Our Theater Critic Becomes an Art Critic In Spite of Himself, Thanks to ‘Living With Clay’ at Cal State Fullerton

Photo by Joel Beers

I’ve never been much of an aficionado of the visual arts. If an image strikes me, be it a painting, sculpture or whatever, it’s because it makes me think of something. I don’t savor the design or handicraft or use of colors or the emotional impact. I need the piece to trigger an idea—highbrow, lowbrow, any-brow.

In other words, I’d make a shitty arts critic. But I like money, so when Dave Barton, our award-winning art critic, needed to take a short break to focus on his college studies, I eagerly volunteered to stumble in his shoes. He made some recommendations, but one in particular bored the shit out of me: “Living With Clay: California Ceramics Collections” at Cal State Fullerton’s Nicholas and Lee Begovich Gallery.

When I think of clay and art, I’m back being a kid reading about ancient people, zoning out to photographs in history books of tiny shards of pottery that indicated the presence of some civilization years and years ago. I remember how disgusted I felt that the only thing these people seemed to do was sit around and make containers in which to store their stuff.

But the more I thought about it, another image materialized, one from Genesis 2:7, of someone called Lord God forming man from the dust of the ground and breathing into his nostrils the breath of life. Clay, however it’s described (water and earth, mud, dust of the ground, clay) factors in so many creation myths, from Prometheus creating humans from it to Diana molded from it by her mother (a detail that actually made it into that overhyped Wonder Woman film).

So rather than approach the exhibit thinking of boring archeological finds, I entered curious about whether these artists working with the raw material of existence, the substance that sparked one of humanity’s first inventions (yeah, pottery), had transformed it into something more interesting.

And, whoa, did they ever.

John Luebtow’s Ode to Congress. Photo by Joel Beers

Sure, among the 130 pieces in this Rody N. Lopez-curated exhibition showcasing some of what five private ceramics collectors hold and one museum, there are things that didn’t do much for me; however colorful and intricate the designs, even Mark Hewitt’s stoneware Large Lidded Jug, which looks as if the world has been shaped into a large vessel with the continents ejaculated out of the mouth and dripping down its walls, still come off as more utilitarian or decorative than visionary. But there are plenty that are nothing short of incredible. For example, from John Luebtow comes Ode to Congress, which should be called Basket of Dicks because at first glance, it resembles just erect dicks. However, if you look closer, you can see Dopey of the Seven Dwarves, Pluto and other cartoonish shapes. I have no idea what he’s getting at, but it’s awesome.

Then there’s Sergei Isupov’s Bow, a fantastically erotic image adorned with sexual images, anguished (and bored) faces and erupting in wild colors that could be two humans going at it doggie-style, or two dogs going at it doggie-style, or two human-dogs going at it doggie-human-style, but whoever or whatever is fucking what, the bodies merge into one so you can’t tell where one stops and the other begins. Then there’s Frank Boyden and Tom Coleman’s wood-fired porcelain Flying Skeleton Vase (#20), which is emblazoned with human skeletons crawling on all four legs that resembles nothing less than primordial figures oozing from the very clay of life and attempting to crawl only to be burned back into dust by the unblinking sun.

Bow by Sergei Isupov. Photo by Joel Beers

Hector Javier Martinez Mendez’s earthenware The Artists of Mexico is a marvelously detailed piece that blends past and present, living and dead, into an evocative study of myth and culture. Vincent Palacios’ 2007 glazed stoneware with decals Alchemy Series #14 looks as if M.C. Escher dropped acid and was transformed into a potato bug trapped in a Hieronymus Bosch mutated-insect phantasmagoria.

But I kept returning to Carol Gentithes’ 2015 earthenware Tropical Confusion, 2015. Yes, it’s a frog—a big, floppy, white frog with a creepy yellow face and bugged-out orange eyes—but small applications are splattered across its splayed body that recall tropical plants, fruits, birds and insects. The longer I stared, the more the images seemed to coalesce and warp, turning into things that bore no literal resemblance to anything I thought they were.

Anyway, it’s a superlative exhibition that reminded me, yet again, that I don’t know shit, that clay is the greatest medium ever used by human creators, and that the next time I see it, I’m turning on like the aforementioned Escher. But even without mind-nightmare candy, this show is a trip. While those of us in this trade (even if we’re just moonlighting) are never supposed to say this, what the hell: Go see “Living With Clay.” It’s free, and it’ll rock your nutz.

“Living With Clay: California Ceramics Collections” at Nicholas and Lee Begovich Gallery, Cal State Fullerton, 800 N. State College, Fullerton, (657) 278-3471; www.fullerton.edu/arts/art/galleries/begovich_gallery/living-w-clay_detail.php. Open Mon.-Thurs. & Sat., noon-4 p.m. Through Nov. 17. Free.

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