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From Beyond Our Bounds

Ceramics Collectors Bring Home the World--and Put It On View in Laguna

April 04, 1998|ZAN DUBIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

From the deck of their hillside Laguna Beach home, Igal and Diane Silber can see the line where the Pacific kisses the sky. Indoors, the view reaches even further.

Europe, the Middle East, Asia, the South Pacific and other lands are represented in the vast ceramic collection the couple has amassed in 20 years of international travel.

"One of the things we've found so fascinating," Diane said recently, "has been to see the similarities and differences among the artists, separate from what country they're from or how famous they are."

Works by lesser-knowns have a place in the 500-piece collection, a portion of which has temporarily left the Silbers' home for display at the Laguna Art Museum. (Because of shelving construction delays, the show has been installed in stages, with the final pieces expected to go in today, a museum official said.) Unconcerned with curators' advice or trends, the Silbers have always followed their own vision.

"We buy what we love," Diane said.

The 115-piece, 35-artist Laguna exhibit, rare for its geographic scope, also spotlights renowned artists. Patrick Crabb, who has taught ceramics for 21 years at Santa Ana College, said the strength of the collection, which includes his work, is in contemporary European ceramics.

"Many American collectors acquire blue-chip American artists," he said, "not European."

Among such masters, he said, are Otto and Gertrud Natzler, Viennese expatriates who taught Beatrice Wood her basics, Dame Lucie Rie of England, Horst Goebbels of Germany and Carmen Dionyse of Belgium.

Aesthetically, the collection's vessels vary from the unsentimental Expressionism of an angular vase by Britain's Alison Britton to the serene transcendence of a voluptuous bowl by Denmark's Alev Ebuzziya Siesbye.

Much of its sculptural work packs a similar emotional punch. A cadaverous head by Canada's Jean-Pierre Larocque evokes life's inevitable decay. Headless figures by Israel's Varda Yatom, who has witnessed that country's bloody conflicts for decades, scrunch into the fetal position.

To be sure, some pieces are light and lovely, some abstract or contemplative. But most address spiritual and emotional struggles or external strife.

During an interview at their three-story home, the couple--he's a pediatric urologist; she's a retired clinical psychologist--said they prefer art that confronts life's realities over prettified adornment.

"A lot of people come in and say, 'Oh, everything's so heavy, how could you live with it?' " Diane said. "But we wouldn't want decorative art.

"We've been very blessed," she continued. "Our lives to this point haven't been really painful or difficult. But we recognize that life for many people is difficult."

The couple began collecting painting and sculpture after marrying 30 years ago. Their fascination with clay began a decade later when a friend gave them a glazed green Natzler.

"We didn't know a thing about ceramics, but it was a beautiful bowl," Diane said, "and we started reading and learning and going to shows."

At the time, the medium was considered craft, not art, and the couple acquired vessels only. As they continued to travel (another passion) and learn, their attitude changed, and they began to buy expressive sculpture.

"We hope that people will see ceramics as art," Diane said, "and not worry about what an object's made out of."

Igal said that one of the joys of the medium "is that you can really touch it and play with it. Also, we felt we could assemble a meaningful international collection with some depth to it," an impossibility with painting, given today's prices.

Enduring relationships with many of the artists have been unexpected benefits of their "addiction." Eager to strengthen the field, they often fly these friends to the United States for workshops (at Santa Ana College and elsewhere) and open their home to the travelers.

Maria Kuczynska of Poland came for a visit the Silbers won't soon forget. Entering their den, Kuczynska came upon "Masked Head," a piece she'd lost track of, and broke into tears. Igal learned that the artist's father had died on the operating table from anesthesiology; "Masked Head" depicts the anesthesiologist's face, covered by a surgical mask.

"So this is what she visualized her father saw the moment before he died," said Igal, gazing at the object. "She didn't know we'd acquired it."

Such close contact has also brought firsthand understanding of far-flung cultures and foreign affairs. The Silbers learned, for instance, that Eastern European ceramists suffered financially when state support under the communists disappeared.

"Some of them have established quite a good network and reputation," Diane said, "but others, just excellent talents, are still struggling."

The Silbers hope that the exhibit proves as edifying for viewers as collecting has been for them. They've loaned their works for smaller local exhibits and opened their home for tours conducted by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and other institutions.

Said Igal: "One of the major reasons we agreed to do this show was that we really wanted children, from grade school and up, to see what's done in ceramics in Europe and the Far East and Asia and elsewhere."

They also hope that others will come to love art as they do. It's an appreciation that's grown by living with it day to day, Diane said.

"It doesn't have to be the 'Mona Lisa,' but when it's there--the heart of it, the soul of the piece--it makes a huge difference in your life."

* "International Contemporary Ceramics From the Igal and Diane Silber Collection" runs through June 21 at the Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach. Tuesday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; until 9 p.m. on Thursday. $4-$5. (714) 494-6531.

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