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Ceramics: Such fragile objects

November 11, 2005|Christopher Miles | Special to The Times

If you're looking for a younger artist whose work taps into legacies of West Coast ceramics, you might need to head east or, for the next few weeks, to Santa Monica, where New York-based Kathy Butterly offers a dozen small ceramic vessels, as well as drawings, at Shoshana Wayne Gallery.

In the late 1980s, Butterly studied at UC Davis with Robert Arneson, the Northern California ceramics guru and Funk artist. You can see his influence in her work, with its goofy mix of torqued, raw physicality and doting attention to detail.

Precisely awkward, Butterly's ceramics have a dazzling, funny and sometimes poignant ability to extend the long tradition of the ceramic vessel as stand-in for the body. Or at least they effectively prompt viewers to project that upon them.

They begin as simple bulbous or cylindrical vase forms that the artist squeezes, squishes, twists and throws off their axes. Small additions are made -- underdeveloped appendages, odd accouterments, decorative flourishes -- using any manner of process. The pieces are perched on specially made bases or feet that suggest a melange of architectural styles -- from great civilizations past, utopian modernism and its cheesy derivations.

Glazes handled in a dozen or more firings define elements within the works and heighten their decorative quality. Surfaces suggest satin, moss, plastic, leather, flesh and, well, glazed ceramic.

In addition to Arneson, Butterly's work also shows the influence of Ron Nagle, whose tiny, ultra-slick cups and bottles have the presence of larger objects of desire that have been distilled down or stunted. There are hints too of Adrian Saxe, a master of a rococo garishness that is self-celebratory and self-effacing, and Ken Price, with his gift for locating humorous pathos in heavily abstracted form.

For all their hints of vulnerability, the works of these other artists have a certain swagger and confidence about them; Butterly's seem to be trying to hold it together. Although made of enduring materials, her small pieces suggest the stability of a souffle, a house loose on its foundation or someone trying to walk on heels for the first time.

That might suggest a gender difference between Butterly's work and that of her West Coast predecessors. It's certainly worth considering her in relation to such artists as Lynda Benglis, whose fluid forms in varied materials from the early '70s play primordial ooze to Butterly's more evolved but still tenuous entities. Though much rougher, Benglis' ceramics share the comic vulnerability Butterly's deal in. Is this a gender thing? Maybe. But it's also likely a generational shift, in part jump-started by Benglis and other women artists toward exploring the body and attempts to dress it, contain it and know it -- heroically, absurdly, insecurely and theatrically. Titles such as "All Corked Up and No Place to Go" and "Teenage Wasteland" echo the playfulness and the blend of flamboyance and inhibition, glamour and awkwardness.

Butterly's pieces are, after all, grand impostors -- character actors offering, through their appearance, interpretations of human flaws and fragilities and the ways we try to maintain composure and compensate. The best of them are so effective that they evoke empathy. They leave you wanting to take them home, for all the reasons you might want to pocket a Faberge egg, or invite a friend in need for a cup of coffee.

Shoshana Wayne Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 453-7535, through Dec. 3. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.shoshanawayne.com

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Do these small bits add to a whole?

Assorted legacies find fresh interpretation and expansion in Eric Zammitt's works at Newspace. The first thing you see when walking into the gallery is a breadbox-size object, carefully machined from metal and plastic, with a contoured wooden handle. Whether it's an abstract form with industrial aesthetics or an industrial product that would please a formalist remains unclear until you peruse the exhibition checklist. There it's revealed to be a tool of the artist's creation, a custom-made sander/polisher essential in his work.

Such fetishistic displays of the artist's tools often get in the way, steal the show or, worse, attempt to shore up weak work. Here the device simply helps relieve some head-scratching while looking at Zammitt's bewildering art. He begins with thin strips of Plexiglas in more colors than you could imagine. These are laminated into finely striated slabs that are crosscut into strips that are rearranged into intricate abstract compositions and again laminated into slabs. Polished glass-smooth, they hang like paintings on the wall.

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