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February 28, 1986|Robert McDonald

SAN DIEGO — For most viewers, the sole interest of "Pacific Connections," clay works by 10 Japanese and 10 California artists now on exhibit at San Diego State University Art Gallery, will be the special beauty that only ceramic art can convey. Clay, for those sensitive to it, has a special, quasi-mystical quality, combining the elements of the ancients: earth, water, fire and air. It is, according to the myths of many cultures, the stuff that man was created from.

The show's ostensible justification is to demonstrate the influences between the cultures of Japan and Southern California, "to suggest," as the SDSU official statement on the show reads, "that the artists share a common will to experiment, to redefine the traditional 'craft' medium of clay, and to explore it for new potentials, forms and images." The show does not support this assertion, however, nor does the major catalogue essay.

What is surprising is the relative weakness of the Japanese artists. Japan, after all, has a 7,000-year-old ceramic tradition, and ceramic artists there have traditionally ranked above artists in the "minor" forms of painting and sculpture. The American tradition in ceramics is only about 50 years old, and ceramists have been regarded as considerably below "real" artists in prestige. But this exhibit evinces greater inventiveness in the extremes of both refinement and in muscular, free-form expressivity among Southern California artists than Japanese artists.

The sculptural forms should be appreciated for themselves. They are not utilitarian pieces. They are simple, three-dimensional objects with beauties of form, color, surface, scale and texture, and whatever non-objective qualities they possess for individual viewers.

Among the standout American artists is Ron Nagle of the San Francisco Bay Area, included here because his aesthetic is closer to the Los Angeles "fetish finish" than to the Northern California "funk" tradition. Nagle is an artist of exquisite sensibility who continues to use the traditional vessel form of ceramics to create small, complex, three-dimensional paintings on clay. What some connoisseurs identify as preciousness in his work, others perceive as a very sophisticated and rigorous discipline that merits the respect accorded to the medieval masters of the art of illumination.

Nagle's eccentrically formed works, ranging from about four to eight inches high in a full, seductive palette of glazes, evince a compulsive attention to detail that rewards close attention. Nagle's ceramic pieces are truly big works in small formats.

Ron Cooper, an artist who is versatile in several media, is represented by ceramic female torsos whose patterns and colors relate to his recent Polaroid "Flashlight Torsos"; Gifford Myers, by his exquisite renderings of the Southern California built environment that are remarkable for their content as social commentaries, as well as for their verisimilitude and sense of nostalgia; Luis Bermudez, by small tripodal urns, rather than by the large, rough-textured works of which he is a master; John Mason, one of the masters of experimentation, by surprisingly traditional vessels, and Elsa Rady, by her customary bowl forms with unusually shaped edges, which, despite their elegance, are so strong that they convey personalities. Other Americans in the show are Philip Cornelius, Susan Curry, Roseline Delisle and Adrian Saxe.

Among the Japanese artists, Keiji Ito's minimalist sculptures and Hiroaki Morino's strong, traditional vessel forms are especially memorable.

Whatever Pacific connections there might be between Southern California and Japan, they are not readily apparent in the exhibit. And, indeed, the real purpose of the show emerges only in Garth Clark's important catalogue essay that is a revisionist history of ceramics in Southern California. In brief, Clark, an expert dealer and historian of ceramics in Los Angeles, argues that contemporary ceramic art developed indigenously in Los Angeles, particularly at the Otis Art Institute, and was not--as has been previously advertised--an imitation in West Coast clay of New York Abstract Expressionism.

The exhibit originated at the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art and was curated by Tobi Smith and Daniel Wasil.

The truth is that beauty alone justifies it and is sufficient reason for visitors to go to the SDSU Gallery before the show closes March 6.

Last Friday an old venture opened in a new space: Gallery Store, formerly in Hillcrest, moved downtown (724 Broadway).

The new Gallery Store is unusual in its division into commercial and non-commercial spaces, which may also be identified as "informal" and "formal" exhibition spaces. Visitors may examine beautifully designed useable items for sale downstairs and then move upstairs to appreciate works of art.

Owner Bob Walker, with architect David Singer, worked to make the Gallery Store a total work of art integrating all the senses. The attention to detail is admirable. There are, for example, 14 shades of gray throughout the space. One of the more sensational aspects of the store is its indoor-outdoor neon sculpture.

Currently on view upstairs is a very beautiful installation by San Diego artist Mario Lara.

In the tradition of the Southern California "light and space" aesthetic, Lara has used three colors of scrim stretched on wood frames--red on an arc, turquoise on a square, and white on a torqued rectangle--along with available illumination entering through skylights and from the front of the store, to create an environment that is both mystical and sensual. The installation, entitled "Chiasma" as an intersection of illusion and reality, continues at Gallery Store through March 22.

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