Robert Arneson

News from the art world, caught on KQED in San Francisco yesterday: a story about an exhibition at UC Davis (the ag campus of the UC, not far from the state capital, Sacramento — but much more than an ag school). Featuring works by a group of 12 UCD artists that included Robert Arneson, with his celebrated ceramic sculptures “Johns”, funky (and calculatedly offensive) take-offs on toilets and urinals.

The UCD official story, characteristically cautious:

The Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at the University of California, Davis, announces the four opening exhibitions that will inaugurate its new, architecturally significant museum building beginning Sunday, Nov. 13.

… Drawn from the collections of major museums and private collections nationwide as well as UC Davis’ permanent collection, Out Our Way presents 240 paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints. Characteristic of the majority is an instinctive embrace of the vernacular and the desire to ingeniously transform the stuff of daily life.

… Represented in Out Our Way are the 12 artists [Richard L.] Nelson hired during his tenure (1952-70) [as director of the museum]: Wayne Thiebaud, Robert Arneson, William T. Wiley, Roy De Forest, Roland Petersen, Manuel Neri, Ralph Johnson, Ruth Horsting, Daniel Shapiro, Tio Giambruni, Jane Garritson and John Baxter.

(Thiebaud deserves a posting of his own.)

On Arneson, from Wikipedia:

Robert Carston Arneson (September 4, 1930 – November 2, 1992) was an American sculptor and professor of ceramics in the Art department at UC Davis for nearly three decades.

[Arneson was very much a northern Californian. Born and raised in Benicia, educated in the Bay Area, and then working and teaching at UCD.]

… Starting in the 1960s, Arneson and several other California artists began to abandon the traditional manufacture of functional items in favor of using everyday objects to make confrontational statements. The new movement was dubbed Funk Art, and Arneson is considered the father of the ceramic Funk movement.

Arneson used common objects in his work, which included both ceramic sculptures and drawings. He appeared in many of his own pieces — as a chef, a man picking his nose, a jean-jacketed hipster in sunglasses.

From a review in the SF Chronicle by Charles Desmarais on the 13th:

The most important works in “Out Our Way,” from an art historical point of view, are the 10 extant “Johns” (plus a drawing of the now-lost 11th) by Arneson. Full-scale ceramic take-offs on toilets and urinals — bloated, glazed and inscribed with sexual reference and scatological scrawlings — they were Arneson’s breakout works. He tells the story, recounted in the exhibition text, of being asked to join a major show of sculpture from throughout California. “I could see myself, Bob Arneson, in between John Mason and Peter Voulkos, and I would be just a junior version of those two guys and just a little pisser.” He considered the most ubiquitous large ceramic form in American daily life, and its connection to avant-garde art via Marcel Duchamp; maybe he also thought of Jasper Johns, one of the hottest artists of that moment.

The “Johns” are, in the way of bloody horror films, repulsively enthralling objects. Turds of clay, squeezed between greedy fingers, top “The Pisser” (1963) where the flush mechanism might have been. “Toilet: Life Size” (1964) is entirely smeared with a gloppy brown glaze. A grandly gross “Throne” (1964) stands nearly 6 feet tall.


Arneson, “Pisser”

Disappointingly, this unique assembly — it’s the first time that all 11 works have been in the same exhibition — is not shown to best advantage. I had been excited to see how they would be presented (I engineered the acquisition of “The Pisser” by Laguna Art Museum many years ago). But they are scattered through the larger exhibition, with the effect that they sully the unrelated works around them. Worse, we don’t get to see them together, and there is no catalog to document this important showing.

Women’s bodies are not well treated. Here’s Arneson’s “John Figure” (1965): a life-sized toilet bowl with a female torso for a tank, one breast as the flusher handle:


And, even more unnervingly, “Herinal” (1965-71), seen here in full (the flusher handle is a penis) and in close-up:



Compare these to the “Misogynistic urinals and sinks” in my 1/3/16 posting. Those more recent works, by hands other than Arneson’s, were designed as working bathroom fixtures, so they are even more disturbing than Arneson’s art objects.

On the art-historical place of Arneson’s early ceramics, including the “Johns”, in Gareth Clark’s review of a 2013 exhibition “Robert Arneson’s Early Countercultural Ceramics” at David Zwirner in NYC:

Throughout the 1960s, Arneson produced highly charged and highly sexualized work that stood in stark contrast to the Minimalist constructions made by his contemporaries in New York. Drawn from public and private collections, the exhibition includes roughly 20 works that clearly show Arneson’s artistic development and also prefigure his later work, which delves even further into the topics of identity and the self, as well as political upheaval and war.

… [in response to another reviewer] It … does not “debase Pop,” it is anti-Pop, taking everything about the latter that was clean and making it dirty, everything that was slick and making it, not just grubby and handmade, but crudely hobbyist rather than manufactured. Stylistically, Pop took a high road and Funk the low one.

A huge part of Arneson’s work was self-portraiture, all of it wry and much of it playful caricature (he was not above representing himself as a literal dickhead). A nice collection of photographs of Arneson and examples of his self-ceramics can be found on the verisimitudo site. From which, these two examples, “self” and “California Artist”:



(Note: the 12 artists in the UCD show were united by their standing apart from the work then current in NYC, but they in no sense formed an artistic “school” or “movement”. Arneson and Thibaud are surely the most famous of the group, and they could hardly be more different, though they both focused much of their art on common, everyday objects.)

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