GUESTS SAT down at the Fendrick dinner table the other night, and Robert Arneson's head arrived on a platter - Soupe a la Jean le Baptiste.
The dinner's piece de resistance didn't spoil anyone's appetite for cook Julia Fendrick's excellent gazpacho. But server Lila Fendrick, in the role of Salome without benefit or Richard Strauss, bore the tureen shaped like a human head gingerly into the dining room in deference not to its earthenware horror but to its price: $4,000.
The 16 guests and the two Fendrick daughters at Barbara and Daniel Fendrick's dinner (in honor of sculptor Wendell Castle) were more than ordinarily shockproof, being artists and consumers of art. But Arneson's self-portrait, the 17-by-18-inch soup tureen, is heady stuff. It is appropriately colored (never mind the gory details) with china paint over an opaque white glaze.
The Arneson off-with-his-head (whose formal title is"Hot Soup") fortunately survived the dinner party and now is ensconsed in a place of honor in the Fendrick Gallery, 3059 M St. NW. Not since the Renwick Gallery's "Objects for Preparing Food" show has anyone collected so much other food for thought as in the 80-piece Fendrick show, "The American Table" (through April 23). The 32 artist include about nine from nearby and others from 15 states and Canada.
The art of gourmet grotesqueries is an old one - consider Benvenuto Cellini's 1500s salt cellar, the James Monroe vermeil palteau of dancing maidens, the White House centerpiece and all those cabbage rows of soup tureens. Then for a number of years, it was considered very bad form to be funny about food. The honest brown earthenware of the Scandinavians and the chaste white china of the Japanese were the proper table settings for most of this century.
Now in the century's old age, we're getting frivolous. There has been a proliferation in the kitchen of all those must-have, mass-produced mechanistic gadgets, the Cuisinart and its followers. So it seems fair that there be a counter trend in the dining room, in favor of dining amidst one-of-a-kind art forms - at least by gourmands with enough money to indulge themselves. Most of us can't afford a $225 Cuisinart anymore than we can afford a $4,000 Arneson soup tureen, but it is nice to know they exist.
The Arneson isn't the only one. Jack Earl of Richmond, Va., made "Ohio House," another soup tureen in disguise (and at $500 it is cheaper than all houses if not most tureen). The clear-glaze cast-porcelain piece is 12 inches high and 11-by-11-inches square. The house is white frame, with all the valued possessions, such as the refrigerator, posed on the porches.
As astounding as the soup tureens are, the Rory McCarthy dining table, of shedua, padoul, wenge, bubinga and imbuya woods and worked with aluminium, steel and glass, is easily the more beautiful. McCarthy's oval table has in its open center a growth of objects rising from the floor and protruding above the tabletop: salt shakers, salad bowl with servers, wine carafe, vases an candleholders in compatible woods. The blooms, so to speak are surrounded by glass. The whole plateau is removable and, it is said, can be hung on the wall. This completely equipped groaning board costs $10,000, but then McCarthy spent 850 hours making it.
Far less complicated (and less expensive at $2,800) is the beautiful Peter Danko dining table of walnut with a burly walnut veneer - 10 1/2 feet long with both leaves. The table is exquisitely crafted, and not funky at all, unlike Danko's earlier work. Danko, who works in a Georgetown studio, made his name with a remarkable dest that had bits and piece of a cow's anatomy hanging in unlikely places. This table is much more chastle.
The Wendell Castle dest-table in the show are made as is the Rochester, N.Y., sculptor's wont - on wood laminated and then carved. The bulbous, voluptuous pieces beg to be fondled. One is pear and zebrawood ($3,500; the other is walnut and $1,000 more.
John Stanley, represented in the Renwick's Paint on Wood show, has a tilt-top table here.
Jeffrey Bigelow, the Washington plexiglas artist who some say is the most important plexi designer/craftsman in the country, is represented by a miniature of his Renwick table.
Another Washington artist, Jane McKenzie of Glen Echo, shows a high-chair that is a wood kangaroo, or vice versa. McKenzie also has a splendid lion stool in the show. Washington enamelist David Kuhn has several boxes and what he calls adult rattles.
Among the few inexpensive objects in the show with easily perceived uses are the handsome cast lead-free pewter serving pieces by William White: The handles are shaped like the real asparagus he used as forms. The salad set $45, but the jam spoon is only $10. Gretchen Raber of Hollin Hills made the sleek soup ladle.
There are a number of handsome glass vases and bottles in the show. You could easily imagine William Bernstein's jar in some geometric kitchen my architect Hugh Newell Jacobsen. The Bernstein bottles start at $40. Kent Ipsen and Dale Chilhuly's glass objects are spectaculars in light and color.
In some ways, the show is surprising in what it does and doesn't have.The number of good, big wood pieces is a happy surprise. The lack of silver and ceramic tableware is an unhappy one. THere isn't a proper plate, fork or knife in the house. Mrs. Fendrick says in both cases she saw nothing that was of the same quality as the other pieces she's showing.
There are, however, some other places to see such work. Appalachian Spring shows that work of Don Drumm, whose goblets at $18 and service plates at $22 are handsome and utilitarian. And American Hand plys the ware of a number of potters who do handsome tableware. In Vienna, Va., Trew and Tony Bennett turn out good table services in a heavy production. A number of potters, many of whom show at the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, will even make a dinner set to order.
Carole Wilkinson, a sophomore at Catholic University, has just finished a ceramic table setting - plate, mug and two bowls - that is in the final judging of the National Home Fashions League craft award.
To some of us, these piece are more satisfactory - and certainly more useful - than Bill Suworoff's alleged wine decanter of ceramic, a homage to King Tut, which starts with several Egyptian figures on the base, piles on a number of other things and tops it all with a mummified duck. But then, not many things are that funny.