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The clay's the thing for this renegade sculptor

November 22, 2003|David Pagel | Special to The Times

Fifty years' worth of Jerry Rothman's ceramic sculptures can't help but look like a group show. But unlike most multi-artist exhibitions, which cling to their themes like a tick, this two-part survey abandons uniformity. No attempt is made to sum up anything neatly.

That suits the 70-year-old ceramist perfectly. The loose ends that abound in "Feat of Clay: Five Decades of Jerry Rothman" convey his unflinching conviction that when it comes to art, a loose cannon on deck can still hit the mark.

What Rothman's oeuvre lacks in step-by-step development, it more than makes up for in risk-everything abandon. The results may not be pretty -- and they're certainly not always tasteful -- but they keep viewers on their toes. Keeping pace with Rothman's all-over-the-place art is like trying to stuff a slew of clowns into a small car.

Approximately 135 sculptures, vessels, plates and vases have been installed in six galleries at the Laguna Art Museum and in two galleries at Cal State Fullerton's Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana. Guest curators Susan Peterson and Mike McGee, along with the museum's Tyler Stallings and Dana Solow, have laid out the retrospective in rough chronological order.

At the Laguna Art Museum, all but two of the 101 pieces on view were made before 2000. The Santa Ana Art Center features Rothman's most recent sculptures, but also provides a quick overview of his earlier works.

Rothman's works from the 1950s belong to the movement known as Otis Clay. (Downstairs, two galleries are dedicated to "Rebels in Clay: Peter Voulkos and the Otis Group," a terrific introduction to their groundbreaking art.) Led by the legendary Voulkos, whose classes at Otis Art Institute were a magnet for adventuresome artists such as Paul Soldner, John Mason and Ken Price, this group turned the craft of ceramics inside out. They transformed clay into a medium as expressive as paint, while not completely divorcing form from its function.

A scrappy vigor characterizes Rothman's early genre-bending works. Some resemble prehistoric Coke bottles, lumpy yet sinuous vessels whose truncated contours would look right at home in the hand of a Neanderthal. Others have surfaces that could be the offspring of meteorites and tire treads, cut and pasted together like Cubist collages. And a few are as mysterious as barnacle-encrusted antiquities plucked from the sea.

"Sumo Man" (1959) stands out because of its size and oddity. Balancing on one leg and lifting the other, this 4-foot-tall figure is the missing link that unites carved wood totems from the Pacific Northwest and German Neo-Expressionist sculpture from the 1980s. Its crudely painted surface adds to its raw power. Nevertheless, most of Rothman's pieces from this time are elegant, in a strange, primal way. They embody a sense of casual rightness common to much great art.

One highlight of his 1960s output is a series of decorative objects and dysfunctional vessels, coated with colorful sand in abstract patterns that resemble drifting clouds, as seen by eyes under the influence of hallucinogens.

Titled unceremoniously "Sky Jar," "Sky Pot" and "Sky Sculpture," some of these hefty tabletop objects could function as jars, pots or vases. But the openings of others have been sealed off and their 3-D forms flattened, like tin cans ready for recycling.

The majority balance on stout, often asymmetrical stems and suggest secular monstrances or Buddhist ritual objects.Many give the effect of two-sided paintings, or gigantic coins mounted for display.

A streak of loopy gigantism runs through Rothman's oeuvre, and many of his strongest works appear to be bigger than their actual dimensions. For the most part, however, Rothman hides his mastery of scale in lowbrow humor. For example, "Footed Baroque Bowl" (1962) is a Sasquatch-size serving dish, and "Drink Me" (1964) is a garish cartoon of a chalice that's adorned with a smiling figure whose ceramic breasts are more daunting than anything made of silicone.

The show-stopping masterpiece is "Tiki Up" (1967), a monumental version of the souvenir cups filled with potent cocktails at South Seas-themed bars. Here Rothman fuses his love of gritty primal gusto with his equal and opposite attraction to slick Pop style. Flagrant bad taste and formal refinement make for strange -- but fun -- bedfellows.

These two aspects take more restrained form in Rothman's celebrated "Ritual Vessels" series. Made between 1976 and 1983, 14 are on view. They fall into four groups: Archaic, Classic, Baroque and Modern. Each unique piece compresses suggestive shapes and textures into a functional serving dish that is at once hilarious and menacing. Their metallic surfaces, peculiar appendages and funky bases unleash a wallop of visual energy that gives way to long-lasting fascination.

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