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‘Small’ Is Stunning

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Of all the artists who have gained prominence since Los Angeles became an internationally resonant center for new art 40 years ago, the one whose full-scale retrospective I’d most like to see is Ken Price.

It isn’t just because he’s a terrific artist--one whose work is a brilliant fusion of sculpture with painting, undertaken in the wholly unexpected medium of ceramics--although he’s certainly that. It’s because I don’t have a handle on the breadth and depth of so fecund a practitioner over the course of a long career (he was born in 1935).

Also, art this rich inevitably anticipated a lot of work by other artists that followed.

“Small Is Beautiful,” a new show of Price’s drawings at the University Art Museum at Cal State Long Beach, whets the appetite for more. As the title suggests, it’s small--just one gallery, painted dark turquoise blue, ringed with 45 modestly scaled works on paper. It’s beautiful too.

Most of the work is recent, dating from the last three years, and much of it is related to the sensuous, even erotic, ceramic vessels that Price has shown since the mid-1990s and that have created such a stir. Museum curator Mary-Kay Lombino has also made a judicious selection of several works from early in the decade, drawings that give a taste of Price’s evolution.

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“Unexplained Objects” (2002) suggests what he’s up to as an artist. The drawing is slightly less than 9 inches by 6 inches (small is beautiful), and color is critical (the drawings are made with bright acrylics, transparent watercolors, milky gouaches and other paints). Vertical in orientation (none of the drawings in the Long Beach show is horizontal), it resists being read as a linear narrative.

The image shows a peculiar organic lump, painted cheery blue-green with red polka dots, set in a desert-like landscape beneath a sunset sky awash in pink, magenta and orange. Hovering high overhead in the heavens is the tiny black silhouette of a flying saucer.

The UFO and the polka-dot lump are the immediately unexplained objects of the title although, the longer you look, the more alien the barren landscape also becomes. Soon, so does the fact of the drawing itself--art being the quintessential unexplained object. The cheerful weirdness portrayed here extends to the activity of making art.

Price’s work nudges a mental rearrangement. His art has the powerful capacity to estrange--to remove us from our common relationship with the world--but without accompanying feelings of hostility, despair or indifference. Estrangement is a good thing in Price’s art. He’s a master of joyful alienation.

Another of the UFO drawings (there are seven in the exhibition) shows a flying saucer over a rugged, mountainous landscape in Taos, N.M. It makes a witty joke about the blissed-out flights of spiritual fancy--ancient and modern--associated with the region while reveling in the intoxicating beauty of the place. Next to “Typical Taos Sighting” hangs a second drawing, titled “Sighting in the Same Area About a Year Later.” It shows the same scene--some things don’t change--even though the landscape, sky and saucer in both are entirely different in their details.

The show also includes a number of drawings purporting to be designs for labels for bottles of mescal, the cheap Mexican liquor made from agave. Rendered in clear, flat colors, the label designs show simple genre scenes, such as a truck driving through a field of cactus or a big ceramic jar next to an adobe house with a volcano smoking in the distance. Shades of a morning-after headache rumbling within?

There are also a number of talismans--drawings made as good-luck charms to thwart evil or ward off calamity. “Talisman to Avert Falling” is the most common theme. Several drawings show a jaunty little bus careening off a mountain road; another displays a crumpled car beneath a mountain pass as a giant Day of the Dead skeleton lumbers into view.

Save for juxtaposition in the exhibition, there’s no indication whether mescal is related to these mundane calamities or to those Taos sightings, year after year. But in Price’s hands, a suggestion of the magic of altered consciousness functions as warp to the weft of everyday occurrences. Art is the loom on which they’re woven together.

Price’s drawings also help clarify a number of sources exploited to such good advantage in his painted ceramic sculptures. Vernacular art, from product labels to tourist trinkets, is one. Cartoons, especially colorful Sunday funnies and visually rambunctious ones of the R. Crumb/Zap Comix sort, are another.

So are several types of classical Asian art. Not surprisingly, given the primary medium in which he works, Price seems attuned to the decorative patterning characteristic of many Chinese ceramics. Song Dynasty landscape paintings, in which monumental forms of nature reduce human figures to minute proportions, also resound. In “Sculpture in Nature” (2002), a lascivious tongue seems to wiggle through a mountain pass onto a spreading green lawn. The mountain looks to be straight from an 11th century hanging scroll by Fan Kuan or Guo Xi.

Nineteenth century Japanese woodblock prints, with their sharply detailed contours and dramatic stylization, are especially important to Price’s more recent work, whose images derive from aquatic forms like mollusks and ocean waves. The drawings “Winter Swell” (1999), “Small Is Beautiful” (2000) and “Colossal Aquatic Sculpture” (2000) all bristle with the probing fingers of water so famous in the prints of Hokusai.

Looking at Price’s work, Hokusai starts to seem a likely candidate to have drawn Zap Comix, had he been around a century later. These hugely sophisticated little drawings are infused with cross-cultural beauty, which encourages us to keep on truckin’ to Mt. Fuji.

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University Art Museum, Cal State Long Beach, 1250 Bellflower Blvd., (562) 985-5761, through Oct. 27. Closed Labor Day weekend and Mondays.

Ken Price will deliver the 2002 Zeitlin Lecture at Cal State Long Beach at 5 p.m. Sept. 21, University Theater. Information and tickets: (562) 985-7000.


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