Patti Warashina is a giant in the world of Ceramics and a local treasure for the city of Seattle. She was born in Spokane, earned her BFA and MFA in Ceramics at the University of Washington and taught there from 1970 to 1995. The exhibition at Bellevue Art Museum: Wit and Wisdom chronicles fifty years of her artistic career from the early 1960s to her recent and current work. The show takes on an ambitious breadth of style and theme to record the development of Warashina’s work throughout her career, documenting her “ever-growing capacities for personal transformation, self-reflection, reinvention, curiosity, effervescence, skepticism and exuberant humor.“ (BAM)
When Warashina was a student Abstract Expressionism was all the rage. Rothko and Pollok had changed the world of painting in New York and Peter Voulkos had pulled the movement into the ceramic medium. Warashina loved Abstract Expressionism in the work of other artists, but never found it’s macho tendencies or esoteric gestures personal to her. A thread throughout Warashina’s work is a strong tendency, albeit resisted at times, toward tight form and line. She constantly strives to infuse a specific thesis statement, though it’s sometimes mysterious, into her visual language. Themes of Feminism, identity, freedom and intimacy reoccur in her work and ripen over her fifty-year career.
Before viewing the show I was familiar with Warashina’s recent and current work, her abstracted human figures, simplified color schemes, group arrangements and various formed and found prop objects achieve an infusion of content and theme into the work. What was especially interesting about this retrospective for me was viewing pieces that I was unfamiliar with and witnessing the progression of style and theme towards their culmination in Warashina’s current work. In the 1980s for instance, Warashina introduced the human figure into her sculptures. The early “white figures” were small in scale (6-8 inches high) and proportionally realistic. They were arranged in groups, on fantastical boats, in oversized cars and in lab-like mazes with rats rivaling the scale of the humans. Each piece was an investigation of human identity placed into a dark surrealism that challenged cultural inevitabilities. During this period, we can see the female figure become more androgynous and more abstract to achieve a greater sense of the ambiguity that Warashina embraces throughout her career.
My favorite pieces in the exhibition were a series made in 2003 entitled Real Politique and often referred to as “The Circus” In this series Warashina maintains focus on the human form and surrealism by presenting the viewer with impassive and static abstractions of the human form embellished by oddments of clothing and accessories. Together, the pieces resemble a sideshow of circus freaks strangely inhabiting individual roles representing the artist’s views on ‘war, civil rights, internment/relocation camps, population growth, economy, environment, geographic conditions and disease’ (Seattle PI). Warashina invents a dark structure of political and social power and confronts us with it so as to expose what has not been invented, but what is true to the world.
As an art student faced with the challenges of inventing and developing a structure of theme and style, I found Wit and Wisdom invigorating and inspiring. As I walked through the exhibit, I saw fifty years of work by a local treasure and successful artist. I thought of my own path and I, just a few steps into it, ambivalent and apprehensive at times, yet ambitious and energized at others, have vast possibilities for creative expression, well enough to cover fifty years of art-making.