Character Studies: Clay from the Collection

  • Glazed still-life sculpture of a blue-eyed, white donkey head on a stake, looking up. A grey rabbit, birds, and dripping fruit—including apples, oranges, and a pear—are arranged haphazardly at the base, suggesting they are dead.

    Monica Van Den Dool
    Heavy Load, 2014
    Ceramic and mixed media
    Courtesy of the artist

  • A white ceramic plate. On it are curious looking eyes, which resemble a human's eyes. Although it may seem like they are devoid of emotion, upon closer inspection they seem to be staring into one's soul, contemplating the nature of it.

    Lynn Horseman Leeson
    Small Eye Plate, 1976
    Glazed ceramic, found objects
    2 ⅛ × 7 inches
    Gift of Jerry Lutovich, M.D.
    Photo by Douglas Sandberg

  • A porcelain sculpture consisting of various objects resembling a human. A can is the head, a black coiled tube is the neck, a guitar is the body, a bowl are hips, and the legs and arms are represented through a piece of wood and skinny metal tube.

    Richard Shaw
    As Is, 1998
    3 × 14 ½ × 21 inches
    Porcelain with decal overglazes 
    Gifts of Deborah and Andy Rappaport

  • Richard Shaw
    Handle This, 2000
    37 ¼  × 20 ½  × 9 ¾ inches
    Porcelain with decal overglazes 
    Gifts of Deborah and Andy Rappaport

  • Stan Welsh
    Progress Report, 2003
    27 ½ × 18 × 17 inches
    Terracotta clay and glaze
    Museum purchase with funds contributed by the Collection Committee

    The Bay Area has long been an important center for pioneering clay movements. In the 1960s, ceramic artists radically rethought traditional approaches to ceramics and the history of clay as a functional, vessel-based art form. Pioneers such as Peter Voulkos, Robert Arneson, and Viola Frey brought expressive potential and experimental techniques to traditional methods of clay sculpting, ultimately transforming the field. 

    The ceramic sculptures in this exhibition are wildly inventive expressions of the human figure; they range from earthy abstractions to larger-than-life busts and whimsical characters. The exhibition draws from the Museum’s collection and also includes two loans by Bay Area artists from a new generation who are continuing this region’s legacy of prominence and innovation in the medium. 

    Character Studies features ceramic figurative sculptures created in Northern California during the last forty years. It brings together revolutionary practices in clay from an earlier generation with shifts and experimentation taking place today. The figurative works from the end of the twentieth century convey strong statements about government, the human body, and environmental and spiritual concerns that are intrinsically linked to that historical moment. Today, ceramic artists are again challenging the boundaries of the medium, marking a shift in the content and aesthetics of clay sculpture.  

    The works on view vary greatly in form—from Stan Welsh’s satirical heads and Viola Frey’s colossal Fire Suit (1983) to Stephen DeStaebler’s preternatural abstraction of the body and Wanxin Zhang’s politically charged monumental persona. The exhibition features additional works by permanent collection artists Robert Arneson, Dennis Gallagher, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Danae Mattes, Anthony Natsoulas, Richard Shaw, Peter Vandenberge, and Betty Woodman complemented by a still-life sculpture by Monica Van Den Dool.
    Generously sponsored by Doris and Alan Burgess.