'A Nun's Dream'
‘A Nun’s Dream’

The late artist and longtime Ojai resident Beatrice Wood was best known — and made her career- — as a potter, and many of her efforts went into learning the art of thrown clay. She is also known for living to the ripe old age of 105 and for spending her early years palling around with Dadaist Marcel Duchamp.

“Living in the Timeless: Drawings by Beatrice Wood” — currently at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and running through August 31 — focuses on the other side of Wood. Right up to her final years she was drawing and painting, creating works that at first look whimsical but contain undercurrents of anxiety, sexual politics, fantasy and regret.

You look like a goddess on a hairpin'
You look like a goddess on a hairpin’
'A Nun's Dream'
‘A Nun’s Dream’

The show is the second to be curated by relative newcomer Patricia Lee, and draws from two main collections: a gift to the museum by Dada and Surrealist scholar Francis M. Naumann, and selections from the Beatrice Wood Center’s permanent collection. A few come from the museum’s own collection and other gifts.

The exhibit follows no chronological order and it doesn’t really need to. While Wood never stayed in just one media, she never went through different periods or styles per se. Works from the ’20s sit alongside works from the ’70s without being too jarring. Only a sketch — two nudes, one clothed figure — from her teenage years, when she was studying in art schools in France, show classical training and education in the arts.

For a while, she dabbled in illustration, and her works from 1932 are fully within the modern jazz-age style. One can see the influence of graphic design, of the flapper, of Modigliani and by extension African and tribal art in her drawings of nubile young girls going wild in Europe. The titles come from the text they illustrated and are just as fun: “You look like a goddess on a hairpin,” “…how lucky men are!” “Her chiffon gown fell at her feet.”

But even here the influence of high art — or at least anti-commercialism — via Duchamp can be seen. The illustrations are fragments. Wood didn’t always complete figures in her drawings. She leaves out an eye, or a limb, or whatever she didn’t feel was necessary. The quiet space in a lot of her drawings is often larger than the work itself.

Illustration work continues through a lot of the works here. If she wasn’t illustrating stories, she alludes to greater narratives in her titles. Perhaps they also refer to her diaries. “Under the table he put his hand over mine” shows just that in two lightly drawn figures, just with no table in view. “If you do not go where I want you to, you will have dinner in your hotel room” contains a chastising male arm, finger wagging, and a female figure, leaning toward him, defiant and smiling. (I guess she called room service?) These drawings are fragmented emotionally as well.

Not everything is enigmatic. Some are representations of the “Spinster” that she called herself later in life after two marriages and no children. Similarly, nuns feature a lot, their inner life depicted as little men dancing about their heads. This was ironic, because there’s lots of sensual pleasure to be had. Women are often nude, the men are not, and of the few porcelain works on display, two feature healthy, wide buttocks. Although her pottery was fine-tuned, the figures on display are fun and unskilled, pinched and molded by hand, childlike in a way, knowing in another. There are ways to avail ceramic kiln for home use and for pottery as well.

This Wood show may not be the most amazing in technique, and many of these works on paper are almost like drafts or doodles. Nothing seems too worked over. However, Wood’s forceful personality shines through in all these pieces, a woman who seems unstoppable even in death.

Living in the Timeless:Drawings by Beatrice Wood
When: through August 31
Where: Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1130 State St.
Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday; 5-8 p.m. Thursday; closed July 4
Cost: $10 general admission, $6 seniors/students
Information: 963-4364, sbmuseart.org

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