Robert Arneson: Playing Dirty

Robert Arneson was not your average American sculptor. Born in California in 1930, his early life was spent as a cartoonist. While this might not be considered as part of his training – he did later study at the California College of Arts – it would nevertheless go on to inform his idiosyncratic, irreverent and droll approach to art.
The Allan Stone Gallery in New York has launched a timely exhibition, twenty years after his death, focusing on 25 key works of art that were produced early on in Arneson’s life.
Playing Dirty exhibits both paintings and sculptures, but it is the latter which is perhaps the most interesting, given what the artist did for ceramics from the sixties onwards.
Along with other artists from the funk movement – in general a reaction against abstract expressionism, with the ceramics side specifically rebelling against utilitarian and decorative ideas – Arneson began to challenge the establishment.
These non-functional clay works took ordinary objects and, with wild imagination, repackaged them into comical and nightmarish versions of themselves. Spiked Tea (1969), for example, is evidently a teapot, but equally, it could pass for a football boot or some odd insect-like creature from another world.
The reference to “playing dirty” is an interesting one. From a conventional point of view, his attitude to ceramics certainly nicked and scuffed at the pillars holding up the orthodoxy of the time, which some would say was akin to boorish behaviour.
However, a more accurate understanding of this insinuation is that he was simply a pioneer. What others saw as an affront to the long-held traditions that governed the practice of clay is now judged to have been groundbreaking.
He was postulating new questions to derive new answers. As the world continues to spin in perpetuity, so does man’s image of it – we must keep moving forward. This wonderful exhibition is testament to that. Arneson was a progressive, and a very funny one.
Robert Arneson: Playing Dirty at The Allan Stone Gallery runs until December 21st 2012.
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