Please click here to see installation pictures of  Barococo at the Crocker Museum of Art

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BarococoCéramiques by Tony Natsoulas

July 12 to September 29, 2002

      Tony Natsoulas (born 1959), like his art is funny, offbeat, and awkwardly charming.  “I just do what the little voices tell me to,” reads the bumper sticker on his pick-up, a statement, which, upon meeting him, you know, is not far from the truth. A bard, a sonneteer, and a prankster in clay, Natsoulas wants us to like what he likes, to appreciate the humor in the banal, and to look nostalgically at some of history’s self-indulgent pleasures.

    Small in stature—his wife Donna holds his ankles lest he fall in while stacking his top-loading kiln—it is the pounds per square inch of energy and charisma that make Natsoulas himself a force of nature.  His ebullient personality is matched only by his work in clay, which surmounts varied technical challenges to become monumental sculpture that shocks, entertains, and amuses.  

    The humor and irreverence of Natsoulas’ art should come as no surprise considering the inspired lunacy of his mentors.  A descendant of Pop and California “Funk,” Natsoulas’ work goes beyond both.  Embracing what may be best termed “camp”—that which is outrageous in its artificiality, affected, and referencing the out-of-date in an amusing manner—he has manufactured a style distinctly his own. 

    Natsoulas received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1982 at the University of California, Davis and his Master of Fine Arts in 1985 from the same institution.  He studied with many celebrated names in California painting and sculpture—Robert Brady, Roy DeForest, Wayne Thiebaud—and has also been an informal student of artists David Gilhooly and Clayton Bailey, who have both greatly influenced him.  His most significant teacher was the sculptor/ceramist Robert Arneson, who Natsoulas credits with changing his life by giving him the incentive to pursue art as a career.

    As an undergraduate, Natsoulas began sculpting full-length figures that sell shoes, play guitars, drive automobiles and wait tables—the everyday activities with which he readily related as an artist just starting out.  His more recent work has focused on larger-than-life busts of famous—or infamous—characters.  With huge flat heads and tiny torsos, these busts exist in two seeming dimensions, subverting the third.  Each piece narrows when viewed from the side, a technique that he first saw in a sculpture by Robert Arneson and liked.  The intended views are the front and back, sculpted as if by a painter of portraits or a caricaturist.  He lavishes attention on the features that grab his attention and minimizes those that do not. 

    In the past year, Natsoulas began a new series of busts inspired by the Eighteenth Century.  Looking to both the Baroque and Rococo eras, he coined his creations Barococo.  Loving the extravagance and decoration of the period’s costume, hairstyles and make-up, Natsoulas lovingly details powdered wigs, ruffles, and penciled beauty marks.  Not stopping there, he pushes this abundance to absurd levels through flowers, birds, pets, and other accoutrements.  The dynamism this adds to his pieces is seen in the figure of an eighteenth-century woman who wears an enormous wig teeming with hummingbirds; in a cane-sporting gentleman who clutches a pug dog by the scruff of the neck; and in a fashionable vixen who nearly drowns in the abundance of bows on her dress.  While the figures are not universally recognizable, they do represent the artist’s friends, colleagues, and spouse, who he uses as models.

    In creating these parodies of the past, Natsoulas at times looks to Hollywood, but also to art history.  He is particularly enamored  with French period artists and portraitists such as Hyacinthe Rigaud, Jean-Antoine Watteau, and Francois Boucher, and distills humor and biting commentary from the famed English satirist William Hogarth.  Another eighteenth-century prototype specific to Natsoulas’ medium are figurines produced at the Meissen porcelain factory.  He uses these figural groups like maquettes for his own work, borrowing costumes, hairstyles, and expressions from them, as well as color and approach to ornament.  By blowing them up to colossal scale, Natsoulas eradicates the preciousness of the original, instead making them bold and engaging, humorous and challenging to the viewer.  Because the sculptures are so unabashedly silly, the artist reminds us that perhaps we needn’t take art and history—and by extension ourselves—quite so seriously.

Scott Shields, Curator of Art, Crocker Art Museum.

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