Ceramics: Such fragile objects

Special to The Times

If you're looking for a younger artist whose work taps into legacies of West Coast ceramics, you might need to head east or, for the next few weeks, to Santa Monica, where New York-based Kathy Butterly offers a dozen small ceramic vessels, as well as drawings, at Shoshana Wayne Gallery.

In the late 1980s, Butterly studied at UC Davis with Robert Arneson, the Northern California ceramics guru and Funk artist. You can see his influence in her work, with its goofy mix of torqued, raw physicality and doting attention to detail.

Precisely awkward, Butterly's ceramics have a dazzling, funny and sometimes poignant ability to extend the long tradition of the ceramic vessel as stand-in for the body. Or at least they effectively prompt viewers to project that upon them.

They begin as simple bulbous or cylindrical vase forms that the artist squeezes, squishes, twists and throws off their axes. Small additions are made -- underdeveloped appendages, odd accouterments, decorative flourishes -- using any manner of process. The pieces are perched on specially made bases or feet that suggest a melange of architectural styles -- from great civilizations past, utopian modernism and its cheesy derivations.

Glazes handled in a dozen or more firings define elements within the works and heighten their decorative quality. Surfaces suggest satin, moss, plastic, leather, flesh and, well, glazed ceramic.

In addition to Arneson, Butterly's work also shows the influence of Ron Nagle, whose tiny, ultra-slick cups and bottles have the presence of larger objects of desire that have been distilled down or stunted. There are hints too of Adrian Saxe, a master of a rococo garishness that is self-celebratory and self-effacing, and Ken Price, with his gift for locating humorous pathos in heavily abstracted form.

For all their hints of vulnerability, the works of these other artists have a certain swagger and confidence about them; Butterly's seem to be trying to hold it together. Although made of enduring materials, her small pieces suggest the stability of a souffle, a house loose on its foundation or someone trying to walk on heels for the first time.

That might suggest a gender difference between Butterly's work and that of her West Coast predecessors. It's certainly worth considering her in relation to such artists as Lynda Benglis, whose fluid forms in varied materials from the early '70s play primordial ooze to Butterly's more evolved but still tenuous entities. Though much rougher, Benglis' ceramics share the comic vulnerability Butterly's deal in. Is this a gender thing? Maybe. But it's also likely a generational shift, in part jump-started by Benglis and other women artists toward exploring the body and attempts to dress it, contain it and know it -- heroically, absurdly, insecurely and theatrically. Titles such as "All Corked Up and No Place to Go" and "Teenage Wasteland" echo the playfulness and the blend of flamboyance and inhibition, glamour and awkwardness.

Butterly's pieces are, after all, grand impostors -- character actors offering, through their appearance, interpretations of human flaws and fragilities and the ways we try to maintain composure and compensate. The best of them are so effective that they evoke empathy. They leave you wanting to take them home, for all the reasons you might want to pocket a Faberge egg, or invite a friend in need for a cup of coffee.

Shoshana Wayne Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 453-7535, through Dec. 3. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.shoshanawayne.com

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Do these small bits add to a whole?

Assorted legacies find fresh interpretation and expansion in Eric Zammitt's works at Newspace. The first thing you see when walking into the gallery is a breadbox-size object, carefully machined from metal and plastic, with a contoured wooden handle. Whether it's an abstract form with industrial aesthetics or an industrial product that would please a formalist remains unclear until you peruse the exhibition checklist. There it's revealed to be a tool of the artist's creation, a custom-made sander/polisher essential in his work.

Such fetishistic displays of the artist's tools often get in the way, steal the show or, worse, attempt to shore up weak work. Here the device simply helps relieve some head-scratching while looking at Zammitt's bewildering art. He begins with thin strips of Plexiglas in more colors than you could imagine. These are laminated into finely striated slabs that are crosscut into strips that are rearranged into intricate abstract compositions and again laminated into slabs. Polished glass-smooth, they hang like paintings on the wall.

Luckily, the show goes well beyond tool talk and technical prowess. The results of Zammitt's labors are something like pointillist Op-art Finish-Fetish mosaics, with thousands of tiny, rectilinear bits of solid colored plastic fused into a single, flawless image/object/surface. The plastic is nearly opaque, delivering fully saturated, intense color, but it's also translucent enough for light to enter it and bounce back, resulting in an amazing glow.

Evocative of textile patterns, celestial events, and land- and seascapes, the works encourage you to take them in as awe-inducing wholes but also seduce you into picking them apart to appreciate their subtleties, quirks and structures. The strongest among them employ complicated shifts in rhythm, pacing and proportion. They get you to thinking with the parts of your brain that handle math, music and metaphor, all the while drinking in retinal pleasure so good it feels guilty.

Newspace, 5241 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 469-9353, through Jan. 7. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.newspacela.com

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Optical illusions to bulge the eyes

More eye candy for the thinking person turns up at Angles. Linda Besemer is known for taking the high-Modernist formulation of a painting as a purely flat, non-illusionistic picture plane to a backhandedly logical conclusion by creating disembodied -- or perhaps fully embodied -- striped and gridded skins of pure acrylic paint. These are rendered dimensional, tangible and fluid when hung like drapery.

In this show, Besemer takes her games a step further.

The woozying spatial/optical experience of the dome at the Borromini Chapel is cited by sculptor Richard Serra as an inspiration for his move from straight lines and simple arcs to more complex elliptical forms and compound curves. Likewise, while Besemer was in Italy as a recipient of the Prix de Rome, she drew inspiration from the use of optical illusion in Baroque architecture. She began exploring ways to bring spatial illusion back into the work while maintaining tension between two and three dimensions, and between abstraction and representation.

Although some of that background might have to be teased from an artist's statement, the effect is plain as day in the paintings. Titles such as "Multibulge Fold #5" (2005) aptly describe the illusionistic elliptical bubbles that appear to emerge from flat surfaces. The penchant for careful research, planning and fabrication that made Besemer's earlier work possible is evident here in the way the lines not only bend, as if around a curvilinear form, but vary in thickness as they appear to stretch, turn on edge and bulge toward the viewer.

Angles Gallery, 2230 & 2222 Main St., Santa Monica, (310) 396-5019, through Nov. 26. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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Urban sprawl; land of dreams

Alex Slade's career has been defined by an odd balance between detail-trapping, large-format, view-camera photographs and vaguely referential sculptures. At Mary Goldman Gallery, he displays a handful of his attempts to give image and form to a preoccupation with the Inland Empire.

Slade's subject matter is utterly mundane -- the slow development of Southern California's until recently untapped inland real estate -- yet he finds within it images that are bizarre, uncanny, in some cases difficult to believe. There are no big shocks, just odd hints of the unexpected.

A suburban parkway that seems to define the boundary between somewhere and nowhere is completely built up with new housing on one side of the street. On the empty land opposite, construction of a high school is just beginning, like a wildfire that has jumped the road or a societal prophecy unfolding ahead of schedule.

In "Centex Homes: Millbrook at Coyote Canyon, Fontana, CA" (2005), a foursome of mini-mansions under construction, the apparent first installment of a subdivision, looks oddly pastoral shot from an open green and under a soggy sky -- castles on the heath, SoCal style.

The exhibition's lone sculpture, a low-slung painted wood abstraction with lines and shapes based on unidentified real estate developments and connector roads, is simultaneously eerie and playful.

"Sprawl" is a word of dread for many of us, but also a word of dreams.

Slade's works call up the mixed feelings, from worry to reverie, that come with it.

Mary Goldman Gallery, 932 Chung King Road, Los Angeles, (213) 617-8217, through Dec. 3. Closed Sunday through Tuesday. www.marygoldman.com

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