patti warashina: recent works

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Brochure to accompany Warashina's exhibition in the Jundt Galleries at the Jundt Art Museum, Gonzaga University from October 22-December, 2004. The exhibition featured works from the Real Politique series and the Drunken Power series. Essay by Martha Kingsbury.




    Patti Warashina's circus figures are extraordinarily engaging works, involving their viewers and interactingwith them. A synthesis of circus ring and sideshow, they invite visitors to stroll from figure to figure and puzzleout each one. Perched on stands, they meet theiraudience face to face. They are unified by costume andpose like performers in a ring, but like sideshow freaks,they are remarkably varied, and a little comic, weird,and unsettling. Strong Man projects astonishment withthe big exclamation point that replaces his head - mostof his barbells turn out to be bombs with lit fuses. Thevisual pun of bomb with barbell is nearly instantaneous,and he becomes an allegory of mindless force.Allegorical possibilities are rampant in THE CIRCUS butmany are more elusive and complex than Strong Man's.The woman clothed in sun and soot is titled Air Apparentand provokes several understandings. Visually she presentsa burning sun on a sooty polluted figure with wild eyesand hair, and thus a damaged atmosphere is indicated.Verbally, the title puns with "heir apparent" to suggest alegacy to future generations. For art enthusiasts, it alsoloosely puns with Aire de Paris, a work by that exemplaryhumorist of 20th art, Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp'sprecious air of Paris was encapsulated in a glass flaskthat Warashina refers to visually by a similar flask ofprecious unpolluted air.

    Freewheeling imagination and an irrepressible comicspirit have long been characteristics people relish inWarashina's art, characteristics she often links withcontemporary issues as in THE CIRCUS. Her drolleryhas allowed people to feel upbeat while confrontingwhat are, in many cases, rather biting and acerbic propositions. She calls THE CIRCUS "Real Politique" referringto the pri nciple of undisgu ised self-interest. Whi Ie the puns of Air Apparent are styl ishly playfu I, and the faceand hair are droll and bizarre, the meaning they construct is alarming. These little pleasurable jokes alongwith those of other figures, accumulate into a thematic group of female figures presenting issues about theworld's resources - depletion, pollution, imbalances, abuses. Elegant Crow Whisper wears a startlingsaw-blade skirt and saw-blade spurs; the teeny bikini of Zero reveals a target on her stomach, referring tozero population growth. A shooting gallery of ducks is precariously balanced on a submerged mother naturein Sitting Ducks, and the black veil of lines and hooks that shroud the woman's face in Hook Line and Sinkerbring her hapless fish.

    A smaller thematic group relates to control of force and by force: for example, Strong Man, Blow-Back(suggesting, she says, how "the consequences of our actions will come back to bite us"), and WingletAdventure (with a bird and rocket "flying around in the same air space"). Tule Lake Retreat is no resort butone of the camps where West Coast Japanese were incarcerated during WWII. The tower-guard with apompous cigar and arrogant posture draws on standard caricatures ofThe Banker and The Capitalist back then,but this work also draws on Warashina's own lapanese-Arnerican past; she substitutes the better-known trials ofJapanese-Americans in the coastal cities, for the struggles of her own family in Spokane Washington, where shewas born in 1940 and where her dentist father's patients abandoned him during the war. For now, she says, thiswork refers to the savageand intractable persistence of ethnic animosities in our contemporary world.

  • The dreadful and the comic intermingle in THE CIRCUS."Absurd," Warashina says, "absurd and scary." The world itself"is like a circus, like a crazy show." Seen from afar, she says,from the scale of the universe, our human world is like an anthillof manic and demented activities. The circus figures reveal thisdelirium, but they do not succumb to it. Instead they stand withquiet dignity, balancing delicately on their tiny pedestals andgesturing gracefully. They contrast greatly with AlexanderCalder's famous circus from the early 20th century, a zany andribald group of little bent-wire figures. They also differ fromFrench images by Degas, Seurat, Toulouse-Lautrec, full of relishfor the acrobatic movement of circus figures and dancers. Thoseearlier circuses do not project allegorical nuances or invitemoral scrutiny the way Warashina's does. Her figures press usto read and interpret thei r gestures and the objects they hold,which they present to us as calmly as medieval saints displayedtheir emblems in painted altarpieces or in carvings beside thedoors of Chartres Cathedral. Like such venerable figure group-ings, Warashi na's ci rcus figures invite contemplation, standingwatch over an elusive interplay of meaning to which each con-tributes.

    Warashina mentions a 'variety of ancient sculptural figures as inspirations for THE CIRCUS, and also for her2001-2002 figures called MILE POST QUEENS whose innovations she drew upon for THE CIRCUS. Forexample, she has cited Japanese ceramic Haniwa figures, Etruscan statues, Greek caryatids with theirarchitectural functions, and Egyptian statues. In these historical encounters shewas drawn to static, dignified, andpoetic figures, guided by a decade of loss and grief in her own life. Her dear friend and fellow ceramicistHoward Kottler died in 1989. A few years later, Warashina left her position as Professor in the University ofWashington School of Art to be with her husband, ceramicist Robert Sperry who died in 1998. Shortly thereafter,

    her mother died. A ceremonial stillness appeared inWarashina's work as early as 1989, in some little Egyptian-like boats with tiny figures. The slender MILE POSTQUEENS evoked transitions and passage, and even felt tosome like funerary figures. THE CIRCUS returns from thatworld of spirit and myth to the contemporary world, withrobust humor and zany inventiveness. Still, its livelyinterplay is tempered by the chasten ing awareness of deathand transience.

    At the heart of THE CIRCUS may be nostalgia for anotherloss both wrenchingly personal and potentially universal-the loss of the circus itself and an enchanted world of safety,innocence and wonder that it was part of. When Warashinawas a little girl in Spokane, the circus came to town regularly.She says, "Whenever it came, my father always took me; healways bought me a baton with a sparkly end and tassel, ora kewpie doll or something. And we always went to thesideshow first." But her father died when she was ten. Theworld's show goes on and on, though the ringmaster now isonly a little dog. "As though," she says, "the world is madness;and who is in charge? It might as well be your DOG, youknow?"


    After THE CIRCUS, Warashina made a series of SAKE SETS. This designation evokes her Japanese heritage,while the sets also playoff American teapots with matching cups and a tray. Each set forms its own littleworld of connected figures and props like a miniature circus group. THE SAKE SET themes have much incommon with THE CIRCUS and so do their satirical wit and gleeful fantasy. A nude female figure (sake vessel)among bare branches and tree stumps (cups) suggests environmental depletion; a bird (vessel) balancing itsegg precariously on its back among treestumps seems to image nature's fragility. Aman with bulging eyes (vessel) is panicked at arocket heading for him, identical to his ownrockets (cups). Other worldly motifs are new:e.g. the raucous bad judgment of two menfrolicking in an oil slick; the breathlessexcitementof new commerce and prosperity imaged in aChinese woman among stacks of coins; and anominous submarine lurking among lotus blossomcups, image of hidden armaments throughoutthe planet.

    There is no trace of funeral melancholy in THESAKE SETS. In their bold color, whimsy, andtopicality they suggest a return to the outerworld and also a revisiting of an earlier time inthe artist's creativity, around 1970 when sheand her colleagues were in the exciting forefront of sweeping changes in ceramics. Artists working in claythen felt trapped in several dichotomies: it was widely asserted that they should make utilitarian vessels andrelated craft objects, not "high art" sculpture; should be devoted to the nature of clay and firing processes,avoiding anything "artificial" or mechanical; and should be guided by venerable traditions not by personalexpressiveness. Many found this a choking set of limitations. They responded with industrial glazes, paint,and mixed media; they drew upon autobiography, contemporary painting, and the most outrageous andquestionable aspects of popular art, commercial objects, and vernacular practices. Pop Art and Funk Artwere their new styles. Among them, Warashina often directed her work against gender stereotypes and sexdiscrimination as well as against the esthetic rigidities of ceramics itself.

    Thus, a special element of humor in THE SAKE SETSaddresses ceramics itself. In the sixties and seventies,many ceramicists had made parodies of cups and teapots, to travesty the utilitarian vessels that dominatedand even defined the field. Patti Warashina made far more radical inventions then (including clay chairs andbig machine-like structures) but now she revisits that era with her own parodies of vessels, an amusing homageto the history of her generation and fellow radicals like Howard Kottler.

    THE SAKE SETS also reengage with genderissues, in a gentler way than formerly. Ascircuses lead back to her father and to thefascinating public world, so the sake sets leadback to her mother and to a do