Among the pedestals and vitrines common to sculpture exhibitions, “Living With Clay: California Ceramics Collections” also includes some old, comfy chairs, several side tables, a few bookcases and chests, a desk, and even a bed. “Living” isn’t tossed into the title as a generality. The collectors featured in this terrifically engaging show at Cal State Fullerton sit, eat and socialize among the pieces they’ve acquired. They read and work beside them. They are surrounded by them when they sleep.
Six collections are represented here, each of them decades in the making and thousands of works deep.
The focus and breadth of the collections are hinted at by a thoughtful sampling of roughly 20 pieces from each. The mix overall is largely stellar. To give a sense of the spaces these sculptures and their owners share, curator Rody N. López has wedded the cabinet of curiosities to the period room. Other than a brief introduction at the entrance to the Begovich Gallery, there is no text on the walls. The didactics are all experiential. A wall-sized photo mural sets the scene in each of the six discrete sections, and select furnishings and sculptures from the pictured room appear again in the gallery. The texture and sensibility of each environment, spilled into our own, become that much more real.
The vibrant turquoise, magenta and sunflower walls in Richard Oelschlager’s Long Beach loft are replicated here, setting off a pair of milky white, mock hunting trophies by Jeff Irwin, an elegant, petaled ring of plates by Alleghany Meadows, and much more. Oelschlager’s bed is parked center stage, a cinder block bracing one bum leg, and the quilt he fashioned himself draped atop.
The Claremont living room of Julie and David Armstrong is lined with display cabinets filled with collectible figurines and the like, but scattered throughout are ceramic works, some of which have been plucked from the array and re-installed here. On a credenza sit several pieces that spell out an abbreviated personal history: a rugged little bowl by Peter Voulkos; a tall, square bottle by Shoji Hamada; a teabowl with calligraphic markings by Paul Soldner, student of Voulkos and admirer of Hamada; and a graceful, narrow-necked bottle by David Armstrong, who studied as both an undergraduate and graduate student with Soldner.
Many of the collectors, like Armstrong, are makers themselves, and their own sculptures, paintings and prints nestle among works by others in installations here--another tangible sign of the intimate connection between collector and collection. Books appear in every section of the show, further clues to the collectors’ personal interests and scholarship. A foot-long selection of reference texts on ceramic history belonging to Gloria and Sonny Kamm, Encino-based collectors with immense holdings of teapots, figurative clay sculpture and more, are propped up by a delightful pair of Viola Frey bookends that suggest a tumble of ancient pots from those very pages. The area devoted to Judy and Richard Jacobs’ Glendora-based collection includes published volumes and linocuts by him and a stoneware torso by her, set among sprightly ceramic birds, shelves of international fiction and lovely vessels by Otto Heino and others.
Diane and Igal Silber’s Laguna Beach residence showcases an extensive collection of international, contemporary ceramics. Here, “Utamaro’s Tears I-V,” an exquisite porcelain piece by Maria Geszler-Garzuly that looks papered in indigo-inked musical scores, sits atop an elegant Japanese chest. The MAW Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, whose patrons prefer to remain anonymous, is represented by an array of ancient works. One of them, a polychrome jug from southern Peru tattooed with spirited patterning, sits on a worn wooden desk, beside a collector’s handwritten archival record for it.
Narrowing the gap between art and life has been the professed aim of generations of artists, but in truth, that divide doesn’t really exist for them or the avid collectors of their work. Many of the rest of us, though, could use some reminding of how rich that continuity can be. The visual freshness and curatorial ingenuity at play in this show well serve that end, while offering a physically involving opportunity to connect to work in the most materially grounded medium of all.
Nicholas and Lee Begovich Gallery, Cal State Fullerton, 800 N. State College Blvd., Fullerton, (657) 278-7750, through Nov. 17. Closed Friday and Sunday. www.fullerton.edu/arts/art/galleries/begovich_gallery