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ART: Ventura County | SIGHTS

Questioning Cliches

Beatrice Wood's retrospective bares her offbeat outlook on social conventions.

September 18, 1997|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Surveying the 80-plus year spread of artwork in Beatrice Wood's retrospective is a trip through layers of time and history. The show traipses lazily across the decades of this celebrated 104-year-old's life, as well as the spread of Modern Art itself. It all comes off as a bit surreal, which should please the artist.

A 1910 nude study in charcoal, when she was all of 17 and thinking about a life in acting, is about the most straightforward piece on display, before European modernism left its stamp on her. With the lustrous vessels and whimsical ceramic pieces made in her 100th year, the artist seems to have grown younger in her outlook, to have loosened up and regained a second, third or fourth childhood.

In some odd way, Wood seems to laugh, gently but firmly, at time and at aging. In fact, an important aspect of her life and art is that age isn't very relevant. It doesn't even matter that "Beatrice Wood: A Centennial Exhibit" arrives a few years late: Each year becomes less significant in fractional terms, the older one gets.

What we find in this generous offering of Wood's art, curated by Francis Naumann for the American Craft Museum in New York where it was launched last spring, is a heartwarming portrait of an artist who took her time finding herself. She's still busy with the self-appointed task.

Wood is no stranger around these parts, having been a charismatic presence in Ojai since she moved there in 1948. Hardly a recluse, she has shown her work around Ventura County regularly, in small, teasing doses, and for many years had an open-door policy at her showroom. But what this show gives us is less a revelation than a reconfirmation that Wood's life work is greater than the sum of its parts. That can be seen only with a sprawling diversity of works such as this, gathered from collectors and far ports.

She is a ceramic artist who didn't pursue that calling until middle age. In addition, she is a narrative-driven sculptor, whose mischievous social commentaries contend with matters of libido and social class. To boot, she is also a draftswoman of simple, disarming skill, touched by both Cubism and folk art.

On the biography side, we can't forget her romantic link to Dada king Marcel Duchamp, and, concurrently, writer Henri-Pierre Roche, whose novel on the threesome, "Jules and Jim," was rendered cinematically immortal by Francois Truffaut. In short, Wood is a complex, composite character whose art comes off as innocent and dense, all at once.

The nostalgic Duchamp connection is touched on via Wood's nose-thumbing stick figure on a poster for a "Blindman's Ball" in 1917, a Dada event "at the Ultra Bohemian, Pre-Historic, Post Alcoholic Webster Hall." We also see an abstracted impression of "Marcel's Bed" and a 1926 image called "Le Part (The Departure)," which loosely portrays lovers at a juncture, as if descending a staircase--vis-a-vis Duchamp's classic painting "Nude Descending a Staircase."

Throughout the show, Wood's work veers back and forth between pure visual seductiveness and soft-edged barbs at social mores. At this point in cultural history, her perspective on sex and the status quo seems more quaint than shocking; Wood, after all, came of age at a time when the Victorian era was starting to crumble. She's seen the world from both sides.

One of her recurring motifs is the pregnant bride, as in the 1992 ceramic tableau "Better Late Than Never" and in 1988's "Backseat," with a preacher making legitimate an expecting couple. Marriage, an institution with which Wood had brief, unsatisfying experiences, is viewed from a skewed angle in a work like "Marriage," with its couple presented in a flat, primitive-looking style: He's dour, she's forcing a glib smile--not a pretty picture. The "Husband and Wife Teapots" find the less-than-happy couple looking fussy and prim, and reduced here to functional objects.

Her women are often buffoonish in their attempts to project dignity and decorum, whereas she shows affection when it comes to frolicsome nudes--often in contrast to top-hatted gentlemen--and brothel settings such as the elaborate vignette in "Good Morning America." An essential attitude may be gleaned from the simple ceramic tile piece "Not in Evening Dress," a sinuous line drawing of a nude.

A few of her sculptural figures are perched on pedestals in the four galleries of the show, like pretentious sentries from the upper crust. An opera singer with a grotesque gape of a mouth seems to be in pain and/or ecstasy in "Ah." "The Rich Aunt," from 1990, is yet more pathetic, as the aunt in question is seen as a squat mass of flesh settled into a black dress, which appears like a sack for her ennui. Wood's disdain for aristocracy comes through without much euphemism.

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