Mad men

Masterful three-sculptor exhibit at MONCA

From left: sculptures by Michael Stevens, Paul DiPasqua and Tony Natsoulas.

From left: sculptures by Michael Stevens, Paul DiPasqua and Tony Natsoulas.

photos by Jason Cassidy

What, Us Worry?, on display through March 31. Tonight, March 8, 6-9 p.m., screening of the documentary Tony Natsoulas: A Face in the Crowd.
Museum of Northern California Art
900 Esplanade
Hours: Thursday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.

To get a sense of the spirit of the three-man sculpture show now on display at the Museum of Northern California Art in Chico, consider its title: What, Us Worry? Shades of Alfred E. Neuman, Mad magazine’s iconic doofus of a mascot.

The artists—Davis-based Tony Natsoulas; Paul DiPasqua, who lives in Durham; and Sacramento resident Michael Stevens—write in their collective artists’ statement that they all grew up reading the magazine and have been influenced by its nerdy mix of gross humor, sardonic satire and comic art. To this day, they write, “we’re still passionate about making things with the hearts and minds of prepubescent lads.”

Of the three, Natsoulas seems the most indebted to Mad. But his primary influence was the late Bob Arneson, the UC Davis professor and artist who is credited with generating the funk art movement in West Coast ceramics. A medium that traditionally had been used to make useful implements—cups, bowls, plates, etc.—was now being used to make art.

Natsoulas’ specialty is large figurative portraits of friends, celebrities (the Fab Four, for example), other artists (including DiPasqua) and everyday people. It’s campy, colorful, funny, even zany stuff that upends expectations and shows how a bulky, heavy medium—clay—can be used to create exceptional art.

On March 8, MONCA will be showing a video portrait of Natsoulas, titled Tony Natsoulas: A Face in the Crowd, that describes his development as an artist and how he puts his monumental pieces together. In particular, he’s shown working on a huge portrait of one of his heroes, Big Daddy Roth, a legendary custom-car builder. That piece is among those included in this exhibit.

Like Natsoulas, Chico State grad Paul DiPasqua creates large figurative sculptures, some freestanding, others meant to be hung on a wall. Though he makes use of ceramics, it’s in the form of found ceramic objects such as teacups, teapots, figurines and flower pots that, when combined with other familiar objects such as kitchen utensils, are transformed into something almost magical.

Part of the magic has to do with the sense that these figures—imagine arms made entirely from stacked teacups—appear to be extremely fragile, held together only with invisible glue. And it has to do as well with their sheer complexity: Several of the pieces combine more than 100 objects of all shapes, sizes and colors to make something entirely new.

At first glance the work of the third artist, Stevens, seems subdued when compared with that of DiPasqua and Natsoulas. It’s not as colorful and campy, but take a closer look: The pieces are amusing and oddly surreal (tree-climbing dogs! Flying snakes!).

Like DiPasqua, Stevens uses found objects in his sculptures, but the dominant material is wood, not clay. Some of it is meticulously carved into figures (dogs’ bodies, fish, the aforementioned snakes) and some constructed into objects (cabins, hatchets, saws). Stevens also uses rubber, often in the form of dolls’ heads and bodies.

Some of his images are amusing, but others—a two-headed doll, for example—are vaguely disconcerting. There’s a scary, surreal quality to these pieces, but they’re also funny at times. Mad magazine rules!