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Arneson The Artist

January 25, 1987|WILLIAM WILSON

OAKLAND — Some artists these days seem to long for a kind of fame that transcends historical renown and the respect of the cognoscenti. They want to be celebrities of the magnitude of rock stars or political radicals and have their works considered for Oscars and Emmys.

For the whole of the modernist epoch creators chanted pious platitudes about the virtues of poverty, chastity and obedience to the bohemian muse and the cheapness of topical notoriety. Their shift toward the bright, cold light of fictive stardom represents a historic watershed. The silver-bearded sage wants to be a sequined tap-dancer, a journalist in a trench coat or a popular martyr.

Actually, it doesn't happen very often and when it does, the lightning seems to strike in odd places.

Take the case of Robert Arneson, whose cheeky ceramic sculpture is under retrospective review at the Oakland Museum through March 15. He grew up in the little Bay Area community of Benicia, and except for the odd pilgrimage to the Manhattan Mecca, never moved much farther from home than Davis, where he took up a long teaching position.

According to catalogue essayist Neal Benezra, Arneson had a nice middle-class upbringing and early ambitions were like something out of "Peanuts." He wanted to be a cartoonist. Then he wanted to be a conventional ceramic artist making nice smooth pots, teaching at a local high school and getting reviews in in-group publications like "Craft Horizons."

Regular guy. Family man. Dedicated and modest. But there was something else. Peter Voulkos came along in the late '50s and blasted the ceramic medium away from regular craft work into the area of sculpture. He was denounced by the pot Establishment. Arneson belonged to it, but some streak in him--a sense of justice or intransigence--made him side with the young Turks of the Voulkos gang and it wasn't long before he himself was making ceramics that were self-contained artworks. A couple of early Voulkos-inspired structures like "Noble Image" are a combination of sensitive coloration and prickly, aggressive form that often characterizes his work.

A weighty rebellion by the petty standards of the subculture, but to an outsider a pure nit-pick. Listen, if it's art, it's art. What do I care if it's made of paint or mud?

In the '60s, Arneson began teaching at Davis with such now-noted colleagues as Wayne Thiebaud and William Wiley. Out of this mix evolved an interesting minor local variation on Dada called "Funk." Arneson produced its masterpiece and its schlocky low point. A ceramic typewriter with keys that are all finger-ends with enameled nails is as witty and unforgettable as Meret Oppenheim's fur-lined teacup. A full-scale toilet complete with droppings has the slob humor of a rebellious 5-year-old or old souvenir-stand joke-ceramics about hillbillies and outhouses.

The stage is set. Arneson's art will make a career out of satirizing itself and thus the image of talented artists who work outside New York and probably teach to make ends meet. Arneson takes up the self-portrait as a stand-in for the Artist and shows himself as a wigged-out hippie in "California Artist."

In "Current Event," the Artist swims against the tide of fashion to elevate ceramics (or plastics or rusty steel) to its proper position in the artistic pantheon, despite the resistance of the yahoos who think only oil paint and bronze are art. (We will not dwell on the implied degree of contempt for the audience contained herein.) Then me and my gang here on campus will make our art and have our shows here in California or Idaho or Texas and if we do not become famous it will be because those snobs in New York will call us provincial. If, of course, they accept our art they are not snobs but persons of taste and insight. The complications of this mode of thought reflect in Arneson's vision of the Artist as everything from a technical juggler to a clown and an assassination victim, but tricked out with cozy self-justifying rationalizations for every occasion, especially failure.

But then cometh a twist in the plot. In 1981 Arneson was commissioned to do a bust of the late San Francisco Mayor George Moscone for the Moscone Convention Center that was opened after the absurd 1978 tragedy in which the mayor and gay Supervisor Harvey Milk were assassinated by a disgruntled former colleague, Dan White. After White was found guilty only on a reduced charge, the city's gay community rioted at City Hall. Coming in the wake of a ghastly mass suicide and slaughter of 900 members of the San Francisco-originated People's Temple in Guyana, the events seemed like some atrocious travesty of the city's liberal reputation.

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