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Ceramicists Break Molds, Perceptions


Just think of Alison Keogh as a petal pusher.

"I like using natural objects like seed pods [in my work]," said Keogh, one of 35 artists--half a dozen from Orange County--featured in a survey of contemporary ceramics at Tustin Renaissance Gallery through Oct. 19.

"I had found a wonderful seed pod from Hawaii and wanted to use its shape in a vessel form. As I was working with it, I suddenly realized that these things coming off the palm of my hand . . . were actually little petals of clay.

"As soon as I had that thought, I remembered that my mother called me Petal when I was a little girl," said Keogh, an architect by day. ("Petal" was a term of endearment in Keogh's native England, as "pumpkin" sometimes is in the United States.)

Keogh's works literally have her imprint; they're textured with her fingerprints or palm prints. "Dream Vessel to the Underworld With Gift of the Liquid Self" and "Vessel of 505 Petals" both use petal shapes. As she unpacked the latter, while being interviewed at the gallery before the show's opening, a real flower petal fell out of the box. "Everything collects petals in my house," she noted.

Everything collects ceramics in the house of curator Igal Silber He has hundreds of ceramic artworks in his Laguna Beach home and hundreds more in storage. Gallery owner Bruce Thacker enlisted his help in mounting the show; most of the works are for sale, $50 to $10,000.

"This show covers the gamut of what you can see in ceramics, from almost functional vessels to very, very outlandish sculptural forms and wall pieces," Silber said. "It's the old potters"--such as revered classicist Harrison McIntosh of Claremont--"versus the young and more adventuresome."

Sculptural works include the puzzling, or at least quizzical, faces of Beverly Mayeri; her "Missing Pieces" incorporates puzzle shapes. San Diego-based Richard Burkett's clay, bones, neon and steel "Modern Romance," seemingly about relationships and shared space, features a lead-encased heart on a burnt post.

Among hybrid sculptural vessels is San Pedro-based Casey O'Connor's porcelain "Self Portrait," which finds a Babar-like character smashed under the burden of a drinking cup; the metaphor refers both to the weight of ceramic tradition and to alcoholism, though according to O'Connor, "Ceramics is a bit weightier."

Silber, a pediatric urologist, could pinpoint no trend in the field but offered a bit of historical perspective.

"In the 1960s and '70s, not many grad schools in this country emphasized technique," Silber said. "People didn't really master the [potter's] wheel. Ceramic artists are doing interesting things, but some are also having problems throwing" on the wheel skillfully.

"The overwhelming majority of works in this show are very well done."

Nevertheless, the show seems to beg the question: Where does technique end and expression begin? Whereas Marsha Judd of Fullerton obviously spent a great deal of time burnishing such works as "And All Around Us, III," the value of other artists' works--notably those of Jean-Pierre Larocque of Long Beach--seems to lie in their spontaneity. Some pieces, such as the earthenware "Open/Closed" by Janet Neuwalder, also of Long Beach, look as if they'll disintegrate if touched.

Performance ceramics?

"These people are working on the edge," Thacker allowed. "In some cases I think they downplay craftsmanship.

"It's up-to-the-minute for sure. Some of these things are hot out of the oven--like 'I burnt my fingers taking this out of the kiln to get this here today,' you know? That kind of thing."

* What: "A Survey of Contemporary Ceramics."

* When: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays through Oct. 19.

* Where: Tustin Renaissance Gallery, 300 El Camino Real, Tustin.

* Whereabouts: Exit the Costa Mesa (55) Freeway at 4th Street; go east on Irvine Boulevard. Turn right onto Yorba Street, left onto 1st Street and right onto El Camino Real.

* Wherewithal: Free.

* Where to call: (714) 838-6140.

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