emerging artists and such groundbreaking luminaries as Viola Frey, Robert Arneson, and Ojai’s own beloved Beatrice Wood (1893–1998). Wood’s small, genially grotesque autobiographical figurines, like wedding cake cameos, allude to her husband-by-convenience Steve Hoag and friend and confidant Helen Freeman, as a lopsided, lippy nude.
Arneson’s playful and decidedly pop-artful 1963 piece “Case of Bottles” counterbalances the reality of a single mass-produced soda bottle (7Up, the truth be told) with a motley crew of gruffly fashioned ceramic facsimiles. Art imitates marketplace reality, crudely, and trumps the commercial commodity subject.
In the large centerpiece of the exhibition, Frey’s wild and whimsical “Homage to Dubuffet” (1977–80), a larger-and-funnier-than-life coupling of a tall, fauvist-colored woman facing off with a mangled beast of the sort that “Art Brut” master Jean Dubuffet might have created. It’s an art historical in-joke, in which beauty meets beast and eras and attitudes do a wobbly dance.
By contrast, Gifford Myers’s deceptively soft-spoken piece “Holding On/Holding Out” toys with perception of scale, for commentary’s sake. A tiny, all-American suburban home is seen dwarfed by looming monolithic black walls, symbols of faceless urban encroachment.
From the younger set of ceramic artists, the selection includes two previously not shown on gallery walls, Woody De Othello’s “underneath the surface changes occur that we cannot bear witness to,” and Seth Bogart’s “Cheeks.”
Bringing into the arena of fine art the everyday — the “ordinary home” aspect of the exhibition title’s equation — is an objective for Stephanie Shih, whose realistic renderings of items, edible and otherwise, from Asian-American grocery stores deal with ethnic and commodity-related themes, while also simply pleasing our sense of texture and design.
In his own different way, Bogart’s purposefully funky representations of elite perfumery vessels makes for a friendly yet subversive reversal scheme at hand, and at play. Speaking of which, play of an enlightened sort, is a general MO in this show, best enjoyed with a fizzy mind/eye.
WARES! Extraordinary Ceramics and the Ordinary Home is on view at Santa Barbara Museum of Art through September 17.