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Tim Hawkinson
installation view at the Whitney Museum, 2005

A Robert Arneson self portrait -- Benicia Bench (1991), courtesy George Adams Gallery

Robert Arneson
Finger Plate
ca. 1965
"Arneson and the Object"
George Adams Gallery

Robert Arneson
Ronny Portable

Robert Arneson
Oh, Danny Boy

Robert Arneson
Eye Screw

Robert Arneson
Homage to Philip Guston, 1913-1980

Kim Krans
The Secrets! The Spears!
DCKT Contemporary

Kim Krans

Kim Krans
No Name Ocean

21st-Century Funk
by N. F. Karlins

Tim Hawkinson's mid-career retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Feb. 11-May 29, 2005, is filled with ingenious whiz-bangs, both gargantuan and tiny, and almost all based on the artist's own body in some way. He created the drawing Bathtub Generated Contour Lace by combining serial images of himself in the tub, as the level of black ink-coated water gradually rose around his body. It brought to mind how often art has invaded the bathroom, especially how sculptors have used bathroom fixtures in their work.

Thinking about Hawkinson's bathtub (or Rachel Whiteread's or any number of others) brings back memories of Robert Arneson's California Funk Art toilets and how subversive they were in the 1960s, as were the soft, melting ones by Claes Oldenburg, one of Arneson's favorite artists.

Arneson's affinity for everyday objects, and his use of the body, is what makes his ceramic sculptures work so well. The handsome exhibition, "Arneson and the Object," currently ending its run at George Adams Gallery, Jan. 6-Feb. 26, 2005, doesn't include any toilet sculptures, but it does have a notable selection of sculptures and drawings. The show is organized by Leo G. Mazow, curator of American art at the Palmer Museum of Art at Pennsylvania State University, where it first appeared.

Robert Arneson (1930-92), inspired by Peter Voulkos, produced some of the first non-functional, purely sculptural, West Coast ceramics. His wildly expressionistic handling was an excellent match for his sarcastic, at times caustic, sense of humor. His Finger Plate (1965) has a disembodied finger streaking a serpentine line through a luscious glaze. His pieces are masterfully crafted but always have the human touch, specifically his touch, in them.

Arneson walked the line where good taste melts into bad, always displaying his absurdist sense of humor as he went along. Many of his works deal with political issues or politicians. He acknowledged President Ronald Reagan as the ultimate communicator by portraying him with his head growing out of a television in Ronny Portable from 1986.

One disappointment occurred when Arneson's commissioned public memorial to slain San Francisco Mayor George Moscone was rejected as tasteless. Oh, Danny Boy (1983), a related piece, is being shown for the first time. The mayor and Harvey Milk, a city supervisor and gay activist, were shot to death by Dan White, over a city appointment dispute. Arneson's glazed ceramic features a gun with a bullet bursting from the cylinder that can be cranked, turning the piece into a music box that plays the Irish folk tune, Danny Boy. That's one way to handle a tragedy, literally and figuratively; yet grafting black humor onto it, in this case, still leaves the tragedy smoldering underneath.

More compelling are Arneson's takes on the art scene. His Eye Screw (1971), a common tool used for framing art, is super-sized in ceramic with a white glaze with dashes of color. Its title proudly proclaims the body as Arneson's inspiration. That's no surprise, of course, considering that his own head appears in the majority of his works, such as Potted Flower Heads (1991), in which three of his jolly bearded faces sprout from a pot.

"Arneson and the Object," however, focuses on the artist's use of inanimate objects, and also includes works that make reference to other artists. He made more than 80 pieces concerning Jackson Pollock, including bookends referencing Pollock's death in the current show. Like the bookends, not every piece about other artists is celebratory, but an examination of their shortcomings as well as their successes. Perhaps his most successful piece made to honor another artist is the pair of gigantic Guston-pink glazed shoes of Homage to Philip Guston, 1913-1980 from 1980.

Drawings like Man with a Board on his Head (1990), the man being Arneson again, this time in conte and oil stick, are both sensual and brutal. Some of the whiplash lines are reminiscent of Oldenburg's hand, while others are so forcefully slashed across the paper, small surface tears result. Arneson was asked once why he used and distorted his head so much. He said that "It's theater. I can act out a part, make an ass of myself without abusing anyone else."

Robert Arneson lived one exuberant life, questioning his surroundings, the art world, and politics as he went. This show offers a first-rate selection of his work, about thirty good reasons why he's missed.

*            *            *
Landscapes crafted from an exciting combination of materials, both humble and otherwise, fill the first solo exhibition in New York by Kim Krans. Amusingly titled ". . .but whatever it was, it came out of the trees," the show is on view at DCKT Contemporary in Chelsea, Jan 20-Feb. 26, 2005.

Krans' landscapes range in size from about 4 x 4 ft. to 6 x 12 ft., and are loaded with a variety of engrossing surface textures. All her works are on paper, usually several pieces cobbled together, and date to 2004.

In the mystical, gray realm of The Secrets! The Spears!, oil, acrylic and graphite form the under-drawing of the never-never-land locale, embellished with bits of embossed paper, reptilian in design, sequins, small pearl-like beads for primordial eggs, and strips of black synthetic fur. Pushing a drawing into three dimensions with this thrilling agglomeration of "stuff" nicely walks the line between the wild and the tamed, the earthy and the spiritual.

Krans' Moonshiner has small leaf cut-outs, large swaths of sandpaper, tissue paper, and glitter added to oil, acrylic, and graphite on paper. She allows globs of glue to pool and contribute another kind of surface element.

Krans sketches her landscape elements, sometimes creating shading and perspective with labor intensive drawing, and then layers with deft arrangements of practically anything -- copper foil, leather, feathers, gold leaf, etc. Prices range from $3,500 to $12,000.

An MFA candidate at Hunter College in New York, Krans is definitely an artist to watch.

N. F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.