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Monday, March 24, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Sketchbook

San Francisco Show Honors Ceramic `Bad Boy' Arneson

Seattle Times Art Critic

Back in the days when the idea of glass as important art was just a twinkle in Dale Chihuly's eye, Seattle already was known in art circles as a ceramics town.

By the mid-'60s, the University of Washington art department was filled with influential, convention-defying ceramic sculptors such as Robert Sperry and Howard Kottler, who in turn trained the next generation, including such contemporary sculptors as Patti Warashina.

United by their "bad-boy" personas and their gleeful snubbing of everything art historians believed true about ceramics, the gang of '60s and '70s ceramic artists who rose to prominence in Seattle were part of the so-called West Coast funk-art movement, which had its epicenter in San Francisco.

Peter Voulkos was the guru of the group. He helped turn ceramics into fine art. But the crown prince of the movement was Robert Arneson, a Bay Area ceramicist. And in a revealing retrospective of Arneson's ceramic self-portraits now on exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, it's easy to see how Arneson's humor, vulgarity and deft craftsmanship influenced an entire generation of ceramicists.

Arneson died in 1992, at age 62, after a long bout with bladder cancer. In the show at SFMOMA, some of the most wrenching of his self-portraits are from his final years, when he was weak and debilitated from rounds of chemotherapy. In a couple of ceramic busts, he portrayed himself as a hollowed-out shell, a man missing

parts of his face and chest, his eyeballs ghoulish with red streaks, his face contorted by pain.

He was always the trickster, and even these highly personal, revealing pieces have wit. As he often did throughout his life, he modeled these self-portraits after classical busts. The sculptures are mounted on pedestals. From a distance they could be Roman busts ravaged by time rather than the image of man consumed by disease.

The show presents self-portraits, including a couple of drawings, from 1965 through 1992. Arneson was obsessed with self-portraiture throughout his career, though he also made plenty of other work. (Including the ceramic toilet called "John with Art," from 1964, now on exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum.)

One of Arneson's most famous pieces, "California Artist," 1982, is included in the SFMOMA show. It is a self-portrait and a parody, and a back-handed swat at Hilton Kramer, an influential New York critic. Kramer had attacked Arneson's work as "provincial" and described it as glamorous in a West Coast way but lacking in ideas. Arneson's response was to make a bigger-than-life-sized bust of himself, shirtless and wearing a jean jacket and sunglasses. A couple of beer bottles and a marijuana plant were littered around the pedestal. Arneson hollowed out the clay head to make it completely empty.

"California Artist" is witty. Like all of Arneson's work it is voluptuously crafted. And it remains one of the great gags of modern art history as well as self-portrait that you can't help but love for its cheeky spunk.

Also up at SFMOMA is a provocative, discomfiting show by Kara Walker, a young, African-American artist who is winning lots of admiring critical attention. Her work is included in the current Whitney Biennial and in a show now up at Greg Kucera Gallery in Seattle.

Signs at SFMOMA warn viewers that the show might be inappropriate for children. The signs also ought to note that the show might be inappropriate for those squeamish about imagery relating to sex and to America's past as a slave-holding nation.

Walker's silhouettes and drawings look cartoonish but pack a punch. She mixes up the scatological with the sexual. Her special obsession seems to be about the relationships between white, male slave holders and their female slaves. She dredges up grotesque imagery from a century ago, but clearly she means for it to have a contemporary interpretation.

Both shows deserve a visit if you're in San Francisco. Both run through May 13.

Fay Jones retrospective

Seattle artist Fay Jones' paintings seemed to come to life Wednesday night at the Seattle Art Museum as several hundred friends and well-wishers, some dressed as characters in her paintings, gathered for a reception in honor of her 20-year retrospective at SAM. The show opened Thursday.

There were sailors in dress whites, baseball players, boxers and many women in big-shouldered, slim-waisted, '40s-style dresses and suits, just the kind that Jones' women often wear.

Jones, ever graceful, appeared to enjoy the attention without becoming too emotional. The same could not be said for her husband, artist Robert Jones, who choked up several times as he gave a charming, touching tribute to her as an artist, mother, wife and friend.

Many of the well-wishers also found themselves deeply moved by seeing so much of her work on display. She is a much-loved Seattle painter, and younger women artists in particular say that Jones has been an inspiration for their own careers.

"I remember seeing those little paintings of hers 20 years ago," said artist Linda Beaumont, pointing to a couple of the small, early paintings in the show. "It was wonderful. I thought, `Yes, she's doing it. I can do it.' "

Two talks on art

Two talks you may want to catch: On Thursday at 7 p.m., artist Carl Smool will discuss pageantry and ritual around the world in a slide lecture at the Kirkland Arts Center, 620 Market St., Kirkland. Smool is known for his highly creative party installations, and he and art partner Gene Gentry McMahon will be festooning the Henry Art Museum for its opening galas. 822-7161.

On April 24, Trevor Fairbrother, deputy director of the Seattle Art Museum, will give a talk on the watercolors of John Singer Sargent. Fairbrother is a Sargent specialist, having studied the Boston artist for his doctoral degree. The talk will be in the lecture hall at the downtown museum and is $6, or $4 for SAM members.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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