Thursday, September 25, 2008

Forty Years

John McCuistion retrospective at the University of Puget Sound

published in the Weekly Volcano, Sept. 25, 2008
pictured: "X Marks the Spot," ceramic sculpture by John McCuistion

The title of John McCuistion’s show at Kittridge Gallery, University of Puget Sound, is Forty. It is billed as a 40-year retrospective, but the earliest work I saw was dated 1995 — significantly short of 40 years. OK, I’ll admit that I didn’t read every label. Not that any of that matters. What matters is that it is a really good show.

McCuistion is ceramic sculptor. The show includes about a dozen standing figures on sculpture stands in the middle of the gallery; another dozen or more platters decorated with images of plant life, sea life and insects; many masks; and a few other standing sculptures.

Many of them represent frightening figures; many more are humorous. Some are derived from ancient myths and legends or spiritual beliefs, and others relate to modern life as we know it.

There are a couple of strange bird sculptures that look like they are made of black marble encrusted with jewels of many colors. These are rough, organic-shaped creatures barely recognizable as birds, and they’re not really marble and jewels but ceramic clay glazed with many colors.

One of the strangest and most ominous looking sculptures is a piece called "Life Without Mother." It is a large pink heart with splatters of red and blue — something of a cross between a Valentine’s heart and the actual blood-pumping organ with bristling, wiry hairs extending outward from all over. A very disturbing image.

The standing figures in the middle of the gallery are of amazingly nuanced variety despite some obvious similarities. In most of them, the only details are in the heads. The bodies are shapeless shrouds or robes that hang from neck to toe. Some stand proudly; some lean forward in a sort of dejected pose, and at least one kind of squats. Some have masks for faces or skeleton heads, or their faces are recognizable as men or women, and at least one, called "Burke," has no face at all. ("Burke" is a mummy-like figure, and I suspect the name may refer to the Burke Museum, which houses some such figures. But that’s just a guess on my part.)

Two of the figures are military men shot through with bullet holes. They are titled "X Marks the Spot" and "POW."

The squatting figure is called "Pre-Columbian Ritual Figure" and is modeled on ancient fertility goddesses with their massive breasts and bellies. Her body is greenish black and very roughly carved, such as a primitive wood carving, and her face is a mask.

Other standing figures include one with a kitten’s face, and another that is a devil, and one called "Working Mom" that has a monkey face with big, skeletal teeth. There is a lot of macabre humor at work here.

While much prettier and more decorative than the standing sculptures, McCuistion’s platters are particularly interesting in their graphic technique. According to the artist’s Web site (, he uses a silkscreen technique coupled with layering, heating and washing the underglaze surfaces. The resulting graphic glazes look like a combination of loose ink drawings and rub-on transfer images of the type Robert Rauschenberg used in many of his collage images. The images include skeletons, fish, plants, and insects, and the surfaces are high-gloss (I personally do not like the shiny surfaces).

Sometimes there’s a clear distinction between works of art and craft objects, and sometimes not. McCuistion’s craft objects are art.

Showing in the smaller back gallery is Play Time, colorful constructions in tin by Bill Herberholz. As the show title implies, they are playful works employing commercial images and a look associated with sideshows and shooting galleries.

[Kittredge Gallery, Forty Years, Monday-Friday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday noon to 5 p.m., through Oct. 8, 1500 N. Warner St., Tacoma, 253.879.3701]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I remember this show. It would have been ok with just the pedestal pieces in the middle, but the place was so crammed with stuff so it looked like a fleamarket. The surfaces of many pieces were reminiscent of nothing so much as splattered vomit and it was all some kind self-indulgent funhouse of mid-life..

One does not stage one's own retrospective. If one does have such an overblown vision of oneself that they must do so and this is all they have to show for themselves after 40 years, the problem is obvious and way too big for even one review.