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‘Ceramic Annual’ Fires the Imagination With ‘50s Touch

TIMES ART CRITIC

Walking into the “53rd Scripps Ceramic Annual” is a bit like entering a time warp. On view in Scripps College’s Williamson Gallery, the show includes about 35 glazed ceramics by nine contemporary artists selected by guest curator Douglas Humble. A number of works are impressively large.

The strongest sensation broadcast by the ensemble is an aura of deja vu so strong one spends a good bit of time searching for clues to prove that, really, the year isn’t 1953.

The show isn’t much help. Virtually everything in it harks back strongly to Existentialist-driven, post-World War II styles like the School of Paris monster art of, say, Jean Dubuffet or Viennese Magic Realism. There’s the same leaning toward figurative angst, exaggerated humanism and subliminal narrative content. The whole feels markedly European, which is notable since all the artists--with the exception of Australian Katheryn Besley--work in the States.

Which is not to say the presentation feels hopelessly outdated. We live in a funky postmodern period where any historical or personal style can be viable. It’s also an article of faith in the art world that you can’t work in a past manner without leaving contemporary traces.

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Besley, for example, is preoccupied with the female figure in a way that suggests feminist concerns not in the wind four decades back. Her largest work depicts a nude woman crucified upside down. Similarly, Gina Bobrowski makes Bosch-like mutants and a female figure with a rusty teapot head.

Today’s leanings to involvement with one’s ethnic roots appear strongly in Stan Flinkman’s little tableaux on Jewish themes. He shows a two-part piece called “The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.” Another, titled “Reaching,” depicts a kneeling man in Orthodox garb stretching his hands through the Western Wall toward a huddled, nude, brown-skinned figure.

Generically, this work is decidedly more domesticated than Theater of the Absurd art of yore. Like Postmodern architecture, it is more playful than its base models. Elaine Carhartt, for example, continues to make bright, toylike commedia dell’arte characters that look as if they might have been turned on a potter’s wheel. Where the Existentialists emphasized comedy’s dark side, Carhartt goes for charm. There’s a certain similarity in the work of Catherine Schmid-Maybach; her “Heart of the Matter” is a wan harlequin with a sandwich board bearing vegetables and a book. Whether one finds this kind of thing treacly, is, I suppose, a matter of taste.

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Triesch Volker is considerably more emotive in “The Gardener’s Son,” but even this work leans to the pastoral. It shows a male torso, nude to the waist. Yard tools protrude from the shoulders, upper arms are severed. The body rests on a box containing its missing head. There’s an intelligence about the work that is literary in the best sense.

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Since large pieces dominate the exhibition, it may be a trick of perceptual contrast that makes smaller objects appear somewhat tougher and more haunting.

Barry Coffin shows signs of being influenced by everything from Native American art to head-shop kitsch. There’s a memorable atavistic simplicity in his black-and-white “Koshare Spirit.” He gets well past caricature in “Dogg Soldier.” It shows an American Indian in a Civil War-epoch uniform. The artist says the Native Americans wore the garb of slain soldiers proudly, like the pelts of animals.

William Attaway’s box-like wall hangings update themselves with hints of everything from Punk Neo-Expressionism to graffiti murals. Real intensity comes from works like “Vision, Clarity"--a man crucified on a burning blue heart hanging over a floating vulva. “Earth, Fire and Water” is an ornate jar with a similar theme. Attaway’s work somehow confirms an unfocused sense of religious longing and apprehension that wafts through the exhibition.

Nancy Baptist’s little plaques of crosses in graveyards and a sweetly melancholy piece called “Big City Love” bring down the curtain with an eerie quiet.

* Scripps College, Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery, 1030 Columbia Ave., Claremont; through March 23, closed Mondays and Tuesdays, (909) 607-3517.


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