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Richard Shaw @ b. sakata garo

Painters Table, glazed porcelain with overglaze transfers

Is there anything Richard Shaw can’t realistically depict in porcelain?  There doesn’t appear to be.  Shaw, who, along with Robert Hudson, invented trompe-l'oeil ceramic sculpture in the early 1970s, continues to build lanky figures and studio tableaux out of objects that are cast and painted to look like brushes, paint tubes, bottles, palettes, kitchenware, clothing, books, playing cards, musical instruments, tools, writing implements, plumbing fixtures, furniture and foodstuffs.  Fashioned into assemblages, they stand as prime examples of Funk, the movement that briefly tilted the “axis of cultural authority” toward Northern California and, in particular, toward UC Davis, where Shaw studied, and where two of his instructors, William Wiley and Robert Arneson, built careers out of smashing formalist orthodoxies.  

Shaw developed his own vocabulary.  Besides painting cast objects to look like dead-on replicas, he also created decals that depict brand-name logos and graphics.  These, when applied to ceramics, added a layer of verisimilitude that made the artist’s neo-Dadaist illusions complete. After more than four decades, this ingenious blend of trompe-l’oeil and photorealism continues to fascinate by thoroughly confusing the fake and the real. 

In this realm Shaw has only one peer, Marilyn Levine, and her focus is considerably narrower: suitcases and leather goods.  Shaw’s purview, as this beautifully installed exhibit of 22 recent works attests, is substantially larger. It ranges from the above-described assemblages to more esoteric forms, such as two framed pieces of faux cardboard packaging emblazoned with the words “Bray Clay,” and a quartet of unlabeled “paintings” displayed face down on a table – potential sleepers for those unfamiliar with Shaw’s brand of trickery.  
 
While plaintive titles (e.g. “Still Life with Ink and Skull,” “Still Life with Open Drawer,” “Walker with Cigar Box,” “Walking Figure with Pitcher) describe what we see, what we experience is the subversive glee that comes from contemplating the ways in which Shaw combines so many unlikely objects into gawky stick figures.  As for the other half of his practice – the studio tableaux – each of these traces “storylines” in which the mundane facts of the artist’s work life – brushes, paint cans, watercolors and pencils – take on an almost mythological character for having been repeated so often and with such fiendish attention to detail. 
 
If you’ve not had the Richard Shaw experience, this exhibition is a prime opportunity. 
–DAVID M. ROTH 
 
Richard Shaw @ b. sakata garo through November 30, 2014. 
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