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November 2 - February 29, 2004 at Laguna Art Museum; November 2 -
January 11, 2004 CSUF Grand Central Art Center, both Orange County

by Daniella Walsh

Three-dimensional work has generally gotten short shrift from local contemporary art venues, so Feat of Clay: Five Decades of Jerry Rothman, a large and comprehensive retrospective exhibition of ceramics by one of the most prolific and versatile clay artists on the West Coast, is doubly noteworthy.

Containing works from the 1950s to the present, this bifurcated exhibition has been curated by Tyler Stallings and Dana Solow (Laguna), as well as Mike McGee (CSU Fullerton) and guest curator Susan Peterson, both of whom also wrote illuminating catalog essays. The group chose pieces that offer an overview of Rothman's stylistic diversity and technical innovations, such as the creation of a clay compound that does not shrink in the firing process and the addition of materials--like Styrofoam, stainless steel and acrylic paint--not usually associated with ceramics. Rothman’s creative spirit, fueled by fascination with math and science, as well as commercial package design, furniture making and the principles of Russian Construc-tivism and its permutations, helped shape a body of work that is full of fascinating examples that are refreshingly difficult to label. And that is, by all reports, the way Rothman likes it.

From the beginning when he studied with Peter Voulkos at the Otis Institute, Rothman like his mentor, created works that are a far cry from the genteel plates and vessels associated with what was up until then primarily thought of as an exclusively craft medium. Some of his early work is vaguely reminiscent of Voulkos, but that phase was relatively short. Rothman followed a long and convoluted creative trajectory of his own. He has also never hesitated to make commercial "bread and butter" pieces, often managing to imbue those with the same artistic integrity that distinguishes his expressive work.

During given cycles, Rothman sticks to a stylistic or thematic leitmotif, which he is able to abandon once he has exhausted its possibilities. The early years brought rough-hewn non-functional jars and vessels, as well as a few fairly conventional platters and sculptures. During the 1960s, after his return from a lengthy sojourn in Japan, he created what he calls his "sky-pots," colorful vessels that are distinguished by their relaxed geometric lines and colorful hues brought about by the use of colored oxides and sand in the firing process.

But whoever thought of creating landscapes in clay? Such inventions first cropped up during the same decade, and also dominate his latest output in the Bay View and View from the Deck series. These works depict loosely articulated landscapes topped by floating clay clouds. In them Rothman achieves the seemingly impossible, a suggestion of weightlessness in clay.

A product of the '60s "make love not war" perspective, much of his work deals with sensuality and a mythology of his own making. The Leda and Swan and Hey Zeus series, with their sensuously flowing lines and their subtly iridescent glazes, are among the most captivating pieces in the show.

Rothman does not shy away from politics and environmental issues, resorting lately to highly articulated, figurative work to lay bare his social concerns. In Why me? a boyish looking man is pinned into the sand by a staff covered by two entwined serpents, the symbol of medical practice. Created in 1991, the piece skewers the political clout of the medical establishment. Riding shows the same boy/man riding a skateboard over a curved surface and grasping a missile. The message is not hard to decipher. In a similar vein, Over the Edge has a distraught looking surfer heading into the trough of a wave. The implication is that society is also heading into the same trough.

Rothman, at age 70, is still working at a steady clip and, if this vast and diverse body of work is any indication, this retrospective will certainly not be a conclusive statement.

“Abstract Constructivist Sculpture,"
1956, ceramic, 26 x 26".

“Baroque Ritual Vessel,"
1981-82, ceramic, 16 x 20 x 12".

“Sky Pot," 1961, ceramic with
colored oxides in sand, 20 x 13 x 6".

“Bay View," 2001-02,
ceramic, 30 x 24 x 16".

“View from the Deck,"
2002-03, ceramic, 31 x 24 x 26".