Lee Mullican and Ralph Bacerra

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Lee Mullican (1919-1998) is widely known as a painter whose abstract compositions of fine lines and radiant hues captured an energy close to transcendence. Furthering the possibilities of abstract Surrealism, Mullican pursued a spiritually-based art, influenced by tribal cultures, and first shown to critical acclaim in the Dynaton exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1951. A respected teacher at UCLA and long-time resident of LA, he was given a posthumous retrospective at LACMA in 2006.

Lee Mullican, "Untitled," 1985
Image courtesy of the Estate of Lee Mullican and Marc Selwyn Fine Art

Photo by Brian Forrest

Recently, Mullican's widow and sons began going through his storage and studios here and in Taos, New Mexico and discovered a surprising and extraordinary body of work that was all but unknown: ceramics. Initially, Mullican explored working in clay after meeting Isamu Noguchi and his sister Ailes Gilmour in the 1950's. These works of unglazed red clay were inspired by pre-Columbian sculpture and masks that he had seen in Mexico and in museums. Then, in the 1980's, he returned to ceramics by working with a kiln in Taos, New Mexico.

Lee Mullican, "Untitled," n.d.
Image courtesy of the Estate of Lee Mullican and Marc Selwyn Fine Art

Photo by Brian Forrest

These are inventive, unpredictable and on view in Lee Mullican: Shatter Special at an alternative space called Equitable Vitrines that is temporarily housed in a commercial space in Beverly Hills through November 21. (The Mullican Estate is represented by the Marc Selwyn Fine Art across the street.) Mullican's dry humor, not evident in his paintings or drawings, shows up in ceramics that can look like animated tree trunks or wacky faces. Others are loosely modeled by hand and obsessively covered with lines and dots and casual marks.

Lee Mullican, "Untitled," 1985
Image courtesy of the Estate of Lee Mullican and Marc Selwyn Fine Art

Photo by Brian Forrest

The show also includes digital prints that Mullican made in the 1980's when he was experimenting with the possibilities of the UCLA computer lab as well as slides that he altered to present as abstract slides. A survey of richly patterned paintings by Mullican offers enticing connections to the newly discovered works. Altogether, the show expands our awareness of the gifts of this extremely imaginative artist.

Ralph Baccera, "Untitled Gold Vessel," 2001
Earthenware; 31 ½ x 22 x 22 inches
Collection of Peter and Cindy Bass / Cindy Lee Bass, Executor of the Ralph Bacerra Estate

Ceramics may not have been the primary art of Mullican but it was everything to artist Ralph Bacerra (1938-2008). He was chair of the ceramics program at Chouinard Art Institute from 1963-1971 and was chair of the ceramic program at what is now Otis College of Art and Design from 1983 to 1996.

Ralph Baccera, "Untitled Cloud Vessel," 1997
Porcelain; 20 ½ x 13 x 6 inches
Collection of Saul E. Levi
Photo by David Peters

Exquisite Beauty, a 90-piece survey organized by Jo Lauria, demonstrates why Bacerra was such a force in Southern California ceramics. There are platters, vases, bowls and sculptural pieces, but his defining style is an elaborate surface decoration of rich colors like red, blue, teal, plum, tangerine, or emerald with whites and blacks and offset with brilliant rays of lustrous gold. (Apparently, he learned these iridescent glaze techniques from the legendary Ojai artist Beatrice Wood.)

Ralph Baccera, "Portrait Vessel," 1991
Whiteware; 25 x 22 x 4 ¾ inches
Collection of the Arizona State University Art Museum; Gift of Anne and Sam Davis
Photo by David Peters

Asian ceramics are an obvious influence especially Japanese Imari and Chinese Tang however Bacerra is very much a part of the post-modern design history of Los Angeles. His work was extremely innovative in its multi-layered geometric ornamentation using triangles, circles, angles, squares, zig-zags, swirls and arabesques. They are the antithesis of the minimal restraint that tended to dominate the craft-based aesthetic. Function was not his primary concern yet the show includes quite a number of platters, bowls and plates that were used for entertaining by Bacerra himself, an avid and devoted chef. The show continues through December 6.