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World in fragile replica

February 06, 2009|Leah Ollman

Now playing at the Frank Lloyd Gallery: an Oscar-worthy performance by an inert substance in a sculpture role. In Richard Shaw's fabulous show, clay takes on a panoply of guises -- cigar box, paintbrush, animal skull, dollar bill -- and plays them all brilliantly. Under Shaw's direction, clay is the consummate actor, channeling identities with such conviction that we forget, momentarily, what's real and what's a different kind of real.

The Bay Area artist has been creating illusionistic still-life sculpture for decades, porcelain renderings of things at once precious and pedestrian. The new work (most of it dated 2009, remarkably) is fresh as ever -- smart, technically stunning, in turns reverent and irreverent.

"Pastel Cabin on Paint Box," just inside the gallery door, gives an extravagant hint of the riches beyond but could constitute a show in itself. Shaw has constructed a dense little hommage to art-making. The small structure is built, log-cabin style, out of pastel crayons, its pitched roof a splayed-open watercolor box, tinted with use. The cabin sits atop a brown case used for painting supplies that bears its own daubed surface. A few stray pastel sticks are strewn nearby, as well as a small paper plate, its corrugated ribs rubbed with pigment.

The entire ensemble is formed out of slip-cast porcelain, fired and glazed. Shaw makes silk-screen-type transfers of labels and such that give objects an even more palpable authenticity: Here, the business card of a coffee shop and a snippet of a printed horoscope are adhered to the paint case.

The verism dazzles. Beyond the sophisticated trickery, however, there is wisdom, humor and tenderness. The house, the box and even the little paper plate are all vessels of one sort or another, a subtle nod to ceramics tradition. (Many works by Shaw conceal actual jar-like hollows within.) The cabin, a sculpture sitting on its humble pedestal, also reads as a metaphor for the artist's self-made world, a shelter and refuge shaped by hand. At the same time, it's all an assemblage of everyday stuff from the studio, the product, perhaps, of playful procrastination.

In more than 20 other marvelous works, Shaw stacks books, teacups and more paint boxes. He builds houses of playing cards, and lays out a collection of sea shells. He creates and re-creates several detached book covers, personalized with bookplates, library tags and identification stamps. Autobiographical allusions pepper the work but don't necessarily announce themselves as anything other than touches of specificity, giving the objects the patina of real-world wear.

Shaw has comrades within the modern ceramics world -- Robert Hudson and Marilyn Levine, to name a few -- but even more allies in other media and other times. In one piece, he pays direct homage to the personalized Pop of Jasper Johns, rendering in clay the paintbrush-stuffed Savarin coffee can Johns painted and cast in bronze. Throughout, Shaw's autobiographical paper trail of labels, scribbled notes, price tags and other ephemera echoes the work of 19th century American trompe l'oeil painters John Haberle, John Frederick Peto and William Harnett, and before them, the Dutch letter-rack painters of the 1600s.

However laced with private clues, Shaw's work remains utterly legible, accessible, amusing. It memorializes the material residue of life and honors the tools used along the way. It's sly and it's sweet. It's a stellar performance.

Frank Lloyd Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 264-3866, through Feb. 14. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www .franklloyd.com.

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The boundary here is nebulous

Varvara Shavrova's first U.S. show is plagued by disproportionality. The artist's background and her intentions for this project are rich and compelling, the work markedly less so.

Shavrova was born and educated in Moscow, moved to England in 1989 (dividing her time between studios in London and Ballycastle, Ireland), and four years ago relocated to Beijing. Borders, shifting landscapes and cultural collision are the stuff of her everyday life as well as her paintings, photographs and video work. At Morono Kiang Gallery, she presents two short video loops distilled from footage shot on or around the border between Russia and China and eight large paintings based on stills from the videos.

Shot from moving trains and buses, the videos are impressionistic records of the border region's landscape and industry, its gorgeous, frigid stillness and its commercial bustle. As is true elsewhere around the globe, there is no real dividing line between the two nations other than that contrived by politics and culture. This unstated truth packs the imagery with social and economic significance, but it doesn't give it any visual heft. Southern Californians are fluent in the ironies choking our own border with Mexico, but the subtle signs and symbols of the Russia-China divide are mostly lost in translation.

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