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Patti Warashina: Personal and Political

by Matthew Kangas

The Circus (Real Politique Series), 2003-04. Ceramic and mixed media, installation view. Photo: Roger Schreiber.

Recent exhibitions in New York, Spokane, and Seattle confirm the growing achievements of veteran ceramic sculptor Patti Warashina. Beginning as the ultimate escapist/fantasist in the ’60s with her sculptures Moon Dog Dream (1969) and Ketchup Kiss (1966), by the 1980s Warashina had moved on to all-white porcelain statuettes of demonic, gleeful, and revenging female figure groups. Whence the anger combined with screaming laughter? The question was left unanswered until the artist’s Bellevue Art Museum show “Realpolitique” (2003). One work, Tule Lake Retreat (2003), broke the ice in terms of mining deeper personal content for Warashina. Bearing in mind the feminist “personal is political,” Tule Lake Retreat marks the first time that the 65-year-old artist has dealt with the World War II experiences of her relatives at the Tule Lake, Idaho, internment camp for Japanese-Americans. With its anthropomorphized wooden conning tower, arms akimbo in threatening disapproval, Tule Lake Retreat is rich in biographical references. Although Warashina and her immediate family were not interned, their assets were frozen and her dentist-father was prohibited from charging his patients.

The standing figure, on second glance, appears to be a Japanese man complete with peasant’s straw hat (the tower’s roof). Hopelessly encased by and fused with the building’s interlocking latticework (executed with flawless illusionism in clay), Warashina’s rigid monument must be her late father, Heijiro, crushed by the hardships of wartime life and dead of stomach cancer five years later at age 52. Until now, all of the University of Washington professor emerita’s subjects have been female figures, possibly self-portraits, express trips to the solace and fertile ground of her subconscious memory. Her entire oeuvre has been a series of distancing strategies, amnesiac efforts to bury or dismiss the horrors and loss associated with internment.

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