Upon entering "Dora De Larios: Other Worlds," a retrospective currently on view at the Main Museum's new mezzanine gallery, a monumental black-and-white photo of the ceramist orients the viewer: Young and pretty with a penetrating gaze, she sits inside a USC kiln, holding a creation that, like many of her pieces, exists somewhere between vessel and figurine, hand and wheel. It's the mid-1950s and De Larios is a first-generation Mexican-American, one of few students of color in the university's art program, pursuing a discipline largely ignored by the art world (which, we're reminded, is dominated by white men). Look just beyond her, in the same line of sight, and a totem of feminine power in ivory and gold introduces themes — "powerful otherworldly female figures, often with non-Western features," according to the didactic, or display panel — echoed throughout the exhibition.
All of this situates De Larios' work as a response to historical conditions, which helps contextualize her legacy as a pioneer. But marginality becomes a distant memory once inside her world, where works from the past 60 years are united by a masterful harmony — between ancient and modern, weighted and whimsical, feminine and forceful; a menagerie of playful figures rendered with the sobriety of earthbound materials.
Here, the universe is balanced.
The artist's pan-cultural (notably pre-Columbian and traditional Japanese) influences, channeled with a modernist sensibility, are expressed in tableware, figurines, ephemera and sculptural installation. Together, they trace a life shaped by external voyage and a driving internal vision that makes her a fascinating figure in 20th-century Los Angeles art.
"When I met her and saw her work in the studio, it struck me almost immediately that it was criminal that an artist of this caliber who had been working this long wasn't better known," said Main Museum director Allison Agsten, who had been researching ceramic art for a commission when she happened upon De Larios last summer.
"This is a really quick turnaround," Agsten said. "Shows like this that have 10 or so lenders, and this number of works, usually they work on them for years. We did this as quickly as we could. But we didn't do it in time."
De Larios died in January at age 84 after an extended illness, just weeks before the show opened.
A true native daughter — one family member remarked, "She didn't just live here; Los Angeles runs through her" — De Larios grew up in Boyle Heights and co-founded Irving Place Studio, a women-run ceramics studio in Culver City that would remain her base for production and exhibition through the ensuing decades.
Early family trips to Mexico (especially an encounter with the Aztec calendar) shaped her artistic inclinations, as did world travels and the Southland's cultural mosaic.
Friend and collector Alan Grinnell recalled meeting De Larios by chance more than 50 years ago at the base of the Abu Simbel temple in Egypt. She was traveling with her then-husband Bernard Judge, an architect who worked on Marlon Brando's Tahitian atoll.
"She had a very strong drive to create, she was very passionate about art, she loved seeing other artists," Grinnell said. "(But) I don't think that it affected what she wanted to do herself; she had her own vision."
While not conventionally religious, Grinnell said she had "a strong sense of oneness with the natural world and the importance of beauty, of originality; she was her own muse, she just had a feeling of what she wanted to be."
Dressed in a dramatic, geometrical vintage kaftan that her mother used to wear to openings, De Larios' daughter, Sabrina Judge, described a process of continual exploration filtered through an intuitive capacity for creation.
"She read all the time, looked at art books, design books — and she was like a sponge. ... She was very childlike, so everything was playing for her. ... It's the way she lived, the way she cooked, the way she drew and made things."
De Larios read extensively about mythology, a theme evident in her fantastical, sympathetic creatures — stylized dogs, birds, llama-like and less recognizable, untitled creatures seeming to draw on a number of cultural forms — that engage spectators throughout the exhibition. A green, etched dog stands at attention on a low podium, invoking familiar spirits. Confronted with a jagged-toothed boar, a toddler at the show's opening squealed with delight and reached out to grab it. (Older visitors also felt the tactile lure.)
De Larios' propensity for childlike exploration, however, was tethered by discipline.
"Whenever she made something, she could see it finished ... in three-dimensional objects seeing that finished is pretty interesting, and especially with ceramics, if you're including the glaze in that and everything, it's the most technical of all the arts," Judge said.
"Because [ceramics has] been relegated to the craft world, it's downplayed, because it's not on the wall like a painting. (But) you can be scientific about it. ... She was very strict in her discipline and where her design was coming from."
Grinnell recalled she would test each glaze on different forms to achieve the right look, keeping notes. "There are some I like more than others," he said, pointing to a deep, mineralized turquoise-blue bust in the corner. "That is one of her favorite glazes; she was very enthused when she developed it and she used it on and off after that."
Buying something at nearly every biannual sale at De Larios' Irving Place Studio, Grinnell and his wife now have a houseful of her work that rivals if not exceeds the exhibition, he said.
De Larios received early support from a few women-owned galleries, and a 50-year retrospective at the Craft & Folk Art Museum in 2009 brought her recognition, but Judge said her mother wasn't built for self-promotion.
"Her focus was making, creating, and she had to stay in that to keep from getting depressed. Being an artist is hard; we're sensitive," said Judge, who began a dinnerware line with her mother in 2012 and continues to design, fire and glaze at Irving Place. "If someone looked at her piece the wrong way, I think she felt like she was being physically attacked. It was so tied to her physicality."
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For Lily Shentong, a 19-year-old USC student who came to the Main explore themes covered in her art history class, it was a first encounter with De Larios. She spent time with a mounted sculpture depicting smooth female faces partly obscured by deep, purposefully abstract folds. "I just like this piece a lot, the fact that there's ambiguity to it, and congruency — there's order, there's chaos. It's just mesmerizing to me."
Looking around, she added, "I feel like it's something that's really feminine. It's got this organic feeling to it that's mysterious. It has a sense of age, it has history to it. It's very different from what I see in other works by male artists."
De Larios' body of work includes several large-scale, concrete commissions; the latest will be added as a permanent fixture at the museum's entry, to be unveiled later this year.
DORA DE LARIOS: OTHER WORLDS | The Main Museum, 114 W. Fourth St., downtown | Through May 13 | themainmuseum.org