When the Bellevue Art Museum ran short of funds and closed in 2003, the curtain also fell on a just-opened show by Seattle ceramic sculptor Patty Warashina. It’s only now, seven years later, that Seattle audiences get to see an entirely new body of work by the woman considered the dean of Northwest ceramic art. KUOW reviewer, Gary Faigin, joins us with his observations on her current exhibition in Pioneer Square.
There are two sorts of women in Patty Warashina’s large, all-girl exhibition at Howard House this month: The Frazzled, and the Beatific. The artist gets credit for attempting to deal with such a range of experience and response, but it is clearly the sculptured, smiling women on pedestals, rather than the linear, neurasthenic females depicted in a series of colored prints, who are the more successful artistically. Warashina’s strength is her mastery of expressive, beautifully-crafted form, and her two-dimensional work does not rise to the same level.
Warashina’s Frazzled women have clearly been reading the daily papers and worrying about the human condition. They are depicted with wiry, terminally tangled hair, wrinkled brows, and general air of fatigue, sexual longing, and anxiety. Like all the female personifications in the show, they bear faces distinctly reminiscent of the artist. Though not without humor, the pictures are decidedly downbeat in mood. The solitary figures are more or less the passive, unsmiling observers of cartoonish, threatening submarines, warships, and airplanes, or the dispassionate witnesses of their own unfulfilled desires. One woman holds an umbrella like a phallus alongside her naked groin, while another greets with upraised arms a red, male-like phantom thrusting out from between her legs, a nod to the classic image of sexual menace titled "Puberty" by Edvard Munch, where a much younger girl vigorously defends herself against a similar tumescent shape. In the image,"Lotus Bait," a hidden, mermaid-like Warashina figure uses a floating lotus flower in an attempt to lure a passing ship, but the ship appears alarmingly similar to smoking military vessels elsewhere in the show, suggesting a likely outcome far from romantic.
Warashina’s Beatific women, aside from the fact that they also vaguely resemble the artist, are something else entirely. These large, sculpted figures are as celebratory and sensually appealing as any created by the artist over her multi-decade career. They inhabit a world of pleasure, wonder, and play. They are childlike in nature, while at the same time possessed of a mature, otherworldly wisdom and serenity.
Warashina has created many remarkable groups of ceramic figures, but with these new works she strikes a particularly effective balance between symbol and substance, form and expression. Perhaps it’s the simplicity of these figures that is part of their appeal, much less laden with textures, exaggerations, and accessories than has at other times been the case.
That’s particularly true of the most straightforward, unadorned statue in the entire exhibition, suitably entitled, "Rapture." In the work, a pale, nude female sits with her legs extended and arms back, her head tilted upwards to get a better view of an orange, clay ball dangling from a wire a few feet above. While her proportions are those of a child, her head is that of an adult, and she stares at the ball with a look of fondness and calm. Her limbs are minimally, but convincingly, rendered like gently tapering tubes, a stylization shared with her torso and breasts. Her white skin is subtly tinted along the edges with a matte orange glaze, and the same color appears on her eyes and lips eyes, all meant to suggest the colored light of the suspended star or planet above. The statue’s hair, always an important feature in a Warashina figure, is gathered up into two pigtails, rendered simply as two large egg shapes, like rabbit ears or the black circles sported by Mickey Mouse. An orange disk painted on the forehead suggests either the shadow of the star or a suggestion of the mystical third eye, symbol of a state of enlightenment. Enlightenment indeed; Warashina’s girl/woman seems content to simply cherish the moment, inhabiting a state where desire and fulfillment are in perfect equilibrium – like a newlywed, or someone recently cured of a disease.
The rest of Warashina’s clay figures are much more active, but no less blissed-out. Some swim with fishes or penguins, some converse with birds or each other, and some play with dogs; all seem to inhabit a world where ordinary rules are suspended and both innocence and sexuality can be indulged. Several observers have been reminded of the so-called Paradise panel in Bosch’s Garden of Earthly delights, where a mysterious group of nude figures frolic in a stylized Eden, and I agree. The antic figures of local artist Joe Max Emminger, a painter of dream-like human/animal romps, also come to mind.
But Warashina has other aesthetic concerns specific to her own artistic trajectory, and these give another layer of rich visual texture to the show. The late painter Mary Henry showed at the same gallery, and there is more than a little reminder of her geometric abstractions in the bold shapes and primary colors used as a surface treatment for Warashina’s figures. Tidy stripes, rectangles, bands, and arcs of black, yellow, blue, and red adorn the voluptuous surfaces of these women, setting up a lively tension between two very opposite realms, but it gets more interesting than that.
Warashina has imagined a set of witty associations so that her painted elements seem much less arbitrary than they otherwise might. Where her figures swim with lively, sculpted fishes, the dark geometric bands are used to suggest waves and water, an illusion so successful that several seem almost wet below the implied water line, and dry above. On one figure the same orange that stands for water also suggests a striped bathing suit, and a bathing cap above.
Where there is no possible literal association for the applied, painted geometry, Warashina takes another tack. On the charming girl-meets-bird figure, "Not You Again?" - also notable for its use of a curved plate of wall-mounted steel used to suggest a cloud – the grid-like orange glaze has an identity independent of the figure. Warashina instead chooses to acknowledge the point of origin of geometric abstraction in general, using a painterly vocabulary suggestive of the cubist experiments of Picasso and Braque, with their shaded treatment of tonal edges and planes, and their combination of rectangles and curves. But a second look reveals that things aren’t entirely arbitrary, after all: lines and tones divide the breasts into a square version of the Yin/Yang, and free-floating curves suggest the anatomical forms beneath. Clever, and effective.
The good girl/bad girl tension set up by the alteration of prints and figures provides the plot point for one of Warashina’s most effective pieces. Here a serene, tubular women, her horizontal pigtail doubling as a wave, has an unwelcome companion, perhaps torn from the troubled world on the wall: a tiny scowling head, mounted on a pole, shouting and trying to get the woman’s attention. Her eyes have shifted in its direction, but her sweet smile is unchanged – for the moment. Like the cycle of pleasure and pain, engagement in the material world and retreat into the spirit, certain conflicts will never be resolved, a dilemma that Warashina uses as a central goad to her work.