At 80, Peter VandenBerge is arguably the region’s premier ceramic sculptor. His work, both evocative of deep spirituality and often tinged with humor, is on a par with the works of Stephen DeStaebler and Robert Arneson.
As a student, first at Sacramento State, where he later taught for many years, and UC Davis, where his whimsical work partook of the funk ethos but with a light touch all his own, he first gained attention for his carrot people occupying a mythical world.
A trip to Paris, where he sought out the Italian sculptor Alberto Giacometti, was also a big part of his education and may be responsible for the seriousness and sophistication of his later works. Several of these make up a show titled “Peter and Company” at b. sakata garo.
“Company” seems to have a double meaning here. His sculptures, mostly long-faced busts of males and females, reflect his roots in the Netherlands where he was born, Indonesia where he lived as a child (spending some time during the World War II in a Japanese prison camp), and a European modernist stance that elevates his work beyond “California Cute.” These sculptures, one feels, are companions of his soul.
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But VandenBerge gives another twist to the word when he talks about working in a shared studio with his daughter Camille, an accomplished ceramic sculptor in her own right.
“I learn from her; she learns from me,” he says and points out that the two have collaborated on a couple of the pieces in the show.
“Tea for Me” is a lovely woman, sculpted by the daughter, with a teapot, made by the father. on her head. “Poet” is another engaging woman sculpted by the father with a book made by the daughter on her head. Both are charming pieces, as is “Wind Watcher,” made entirely by Camille VandenBerge, in the form of a woman with a sailboat on her head. She wears a hat that makes her look a bit like a flapper from the 1920s.
But the bulk of the show is composed of strong pieces by Peter VandenBerge that in many cases involve animals sitting atop the long-faced heads.
“Caregiver” is an emaciated Buddha-like head with an elephant on top. Its warm gray stains and glazes give it the look of a Southeast Asian sculpture, while the elephant calls attention to the plight of elephants there and in Africa, where “73,000 elephants were killed for their tusks last year,” VandenBerge observes. “The man is looking inward to find the strength to stand up for what’s right.”
“Companions” is a blue-eyed Dutchman with a calf curled up on his head. VandenBerge recently spent time in Holland with his dying brother. He tears up as he recalls that time yet says it also brought back fond memories of the country when he was a kid and farmers really cared for their animals.
A jaunty sailboat perches on the head of “Sailor Boy,” a youth who, like VandenBerge, loves the sea. The boy has a young, innocent, faraway look in his eyes and the smooth skin of youth.
“From childhood, I loved sailing,” VandenBerge said. “Ships, the sea and the ocean were part of my life.”
“Listening to Liszt” reflects another of his loves – classical music. It takes the form of an introspective woman looking inwards as she listens to music. Her face is a canvas for subtle colors – chrome and cobalt blues – applied to slip and wiped off and then covered with a thin layer of glaze. The surface offers a contemplative field for meditation. This and all of VandenBerge’s figures show him to be as much a painter as a sculptor.
He uses a lighter touch with the humorous “Last Tango in Durango,” a mustachioed cowboy with devilish eyes, and “Henri’s Hideaway,” a charming ceramic house with a figure of Henri Matisse in a wheelchair inside and motifs taken from the French artist’s wonderful cut-outs painted on the back of the house. It provides a delightful coda to a marvelous show.
Peter VandenBerge: “Peter and Company”
Where: b. sakata garo, 923 20th St., Sacramento
When: Through Oct. 31; Noon-6 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday
Information: 916-447-4276; www.bsakatagaro.com