New York

Robert Arneson

Allan Frumkin Gallery

Most of us have made clay ashtrays. It is an almost primal manipulation of material—the formation of the useful out of the unstructured earthen lump. Although Robert Arneson reacquaints us with this experience (the archetypal bourgeois child’s initiation into “creativity”), he would probably laugh at any deep primal significance. The “giving of form to the formless,” as if children were little gods out of Genesis, doesn’t sound quite right because it’s too serious. Arneson knows that a medium like ceramics can’t support metaphysical speculation, and he refuses to play his hand with a straight face. He is aware that clay does not carry the history of Western Civilization on its shoulders. Yet, aren’t we reminded of some kind of magical activity where we learned the possibility of arranging things for ourselves, in our own way, and having responsibility over our own making?

This was a “portrait” show, with a cocktail party crowd of sculpted clay heads (mostly, one presumes, of Arneson’s friends, although there are some good and bad ideas for other hypothetical people). There were also self-portraits (who’d miss his own party?). There was a pockmarked priest, and Cheek, both of which brought attention to the grainy texture of clay identified with the pores of the human skin. Arneson has a marvelous sensitivity to the feel of things. Cheek was cut by shaving; a real Band-Aid was quite brazenly stuck on ceramic. Nobody was a blank, hairless Kojak type with irisless eyes. Of course, a head with “no body.” A heavy-handed Bust was a pun on “bust” of a person and a “busted” or cracked bust. Beards were much in evidence; they frequently are made from fingers of clay in a witty, surreal juxtaposition of human elements.

My favorite part of ceramics was not the giving of birth to the noble ashtray, but the mystery of glazing. The chalky, milky paint somehow turned into a smooth, hard finish of glassy color: deep greens and bright reds, or that very favorite of children, speckled-egg blue. Not to pass this by, Arneson’s self-portrait Photo-portrait, with likenesses repeated inside ceramic camera lenses, was more than a good pun on California Photo-Realism: it was a subtle play of grays, silver, black and blue. Roy of Port Costa was revealed to be Roy deForest by the two dogs on the back of his neck, both in that typical deForest pose of lying on their backs with their genitals showing. And bright reds and deep greens predominated.

Jeff Perrone