By Stacy Davies
On the top of my stove is Pennsylvania Dutch trivet with the image of an old man and little boy on it, with the bearded elder saying: “Ve get too soon oldt undt too late schmart.” It had been on my grandparent’s stovetop for as long as I can remember, and was one of the things I requested from my family when my grandfather passed away at age 96, almost 20 years ago. The inference, of course, is that with age comes smartness and, we assume, wisdom—another variation on the idea that if one lives long, both qualities will finally surface. This is what we like to believe, anyway.
An article in the April issue of the Economist reports a recent study that found Americans actually do get smarter as they grow older; in contrast, however, the Japanese (the other group studied) are born smart and retain that smartness, with little growth, over time. But another article, published in 2009 on LiveScience.com, asks a troubling question: Why aren’t we smarter now than we used to be, given technology and the masses of folks who now attend college? (We’re not dumber, either, by the way—we just haven’t grown.) The piece, written by skeptic Benjamin Radford, argues that a lack of critical thinking skills is to blame, that people tend to rely on superstition and emotionalism (maybe even applying a bit of factual data to it), instead of actually thinking critically—meaning, understanding the relationships between events and finding and questioning hidden assumptions. That’s also the definition wisdom, and it means that being wise does not come merely by accumulating knowledge or experiences, but by being able to deeply understand and apply that knowledge in a logical, unemotional way. I loved my very old grandfather, you see, but he certainly never let a good fact get in the way of his opinions.
When I walked into AMOCA’s new exhibit “Patti Warashina: Wit and Wisdom,” I thought about wisdom, and also wit, which is not being har-har funny. Defined as “quick and inventive verbal humor,” wit may not be as valuable as wisdom, but it certainly makes life more enjoyable—Mae West has always given a thrill with her wittiness, as in this take on a less-than-acceptable fellow: “His mother should have thrown him away and kept the stork.”
The most interesting art, be it visual, audible or literary tends to always have some component of wit and wisdom, perhaps even superseding its aesthetic. If one can create a work with all three, however, it’s a sight to behold, and in the case of Warashina’s work in this retrospective, it’s a sight you should see.
A ceramist with a broad palate of influences and experiences—California Funk, Surrealism, experimental West Coast sculpture—Warashina is known for her satire and smartness, creating out of low-fired clay polychrome, visual medleys that touch on issues both personal and universal. In Tule Lake Retreat, for example, Warashina built a guard tower crowned by a grotesque man’s head and bulging eyes. His hands are on his hips, a flashlight casting its beam downward. In 1942, Warashina’s aunt was sent to Tule Lake as part of the Japanese-American Internment camp relocations, not to be set free until almost 1946, when citizens were finally released and given $25 and a train ticket home. Warashina’s dentist father was not sent to the camps, though he was not allowed to charge for his medical services during this period, and while Warashina’s memories of the time are clearly troubling, her wit flies in the face of tragedy by referring to this monument to oppression as a “retreat.”
In particular, wit and wisdom can be found in the array of work featuring her 11-inch white woman, a figure that came to life during the feminist art breakthroughs of the 1970s. This white woman is actually every woman, and she’s here to make you think critically about what it means to be female, like in Gray Iron, in which she, in the form of the Winged Victory of Samothrace, gleefully rides the household appliance that has caused more grief for domesticated females than inspiration. In Glass Cage, a gang of white women form a human ladder around a pole, helping each other up to the tip where the leader attempts to shatter a glass ceiling with another object of feminine domesticity, a fork, in a clear nod to destroying the invisible entrapments placed upon the female form—as well as an urging to women to cultivate their power together.
This white woman, fighting against the insidious attacks of patriarchy, appears in over 100 of Warashina’s works, and is the most disturbing when placed within several large, wooden wall mazes, like an army of ants pulsing through their farm. In Dog’s Night, they shriek and tumble perilously through the cavernous legs and torso of a distorted canine that howls, either in pleasure or pain, over the ingestion. Going to the dogs, dog tired, die like a dog, dog eat dog—all affairs best to be avoided and harkening back to the days when dogs were not cosseted pets but chained up and kept in kennels as workers. In The Nursery, another insect maze, the women are birthed through cracking eggs and pods, only to find themselves terrorized by passages with no exit and no light—for vessels of life, it seems, the birthing tunnel just never ends.
In other works, the women band together more musically—with shrouded faces whirring in fireside dance or spiritedly circling and celebrating forbidden fruit—and are even transformed into everything from hammocks (cradling eggs) to winged, hanging creatures emerging through metamorphoses. There’s also an abundance of other work in this absorbing and delightfully overwhelming exhibit—creations that aren’t as intense, yet no less witty or wise – and whether the recent statistical data on smartness and understanding is correct or not, Patti Warashina is clearly a candidate, perhaps even since birth, for the position of guru on the mount.
“Patti Warashina: Wit and Wisdom” at AMOCA, 399 N. Garey Ave., Pomona, (909) 865-3146; www.amoca.org. Gallery hours: Wed-Sat, noon-5pm; every second Saturday until 9pm. Thru Sept. 29. $5.