Up Against It, Robert Arneson

Robert Arneson (American, 1930 - 1992) 

Up Against It, 1978 

Molded and hand-built glazed stoneware 

Gift of The Contemporary Museum, Honolulu, 2011, and gift of Eileen and Peter Norton, (TCM.2001.13) 

Robert Arneson was a pivotal figure in American contemporary ceramics and sculpture. Along with Peter Voulkos and Toshiko Takaezu, whose works are shown nearby, Arneson established clay as a legitimate material for sculpture. In the 1960s, Arneson and several other artists in the Northern California/Bay Area region created a sensibility which became known as Funk Art, which, in reaction against the nonobjectivity of Abstract Expressionism, brought figuration back as subject matter in art. The name was derived from the jazz musical term “funky,” describing the passionate, sensuous, and quirky. 

In the late 1970s Arneson began making self-portrait heads in which he assaults his own image, such as Up Against It, in which his features are distorted by external forces. Arneson was influenced, in part, by historical images, as we know from his sketchbooks of the period that he was looking at both the distortions of a self-portrait sketch by the 17th-century Flemish artist Adriaen Brouwer pulling faces in a mirror and at the grimacing self-portrait sculptures of the 18th-century Austrian eccentric Franz Xaver Messerschmidt. In Up Against It, Arneson humorously but palpably captures the physical sensation of discomfort upon encountering a barrier literally head on, although here it is invisible and hence imaginary.