Beatrice Wood was fixture in the spiritual surrealism of Ojai since 1948, a pivotal figure in the European-inflected East Coast Dadaist avant-garde of the three decades prior to her California move, a legend among crossover niche fans of progressive ceramics, proto-feminist independent thought, and particularly cheeky, brilliant old ladies — but above all, this famous lover of “chocolate, art books, and young men” was a storyteller.
Her proprietary techniques and secretive ceramics practices — like, literally encrypted glaze formulas and other still-unsolved mysteries of her studio — yielded lustrous, gleaming surfaces that paired with her rustic, hand-formed textures and contours to great effect. Wood’s vessels and tablewares combine the regal, shimmering luxe of rich pigments and tactile sensuousness with the hand-formed casual elegance of folk craft. Her figures and scenic tableaux were often treated like paintings in their blocking and symbolism, telling tales of the body and the mind, and offering a much more expansive field for her rather ribald sense of humor to express itself.
But even as she is known, including among her biggest fans, largely on the strengths of her groundbreaking work in clay, she’d also maintained a robust drawing, diary-keeping, and printmaking practice since early experiments in Dada in circa 1920 New York, right through to her death in Ojai in 1998 at the age of 105. As the current exhibition at LA Louver shows, it was in fact here in these prints and drawings where she worked out some of her most personal and provocative ideas about love, sex, occasionally politics, and always the value of a good risqué pun.
Drawn from the extensive collection of scholar and curator Francis M. Naumann, presenting works dating from 1917 to 1996, the exhibition includes scores of prints and drawings along with a haul of clay-based treasures. Seen in proximity and with sightlines across both depth and breadth, the exhibition’s appeal — aside from the deathless joy of the works themselves — is the explication of the ongoing interplay between Wood’s considerable creative inspirations and the affecting events of her own long, fascinating life. From evocative sketched portraits of her friends, colleagues, and collectors, to energetic renderings of parties, romances, and sexual adventures, and more stylized, abstract compositions and oblique references to political moments, Beato, as she was affectionately known, committed everything to memory by committing it to paper.
As much as Beato never vocally embraced the label per se, the life she lived was and continues to be an example of free-thinking feminist desire for self-determination — and as the details of her life enjoy a revival among new generations discovering her now, this part of her story only continues to grow in importance. And she was always deeply invested in dynamics between and among women — especially the scandalously independent women such as herself, who were committed to making the 20th century more interesting. Her 1928 work “Actresses” hearkens back to the iconic 1594 nipple-pinch in “Gabrielle d’Estrées et une de ses soeurs,” while her 1991 work “Discussion on Abortion” channels an organic cubist energy to represent the fractious nature of the debate as divorced from the visceral reality of the experience.
But in terms of her drawings, it was her lifelong captivation with the alluring and absurd dynamics between men and women where her wild wit and accumulated wisdom of the heart truly shone. One project in particular, the Bed Stories portfolio, continues to titillate and charm — and in a fitting tribute to Beato’s legacy, to inspire a whole line of artisanal chocolates directly based on it and related drawings, which lend themselves to interpretation as flavors in small-batch aphrodisiac treats.
Beato Chocolates, an Ojai company founded by Lisa Casoni and Heather Stobo of Porch Gallery in collaboration with Ojai’s Beatrice Wood Center for the Arts, use Wood’s original artwork to create homage packaging for its locally made fair trade chocolates. For example, “Menage a Trois” is a dark cocoa, toffee and sea salt recipe based on the piece “Two Men with a Single Thought,” while the milk chocolate formula pays homage to “The Pussy Between Us,” which is not really about the cat on the bed, though Beato did love her cats as much as she loved her chocolate. “Bored at a Cocktail Party” sports the 1987 drawing of the same name, along with pretzels and peanut butter and the salient remark that, “There was only one reason Beato would be bored at a cocktail party — the lack of a handsome man with an interest in her.” Which is a scenario that is all but impossible to imagine.
Beatrice Wood: Drawings, Prints, and Ceramics is on view in Venice through Oct. 29; for more information visit lalouver.com.
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