Critic’s Choice: Roger Herman ceramics: bold, bawdy and ... is that a little bondage sketched on there?


Roger Herman’s invigorating show at Richard Telles Fine Art in Los Angeles lends new meaning to the phrase, “bull in a china shop.” Herman is the brash and bulky bull here, the force of disorder. He also happens to be the one making the china.

More than 200 ceramic pieces by the L.A. stalwart fill two tall, open shelving units in the main gallery, plus a long, low bench between them and a table in the entry space. Much of the work dates from 2015, but some pieces go back a decade or more. They are not arranged chronologically, but rather grouped according to familial, formal affinities -- height, shape, imagery, palette. Their impact, en masse, is formidable.

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Herman made these sculptural vessels concurrent with his two-dimensional works on paper and canvas. Those paintings, drawings and prints, gestural explorations of the humble and the grand, continually shift along the fluid continuum of figuration and abstraction. They feature architectural facades, craggy mountains, flowers and skulls. Brooding at times, buoyant at others, they feel consumed by pressing issues of mortality.

The ceramic works draw from a similar pool of preoccupations -- the body, memory, death and life in all of its urgent physicality. They are, essentially, paintings and drawings on shaped surfaces. A series of broad, deep bowls, roughly 2 feet in diameter, roils with erotic energy. Herman has incised their surfaces with scratchy, pictographic sketches of rumps and breasts, splayed thighs and gaping crotches. In earthy browns, with occasional swipes of color, the bowls are raw, rustic feasts. They distantly echo the declamatory insistence of ancient cave paintings, the marks as indelible records: “I was here. This is what we do.”

The sexual, sensual body is all in Herman’s ceramic sculptures. Thick-waisted, slump-shouldered, clumsy, hefty, fecund and only occasionally lithe, his vessels are eminently anthropomorphizable. Their walls are sturdy, sometimes slit open and windowed. The revelry upon their surfaces runs from bawdy to grim. On one piece, an inky stream spews from the rear of a naked, bent-over woman. On another, a male figure hangs upside-down from his bound feet. Punishment or bondage play? Hard to tell. Alluring eyes on lovely faces also abound. Birds and snakes show up from time to time, and something resembling a donkey. Dark myths are being played out here, and also ordinary life. Herman’s work reminds us of how much they have in common.

The figural work tends toward a palette of sand, soil, mustard, eggshell and rust. Another aspect of Herman’s work is glazed in vibrant color -- tangerine, pale blue, lipstick red, gold. These vessels, too, orient toward the sensual. They feel unabashed, a little reckless, but notes of grace arise throughout: a woman’s profile with a dark, knowing eye appears on an otherwise sloppy cylinder; the skin of a pudgy jug erupts in delicate, crackly chips. The stripes and dots enlivening these pieces nod to early modernist abstraction, or maybe the Pattern and Decoration movement. Like the figurative works, these too assert themselves with fearless, boisterous zest. All in all, exhilarating.

Richard Telles Fine Art, 7380 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 965-5578, through Feb. 6. Closed Sunday and Monday.