Patti Warashina, Servicing Duchamp's Porcelin, 1993, low-fire clay, underglaze, glaze, mixed media. 45 x 21 x 13 in. Collection of the artist.

In 1917 Marcel Duchamp bought a porcelain urinal, titled it Fountain, and dubbed it a work of art. In 1993, Patti Warashina took a feminist jab at Duchamp’s famous vulva-shaped urinal when she created the punning clay sculpture Servicing Duchamp’s Porcelain. It’s a curtsying maid, holding the long handle of a toilet plunger, ready to go to work.

Throughout a 50-year career, Warashina has been crafting smart, funny, sometimes heartrending figurative sculptures with masterful proficiency and subversive humor. But as the retrospective exhibit Wit and Wisdom at Bellevue Arts Museum makes clear, she is just as adept with pencil and paint, and her creative imagination equal with the best. Now in her 70s, Warashina stands out as one of the Northwest’s most provocative and delightful artists. Even for people familiar with the range of her work, this show of more than 120 pieces holds surprises.

As an art student at the University of Washington in the early 1960s, Warashina noted the macho environment of the ceramics studio. In those days, female students were left out of discussions about operating the kilns—that was guy stuff, just too mechanical for girls to understand. Warashina later struck back with humor, making a series of ornate little clay sculptures of kilns, outfitted with all kinds of frills, pipes, flames, and embellishments. To her, kilns were womb-like. Her 1971 Kiln with Plumbing is enclosed in such a complicated structure it suggests a chastity belt.

By that time, Warashina had returned to UW as a faculty member and in 1976 married instructor and preeminent ceramist Robert Sperry (1927–1998). 

From her early surrealism and California Funk–influenced sculptures—including the knockout 1969 Airstream Turkey, a sleek silver trailer-bird with gear-stick drumsticks—Warashina’s imagery has evolved through many styles and formats, from intricate miniature tableaus to giant seven-foot-tall statues and exquisite white nude figures, evocative of the swarming humans in Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights.  BAM director of art Stefano Catalani arranged the show by time period and brought in loans from local collections, referencing well-known public artworks through photographs.

Patti Warashina, Airstream Turkey, 1969, low-fire clay, underglaze, glaze, luster. 9.5 x 9.75 x 9.5 in. Collection of Seattle Art Museum/gift of Anne and Sidney Gerber.

Wit and Wisdom was organized by the American Museum of Ceramic Art in Pomona, California, and includes an excellent catalog. The comprehensive essay by art historian Martha Kingsbury provides insights into how Warashina’s personal history and experiences as a Japanese American woman play out in the feminist politics and social commentary of her work.

Patti Warashina: Wit and Wisdom
July 12–Oct 27, Bellevue Arts Museum

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