ROBERT ARNESON'S glazed ceramic sculptures fall somewhere between Greek statues and those "cute" coffee mugs with smashed faces.
His retrospective exhibition, now at the Hirshhorn Museum, is arranged like a classical statuary hall -- but one we might expect to find in the British Museum in the "California" collection a few thousand years from now.
The artist himself greets us at the entrance to the gallery -- the "California Artist," an aging hippie who sets an irreverent tone for the show. Done in 1982, this is a life-size, glazed ceramic half-figure perched on a marijuana-decorated pedestal. In this self-deprecating self-portrait, Arneson, now 55, shows himself to be graying and paunchy, with his hairy gut hanging out from an open denim jacket, his eyes obscured by Foster Grants.
Pardon him as he pokes pun at himself.
He learned pottery while teaching crafts at a high school near San Francisco, and his early works, before he hit his stride as a portraitist, are vertical tree-like forms. In the mid-'60s, he was a major producer of Funk Art -- for him that meant crude jokes done in trompe l'oeil, from crass to creepy. Here is his scatological "John With Art," a toilet that contains what the artist terms "ceramic emblems." And here is the Arneson-brand "Typewriter," a green-and-yellow portable with a keyboard of painted red fingernails on disembodied forefingers.
Arneson continually disproves the notion that pottery is craft. He succeeds in elevating it into an art form with his lifelike, engaging portrait busts. His first major self-portrait came into being in 1971 with "Smorgi-Bob," himself as proud chef standing at the point of a triangle that fans out into a table laden with platters of white ceramic asparagus, tomatoes, turkey, ham, rolls.
He is the mad potter throwing the medium as far as it will go. In one self-portrait, "Current Events," he struggles in a sweeping horizontal tide of ceramic ripples. As "Captain Ace," he sports a World War II flight jacket. In this bust, his lifelike grimace is directed at the turkey that has just laid an egg in the peak of his pilot's cap.
Nothing is sacred. "Classical Exposure" is the classical herm, ancient Greece's pillar topped by a bust. But once again it is a portrait of the artist, here smoking a cigar, with his sexual organ and feet sticking out from an otherwise undistinguished pillar.
He does portraits of other artists as well. Affectionately, he mocks Picasso in "Pablo Ruiz with Itch," where he copies a back-washing posture of one of "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," in that pivotal Picasso work. Another delightful piece pairs Mona Lisa with George Washington. Seen from the neck up, the two icons are apparently sharing a hot tub.
Judging from this show, which covers 25 years, 43 sculptures and 26 works on paper, Arneson was funny until 1981. Before that, even a battle with cancer didn't stop him.
In 1981, the city of San Francisco commissioned several artists to create works for its convention center, named for assassinated mayor George Moscone. Arneson's proposal was for a portrait bust with a slightly silly smile. The typical politician. But the pedestal the head perched upon caused the rejection of the "Portrait of George." Arneson's practice of incising stray puns and graffiti-like comments on his work was thought to have gotten out of hand. The pedestal is covered with biographical notations on Moscone, as well as such inscriptions as "Trust me on this one"; "Harvey Milk Too"; and "Bang Bang Bang Bang Bang."
Arneson took the rejection and subsequent criticism seriously, and revised his role from sometime humorist to public conscience and moralist. That is why the last works in this chronological show focus on war and death and annihilation, nuclear holocaust victims and guilty military leaders. The pedestal of "Holy War Head" (a bashed-in, childlike head) is imprinted with the words of John Hersey from "Hiroshima," on nuclear explosion and its aftermath.
And so there is considerable confusion about how to react to the content of this show, whether to laugh or cry.
But certainly Arneson makes the point that he is an artist, not a craftsman just because he chooses to work in ceramics. In a floor-sculpture called "Casualty in the Art Realm," an artist's palette with the impression of a human form in the center, he inscribed this quote:
"Technique in art is like technique in lovemaking; heartfelt ineptitude has its charms and so does heartless skill but what we all really want is passionate virtuosity."
By George, he's got it.
ROBERT ARNESON -- At the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden through July 6.