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Robert Arneson: Playing Dirty Review

Artnews, January 2013

"Aptly titled 'Playing Dirty,' this bawdy exhibition of the late Robert Arneson’s small early works provided ample evidence of the earthy, sardonic humor that this pioneering Bay Area Funk artist injected into his stoneware vessels. Infusing the raw irregularity of traditional Japanese tea-ceremony utensils with the zany smut of MAD magazine, Arneson reveled in jokes rhyming bodily openings with spigots designed for transferring liquids from one container to another, often using the unexpected surfaces of glazing and firing to mirror the physical functions evoked. The blatantly sexual Untitled Ceramic (with Red Orifice), 1964, for example, resembles a squatting frog and is topped with a vaginal slit adorned with a splotchy, turquoise-flecked maroon glaze.

Refined crudity also characterizes four luster-glazed riffs on pewter teapots, all made in 1969. In Golden Rod, a fully erect penis emerges from a thatch of serpentlike pubic hair, forming a spout from which liquids can emerge. Resting on eight little glazed legs beautifully dappled in turquoise and pale green, the subtler Spiked Tea has a shape like a deflating swollen sneaker. Tea Is a Beverage Made from the Dried Leaves of the Thea Sinensis Plant sprouts multiple nozzles that bring to mind a cartoon version of a space creature bristling with tentacles. Later in his career, Arneson lost interest in the chemical transformations of firing and glaze and began to sculpt illustrative, caricatured self-portraits and depictions of friends and famous artists. The beginning of his transition from classical pottery vessels to the uproariously nasty works that made his name—most notably a series of life-size ceramic toilets not on view—was captured by this show. These interesting hybrids of studio pottery and sexual representation were an unusual pleasure to behold."

—Elisabeth Kley

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