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May 13 - June 17, 2006 at Frand Lloyd Gallery, Santa Monica

by Andy Brumer

If Nietzsche was right that there is no one more serious than a child at play, then no one may be more playful than a seasoned artist seriously at work.  Perhaps both sentiments meet in the art of Peter Shire, esteemed ceramist, potter and metal sculptor, whose newest progeny of teapots--he's been making them for more than three decades--along with several large metal sculpture/fountains comprise the current show.  Shire creates all of his work in a sprawling Echo Park studio, where a mélange of teapots from series past line shelves under a battalion of cubistic, exquisitely crafted toy soldiers and airplanes gliding down from the ceiling on wires.  It's all flanked by the artist's surrealist paintings and drawings that line the walls as in a gallery of Nutcracker Suite dreams.

“I'm a toymaker,” the artist said in greeting the writer during a recent studio visit.

Shire has referred to his aesthetic as “Mexican Bauhaus,” and while many artists pay lip service to making art that bridges high and popular culture, Shire's work does so in a convincing and seemingly unselfconscious manner.  The artist identifies some of the works’ diverse influences as the pearlescent paint of L.A.'s kaleidoscopic car culture, the pastel hues his father used to paint his room in his Echo Park childhood home, and memories of translucent pieces of his mother's jewelry.  Clearly visible as well are the markers of postmodern architecture and the universal language of the human soul spoken in the geometric shapes and forms of Russian Constructivism.

“Solar Tutu," 2004, earthenware/
glazes/stainless steel, 28 x 14 x 8".
Photo: Anthony Cuñha.
Not included in the current exhibition.

"Malevich’s Space Station," 2005,
steel and enamel, 21 x 21 x 12".
Not included in the current exhibition.

The oeuvre's all couched in and amplified by the ongoing dialog of contemporary ceramic sculpture, begun in the late 1950's by groundbreaking Southern California practitioners, including Peter Voulkos, John Morgan and Ken Price (among others), whose aesthetic voices Shire's work so spiritedly and inventively inflects, extends and amplifies.

Not surprisingly, the teapot stands as a major focus of Shire's attention. He has called it the “Holy Grail” of pottery, referring, of course, to its ironic status as an archetypal image of ceramic's functionality, and as an iconic template that invites shattering, or at least, reinvention.  Shire's pots (all wonderfully painted and glowingly glazed) lean so imaginatively away from the utilitarian in their precariously balanced and often akimbo-limbed dance of boxes, columns, holes, cylinders, metal rods and caps, and other shapes, that their functional capacity as conduits of water becomes a kind of gentle afterthought.  In one elegant and almost hermaphroditically sexy group, strident long metal sprouts spring vigorously out of luscious, peach-shaped spheres positioned anatomically just below each pot's “waist” or center.

Shire continues his variation on the hydraulics theme in the welded steel sculptural fountains, whose very visible coursing of water forges a poetic counterpoint to the teapots' internal, implied gurgling.

It's also worth noting that running concurrently with this show is the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's exhibition, Peter Shire: The Los Angeles Connection to Memphis, which itself is connected to their exhibition of the work of Austrian-born Ettore Scottsass, who, in 1981 founded the Memphis Group of artists and avant-garde designers, of which Shire was a member.