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LUST AND LUSTER : The Robust, Gently Ribald Works of Beatrice Wood Shine in an Irvine Exhibit

July 01, 1993|CATHY CURTIS | Cathy Curtis covers art for The Times Orange County Edition.

"I am beginning to feel thoroughly that sex is utterly unimportant to me," Beatrice Wood scribbled in her diary on a bleak day in October, 1926. More than half a century later--in her travel memoir, "Pinching Spaniards"--she captioned a self-portrait of a huge-eyed woman with a small, sad mouth with the words, "I feel lonely when there is no one to sparkle with."

The contradictions and disappointments involved in sexual relationships are at the heart of Wood's gently ribald figurative ceramic sculptures and wispy drawings, which have titles like "Betrayed," "You Listen to Me" and "The Man Who Would Not Undress."

Through Aug. 20, a cozy show of mostly recent work in several media (plus vintage photographs and diary pages) at the Severin Wunderman Museum in Irvine introduces Orange County to the legendary 100-year-old artist, whose development of exquisite "luster" glazes for ceramics has been eclipsed by the sheer force of her personality.

In early photographs from 1915 and 1916, she appears as a dark-eyed, small-boned charmer. Wood, who was born into a well-to-do family, studied acting in Paris in her teens and drawing at the Academie Julien.

Back in New York during World War I, she acted with the French Repertory Company there and hung out with writers and avant-garde artists (most notably Marcel Duchamp, one of her most celebrated lovers) who attended the salon of modern art patrons Louise and Walter Arensberg.

A nose-thumbing red stick figure Wood drew for a 1917 poster advertising a ball supporting an avant-garde literary magazine held "at Ultra Bohemian Pre-Historic, Post-Alcoholic Webster Hall" gives viewers a taste of the innocently high-spirited humor of the era. More high jinks surface in a small photograph showing Konstantin Stanislavsky, the great Russian actor and director, demonstrating to Wood and her pals how to improvise stage makeup with clothespins and a "beard" made of a woman's purse.

Domestic life--Wood had two unconsummated marriages--wasn't nearly as much fun. In a 1930 drawing, "Marriage," a man distractedly drinks from a teacup while his wife gazes blankly into space. By then, Wood had abandoned acting, marriage and New York, and moved to Los Angeles.

Hoping to learn how to make a teapot to match a set of lusterware dishes she had bought in Europe, Wood enrolled in a ceramics class at Hollywood High School. She eventually went on to study with several experts in the field and developed a special knack for creating luminous dark green, golden, blue and pink surface effects. In 1948, she followed Krishnamurti, her spiritual adviser, to the art community of Ojai, where the sign outside her studio once read, "Beatrice Wood: Fine Pottery, Reasonable and Unreasonable."

Wood harnessed her glazing technique to a sensuous feeling for form and texture, and she continues to do viscerally appealing work in her old age. In one piece from last year, a circle of figures with pinkish-gray skin cling, frog-like, to the middle of a footed bowl. Another vessel is covered with large irregular golden beads with a lush, almost sticky texture. By ornamenting a golden chalice with 10 small loop-like handles, Wood turns a utility feature into a graceful form of decoration.

"Orpheus," named after the poet-musician of Greek myth, is a prickly open-mouthed ceramic blowfish glazed in a dreamy shade of blue. The piece is wittily dedicated to Jean Cocteau, the Surrealist poet and playwright who told the story of Orpheus in an eponymous 1926 play and 1950 film. (The Wunderman museum collects Cocteau's manuscripts, films and artwork.)

Many of Wood's figurative ceramic pieces look like three-dimensional versions of William Steig's New Yorker cartoons--from a woman's point of view. "The Widow," for example, is a figure of a plump woman with tightly curled hair, wearing a dress covered in aggressively three-dimensional applique flowers, who launches herself into a man's startled but obligingly concave embrace.

In "Bad Choice," a defeated-looking woman lies in bed with one breast exposed and a black cat for company, but no man to occupy the plumped-up pillow next to her. More ambiguously, a prim, worried-looking woman in a pink dress gets carried away by a macho guy in black riding a Pokey-like horse in "Everywoman's Dream."

Other ceramic pieces seem to have been done just for fun, such as the "Mermaid Teapot" (a circus lady in a headdress and jewels perching on an obliging fish) and a relief portrait of 16th-Century Queen Elizabeth I, whose tiny face--which resembles a junior high school girl's notebook doodle--is nearly lost in a welter of elaborate ornament.

Wood leans gently on elements of Cubism in her pencil and watercolor drawings, which are memorable mostly for their fanciful portrayals of romantic triangles and other social interactions.

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