Even at the end of his life, ceramist Robert Arneson had the ability to portray himself as he did in his prime: as a wry, clever, painfully self-aware bundle of contradictions who could both laugh and wince at his own mortality. That seriocomic quality, which flowed from the depths of his being through his fingertips and out into clay, shines through in this exhibit of bronze self-portraits and drawings, made in the last two years of his life, which ended in 1992 following a long battle with cancer. He was 62.
If you arrive, as I did, half expecting to revel (and perhaps raise a toast) to the artist’s grinning counterculture visage, you’ll quickly be brought up short by the pathos Arneson injected into the face he knew best. For this show, gallerist Brian Gross has created something of a multi-level set piece. It consists of floor, wall and pedestal-mounted busts, a pair of masks, two magnificent drawings and a bronze brick (inscribed with the artist’s name) being laid to rest by a hand that we can safely assume is Arneson’s own. These collected works don’t bring Arneson’s corporeal presence into the room, but arranged as they are, like an elegant theatrical backdrop in the gallery’s main room, they come close. The show packs a wallop out of proportion to its compact size.
After he moved away from Funk, Arneson was always about deep feeling, and every scintilla of every object in this show seems to burst with it. The nubs of his unshaven stubble, the lunar landscape of his balding head, the deep creases in his forehead and the grimacing mouth on the cantilevered bust titled Head with a Little Pain shows Arneson at his most expressive — microscopically examining the wear and tear exacted by time and disease on his own mortal coil.
Yet even when he took a subtractive approach, as he did with Portrait at 62 years, a smooth, alabaster-white bust, the effect is the same. Stare into the black void of its eye sockets and you feel what the artist must have felt when he inscribed 62 hatch marks on the pedestal. Then, look into mirror-covered eyes of the devil mask on the opposite wall, and you see pieces of yourself. Arneson pictured mortality with the same brutal clarity as he did everything else, from the callow hypocrisy of politics to the horrors of nuclear war.
None of which stopped him from creating sardonic send-ups of his own likeness; he made hundreds of them over the course of a career that defined him as America’s preeminent ceramic sculptor. He installed a light bulb into a perforated bust of himself and called it Head Lamp, and with White Mask he projected himself back in time, re-creating the cool swagger (replete with mirrored shades) that the world came to know after the Moscone kerfuffle propelled him to infamy.
Arneson may have been stung by the controversy, but he reacted by parodying the fiasco with Bowee Wowee, a 1982 portrait of himself as a cigar-chomping shaggy dog, which you can see here, surrounded by pieces of its own excrement, all cast in bronze.
Turning failure to his advantage was an Arneson trademark. Once, in 1966, when a piece split down the middle in the kiln, he put it back together using a bunch of marbles to fuse the two pieces. He titled it Self Portrait of the Artist Losing his Marbles. As he told Ken Kelley in an interview in SF Focus: “One could see oneself in the mirror of self-pity, self-righteousness, self-everything, and it became gradually self-self selfishly so. And you use yourself as a character actor for portraying parts. The works are not necessarily all about me, but since I’m cheap, as a model, I use me.”
In that way, Arneson reflected large chunks of the world back out into the world, stamped with his inimitable features. As this show makes clear, that elastic, anything-goes approach held up well to the end.
–DAVID M. ROTH
Robert Arneson: “Self Portraits in Bronze” @ Brian Gross Fine Art through April 28, 2012.