Robert Arneson

 

JULY 1, 2004
Thick as a Brick
The Greenville County Museum of Art hosts an exhibition featuring the work of Robert Arneson, a Pop Art master who discarded the traditional bowls and cups for bricks, shoes and other everyday objects.

BY DONNA DUREN

The Greenville County Museum of Art’s exhibition of the work of Robert Arneson, a leading ceramic artist of the 20th century, has an incredible sense of timeliness. We currently live in an era of tremendous threats to our freedoms and with it a sense of obligation to conform to the status quo. We are asked by others and by our own sense of self-preservation and insecurity to circle the wagons.

Robert Arneson instinctively rejected such an automatic approach to life. At turns provocative, philosophical and hilarious, he is always truthful and brave. His work urges us to question, to think, to reach a higher level of insight. What makes Arneson endearing is that, by also taking aim at himself, he is able to preach to us without becoming too shrill.

His often witty illumination of human foibles and the dangers of automatic conformity are readily apparent in his life, his work and in the private notebooks he kept. In more than one entry he noted the words of ee cummings: “To be nothing but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you into everybody else - means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight, and can never stop fighting.” Reflecting upon the use of humor in his work, he quoted an observation by Aristophanes: “Comedy requires a greater degree of objectivity than does serious drama, for it depends upon the ability to see deviations from norms as ridiculous rather than as serious threats to the welfare of the whole tribe.”

Arneson’s work spanned from the 1950s to the 1990s. During this time, he was a part of a revolutionary change in the world of American ceramics, taking ceramic work from the traditional craft of pots and mugs to creating complex sculptures of layered meaning and intent. He was a part of an irreverent group of Pop artists in California whose work has come to be called Funk Art.

The particular pieces which are on display in Greenville are ceramic sculptures in the tradition of Pop Art, which presents everyday objects as works of art.

But Arneson’s work does not just ape “the real thing”; he often uses wit or adds ironic twists to further the aims of his message. Dennis Adrian, an Arneson scholar remarked, “A good deal of Arneson’s work is funny as well as seriously polymodal.... As any scholar of Joyce or translator of Japanese poetry will wearily insist, the primary function of any kind of pun is the expansion of meaning, within a discrete form, into at least simultaneous modes of thought.”

One of the most recurring themes of Arneson’s work is the symbolic use of bricks. To him, common bricks represent the legacy of traditional ceramics happily detached from the loftier imperatives of art. He uses the ubiquitous brick as a means to question the artificial boundaries people place between art and craft in order to defend his simultaneous role as a ceramicist and artist.

He also employed the lowly brick as a symbol of the foundations of Western civilization. One of his most famous works, “Fragment of Western Civilization” (1972), a cultural and historical tableaux, is a sculptural pile of brick fragments. With it, he questions not what others have inflicted upon us but rather what we have brought upon ourselves.

One of his more poignant pieces to be shown in Greenville is “Homage to Philip Guston” (1980), a contemplation of mortality which displays the painter Philip Guston’s shoes lying upside down with their soles pointed heavenward. The ceramic shoes are rendered in a style as Guston himself might present them with clubby proportions and prominent nail heads. Guston often employed the soles of shoes in his work as a reference to humanity and the interplay between the personal and greater social implications.

In the decade preceding the painter’s death in 1980, Guston was deeply panned by critics for his turn from Abstract Expressionism, in which he was something of a star, to figurative work. Guston had transgressed the holy dogma of the elite art world of that era by daring to follow his own artistic muse. Arneson makes us smile with his literal and figurative yet very abstract, symbolic homage to his fellow artist for daring to be true to himself despite the avalanche of criticism. It is nothing less than his visual restatement of what ee cummings saw as the hardest battle which any human being can fight: to be nothing but yourself.

Our ability today to rise to the challenges of our times summons us to be like Arneson’s bricks: to remain strongly individual but joined together, a part of a larger societal ethic. That idea is nothing if not utterly Arneson-like in its imperatives for a very American sense of sacred individual freedom constrained only within a sense of civil and ethical obligation to humanity and history. His seminal work brings the viewer a sense of personal inspiration to find one’s own unique voice. Robert Arneson was an artist who never gave up the fight to be true to himself, true to his friends and far more importantly, true to the world.

 

Self Portrait 1981:

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