Happiness Is a Pretty Gun

Hitler Teapotby Charlie KrafftThere's something more than a little special about a porcelain piece covered with pictures of bunnies and meeses and happy cartoon birdies like the ones that flutter about Mary Poppins' practically perfect (in every way) head. It's even more special when it's inscribed “Mother” in an elegant script. And it's specialest of all when it's a gun.

Porcelain, like the tea sets your brothers used to break when they were feeling particularly malicious. Porcelain, like the stuff old ladies keep in china cabinets. Porcelain, like the better Franklin Mint collectibles. Now, the delicate medium, the favorite of the ultra-femme, has a new steely strength. There's nothing more macho than war toys. (Unless, of course, it's anything made out of titanium. Guys really like titanium.)

So along comes Charlie Krafft, showing “Villa Delirium” at Cal State Fullerton's Santa Ana satellite, the Grand Central Art Center. He makes Biological Warfare Canisters, their porcelain selves inscribed with scary titles like smallpox, Ebola, anthrax, and the hitherto terrifying—and now just ridiculous—botulism. He paints Jesus on a .45 and titles it God Bless Our God. Near the trigger, it reads, “Proud to be an American.” He makes an AK-47 for Charlton Heston, which is inscribed with inscrutable Hebrew letters.

On found china, before he'd learned to cast it himself, he paints commemorative scenes of occupied Holland and the LA riots of '92: a minstrel in blackface plays the sax before the burning buildings in the background. He paints Bikini Island (I and II, like bookends) as a lovely mushroom cloud in ladylike, even precious, Delftware blue. Those, perfectly, were painted on Department of the Navy saucers.

Artists With Something to Say are very often perceived as didactic or bombastic or preachy or boring (not by me, though; I like preachy). Most people prefer whooshy paintings of hearts and people's, like, inner emotions over cold (if also witty) analysis of the world and its ills and the evils of war. But make guns, and all the boys get hard. Make them out of porcelain, and you've got a blockbuster on your hands. Even Salon weighed in last week with a five-page review of Krafft's Grand Central show. Insouciant! Subversive! Kick-ass!

But even better than Krafft's work, which really is subversive and kick-ass, are his stories. Those are hilariously outlined on wall texts, like when he went to Amsterdam hoping to visit the Delftware factories and get some tips on how to make porcelain properly. It was, he said, as though he'd asked for human organs. Finally, he met a Hell's Angel named Uno in the red-light district who had apprenticed at a Delft factory for three years and who happily taught him what he wanted to know. (He was supposed to get more tips at a later date, and when that time came, his friend unfortunately was incarcerated. No more Delft secrets for him!)

Charlie Krafft is the kind of guy who will go off on journeys to India, who will meet street junkies who take him to Aleister Crowley's boarded-up home, who will take the risks that we won't take and have the fun that we won't have. He hung out in Slovenia, for God's sake, where getting his hands on an AK-47 to copy was about as difficult as borrowing a fiver.

The best of Krafft's works are the ones that are the least subtle—and the only thing subtle about any of them is that muted shade of blue. But while most people who vie for “shocking” can be written off with an unhidden yawn, in Krafft's hands, “shocking” is hard-earned. He's not callow or shallow.

Therefore, the Hitler Teapot isn't just some silly cry for attention in the wilds of your art school. Instead, it's an intricate work that's incredibly compelling. There's his face, molded into the teapot's body. He looks sober, sad even. Handle and spout curve like demons' horns.

In the Forgiveness series, depicting an ad campaign for a scent that would smell like blood and snow, there's more death and dismemberment, fluffied up like nobody's business. The etched-crystal flagon, photoshopped into an emaciated concentration camp victim's hand, is hollow and hilarious, an indictment of, well, everything, but not least our Vaseline-lensed image of the world. And Charlie Krafft can wryly preach all he wants.

Charlie Krafft's “Villa Delirium” at Cal State Fullerton Grand Central Art Center, 125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 567-7233; www.grandcentralartcenter.com. Open Tues.-Sun., 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Through July 7.

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