Sweeping Beauty

Sweeping Beauty

On Art/ Deborah L. Knaff
Sunday, October 3, 1999, The Press Enterprise, Los Angles CA.


An engaging set of exhibits remind us how many people before us made art out of life’s brevity
The big name at the Robert V. Fullerton Art Gallery these days is Pablo Picasso. Although depending on your preferences, Nefertari is probably right up there in terms of name recognition.

The ceramics that Picasso collaborated on in various ways are both charming and artistic- or at least one or the other. And the reconstructed tomb of Queen Nefertari is especially sumptuous. The paintings by Soonja Oh Kim are fierce and brilliant. An the installation by Michael Rathbun is simultaneously wondrous and nauseating.

But the selection of exhibits at California State University, San Bernardino is much more than the sum of these engaging parts.

It is hard to believe that anyone could move from one of these shows to the next and then through the offerings from the museums permanent collection and not feel a sense of amazement at what humans have been able to accomplish. And more than that what humans have wanted to accomplish.

Certainly the upwardly mobile and stylistically conscious denizens of the mid-20th century for whose dining tables Picassso created his modernist, slightly whimsical, anthropomorphic ceramic pieces led very different lives from the upwardly mobile denizens of Egypt’s Old Kingdom.

And yet each set of people created vessels to hold and store what was important to them and decorated them with symbols of their times. We can see the poignant beauty of both eras and be reminded how many people before us have made beauty out of life’s brevity.

Rathbun’s very large installation sculpture that fills one of the museums first galleries is a perfect companion to the shows beyond it, for it combines this sense of being both lost and found.

The piece, crafted of soft wood so recently cut that it is still unyellowed white and smelling of that sweet, burnt quality of birches being sawn, is something like a boat , like the cavernous body of a ship before it’s skin has been put on.

Attached to various end points are smaller boats, like lifeboats riding into a dangerous storm to rescue those aboard the mother ship. The installation – described by the latitude and longitude of the site – seems about to sweep over you, over take you, bury you, drown you, transform you into a coral eyed ghost .

The work captures all the power and allure of the sea, and all its danger. It reminds you why people surf, nd why they go to the beach to figure out what is wrong with their lives, and why they set out o sea in small boats and travel the world holding on only to their sense of where, and thus who, they are by the stars and a feeling that the next day will bring a truer tide and a swifter wind.

Few of us depend any more on the wind and the stars to help us find out where it is we may be in the world. And few people in the history of all the world have ever been so fortunate as to have the time and resources to immerse themselves in art and let it guide them to whatever harbor awaits. But his collection of shows gives us a beginning of a chance. It is not exactly like feeling the wind snap open a wet sail, or wandering hopelessly and the looking up to find yourself in a familiar place. But the art in these shows reminds you of what these fundamentals emotions feel like, and make you want to take up clay and pigment and chisel into your own hands.

About This Sculpture