Sacramento duo’s whimsical celebration of ceramic artSacramento duo’s whimsical celebration of ceramic art
In a 1994 interview, California sculptor Robert Arneson spoke of why artists, craftspeople, students, teachers and makers of all kinds are drawn to working with ceramics. He said that there is something about using one’s hands upon the clay that expresses a desire to create an effect of “eternity.” The artist’s own thumbprint ensures her or his presence and body are registered directly and undeniably in the object—preserved, hopefully forever—leaving a very personal legacy embedded within the sculpture.
At the same time, Arneson said, the artist must “rely on the gods … because you’re never sure what it’s going to look like when you open the kiln door.” A ceramic sculpture may reach for the grandeur of individual expression, but the shape of the very object, and whatever impression it makes, is never fully within the artist’s control. Ceramic artists labor deeply and extensively and then leave things to chance as their works fire away in the kiln.
Perhaps this is partly why so many artists working with ceramics have witty or comic sensibilities—they know they must never take the risk of taking their projects too seriously.
The exhibition of ceramic works produced by Sacramento-based artists Jeff Nebeker and Tony Natsoulas, currently on display in the James Snidle Fine Arts gallery, seems to have an awareness of the implications of ceramic material that Arneson suggests. The pieces have elements of largesse, as well as light touches of unselfconsciousness. In fact, Nebeker and Natsoulas are working directly in Arneson’s tradition—both have studied with Arneson, as well as with David Gilhooly and Wayne Thiebaud, in UC Davis’ famed art-studio program.
This show’s works are part of a strong tradition of California figurative art, descended from the movement of Californian Pop art referred to as “Funk art,” where deliberately rough, handled, everyday objects revel in their imprecise nature, their low-ness and playfulness always threatening to overwhelm the viewer’s senses.
Funk-art objects often vacillate between preciousness and grotesqueness, which is certainly the case with the pieces in this show. On hand are striking sculptural works by both artists featuring stylized human forms as well as Nebeker’s smaller, and very realistic, goodies and sweets. The figures appear both sweet and deliberately overwrought, walking a tight line between horrific and farcical. By giving us a large table filled with indulgent offerings of brightly colored faux-treats, or a bust of a female figure with over-ripened cleavage and an enormous, pasted-on grin, the enjoyable becomes too much, raising questions about how we partake of pleasures and delights, and when they become atrocious or excessive.
Such art makes us take “lightness” seriously. Fluffy objects like Nebeker’s cakes and ice-cream sundaes demand attunement to the unreal ceramic deliciousness before us. It’s careful and fanciful, heavy and light. Whether you smile at or are taken aback by Nebeker’s copious desserts, the art puts us to work emotionally as we assess our own desires and needs in the face of it.
While giving the viewer a complex, dissonant emotional experience, Natsoulas and Nebeker’s sculptures appear nonetheless quite intentionally in the realm of the humorous. Bulbous shoes and thumbs, bulky noses and nostrils, and dripping ice cream cones hugged by pudgy fingers mark an interest in figures becoming illustrative, caricature-like, deliberately ridiculous and unreal.
It makes for a wild exhibition—provocative and unpredictable in color, scale and sense, the embodiment of the wonderful contradictions of the very material at hand. It’s weighty and whimsical all at once.