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Voulkos' ceramic stacks speak Pop

March 21, 2003|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

Peter Voulkos, the artist who led a revolution in ceramics nearly a half-century ago in Los Angeles and who died last year at 78, is typically identified in relation to the verve and swagger of Abstract Expressionist art of the 1950s. His clay was torn, punctured and sliced.

Muscular forms were built, demolished and reconstructed. A reigning pottery aesthetic of harmony and good taste was replaced by one of dynamism and disruption, which spoke of fractures and fissures hidden just beneath the placid surface of the Eisenhower era.

Long unidentified, however, is another critical facet to Voulkos' work--one that emerged slightly later, around 1970, as the tumultuous decade of the 1960s peaked. Suddenly, Pop entered his ceramic vocabulary in a surprising and surreptitious way. For Voulkos' art, it marked a second startling climax.

On the anniversary of Voulkos' death, a thumbnail survey of his career at Frank Lloyd Gallery assembles 35 works, the earliest dating to 1953 and the most recent from 2000. Among them are several examples, in both clay and cast bronze, of a form that proliferated in the 1970s and after. It came to be called a "stack." Often four or more feet tall, the stacks were made by vigorously tearing apart the standard components of a classical ceramic vessel -- foot, body, shoulders, neck -- and then stacking them back up.

The voluptuous if battered vessel that resulted suggests a ravaged body--precarious yet imposing, bowed but unbroken. Topped by a chimney, it also recalls a rudimentary fireplace or ancient stove, calling to mind the fiery kiln in which a lump of clay undergoes its metaphor-laden transformation. The stacks invoke process.

But that's not all. The suggestive shape further summons a specific object, one that's familiar from commercial culture. Slender neck, sloped shoulders, narrowed waist, flared foot--the broad resemblance between a Voulkos stack and the famous silhouette of a Coca-Cola bottle is unmistakable. A Pop icon, celebrated in the art of Rauschenberg and Warhol, lurks within the Abstract Expressionist syntax of these works.

On one level, the Coke bottle makes a wry joke (and not just one that concerns the artist's notorious drug habits). Having liberated pottery from the restrictive prison of traditional crafts, where vessel forms reigned supreme, Voulkos ignited a debate about whether clay could ever be the basis for truly modern sculpture. The brilliance of the Coke bottle was that it cut both ways --a vessel, yes, but inescapably modern, too.

Pop art is only lately being recognized as a catalog of Abstract Expressionist cliches and Modernist dogma spoken in the degraded yet vivifying visual language of commercial culture. By eradicating distinctions between avant-garde and kitsch, it breached a critical wall between church and state. Voulkos' savvy stacks made turnabout fair play, casting a brand new Pop art cliche in hoary old Abstract Expressionist terms. Seen in this way, the stacks resonate anew.

So does Voulkos' subsequent decision to cast the breakable clay forms in eternal bronze, sculptural material of the establishment museum. Their voluptuous organic metaphors for the human body, pierced through with holes, make an affectionate shambles of Henry Moore, whose punctured bronze sculptures had become the official international signpost that one was entering the vaunted precinct of Modern art.

Frank Lloyd Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, through April 5. Closed Sunday and Monday.


Line, shape, space all formed by yarn

Brazilian artist Waltercio Caldas builds on a venerable tradition of Latin American Constructivist art that meshes quite neatly with an installation aesthetic of Light and Space, familiar to Los Angeles. He's not the first artist to use yarn or string to articulate planes of space that create perceptual conundrums, but he has the capacity to make surprising magic from the flimsiest materials.

Caldas, 56, is showing two recent works and five from the 1990s in his third solo show at Christopher Grimes Gallery. (He's shown mostly in Brazil and Europe.) Most compelling are two from "The Nearest Air Series" (1991), in which a few unadorned lengths of yarn suspended from the ceiling possess remarkable presence. Drawings in space, the works delineate rectangular planes and ovals with such elegance and clarity that walking into their territory feels almost like a violation.

In one, two hanging arcs of crimson and blue crisscross, flanked by two hanging straight lines. The other is composed of a different configuration of two arcs and two parallel lines, these in purple and green. Caldas anchors the yarn in the ceiling in straight lines or perpendicular configurations, and gravity does the rest. The eye reads the yarn as spatial contour, but the space around these chimerical shapes flows through them. Line, shape and space seem to merge in and out of one another -- and they encompass you.

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