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Ceramist Allan Rosenbaum is in the spotlight with a Hand Workshop exhibition, a public art commission and the design for the new Governor's Award for the Arts.

A Career in Clay

Ceramist Allan Rosenbaum finds a certain contentment in hovering between different realms. As an associate professor of ceramics at Virginia Commonwealth University and as a professional artist, he's learned the delicate balance one achieves while teaching and perfecting artistic prowess. The clay he fires, too, diffuses the lines between the literal and the fanciful, daringly straddling and enlarging the parameters of pop art, the inanimate and the surreal.

This fall, with the opening of his joint exhibition with the nationally acclaimed sculptor Yuriko Yamaguchi at the Hand Workshop Art Center Sept. 8, and two major commissions coming to fruition, Rosenbaum is pleased to see years of hard work merging the many sectors of his passions.

"It's been sort of manic," he says, laughing. "It's been real exciting, too. I'm making work that's going all around the country. My art is leaving the studio as soon as I complete it."

Rosenbaum's work is part of such private collections as the Arkansas Art Center Decorative Arts Museum, the Madison Art Center and the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery, which snapped up his 1998 work "Lineman," last January.

A native of St. Louis, Rosenbaum has taught at VCU since he received his MFA there in the late 1980s. His wife, author and playwright Laura Browder, recently published the nonfiction work "Slippery Characters: Ethnic Impersonators and American Identities." The couple lives in Church Hill with their 1-year-old daughter.

The upcoming Hand Workshop exhibition "Poetic License" will feature such works as Rosenbaum's glazed ceramic "Stream," which depicts an overstuffed easy chair with graceful references to the human hand. The cushion of the work's chair unexpectedly sequesters a spigot that, with Magrittelike spontaneity, heralds forth an animated rush of water.

"I try to make various unrelated pairings suggestive but somewhat enigmatic," Rosenbaum says while relaxing in his VCU office. "People have equated the image of the stream with a life force. They see the overall piece as a stand-in for the female figure. My job is to look for those images that are thought provoking but that do not spell out the story line, so I leave it open to multiple interpretations. People bring their own experiences to the piece and come up with their own conclusions — and for me that's what's most interesting."

The artist infuses his color-charged, bulbous forms of everyday objects with human references, from pipelike motifs that read like raging capillaries or hands kneading a loaf hauntingly reminiscent of an intestinal segment. He inscribes the surfaces of his work, too, with a sprinkling of symbolic etchings that, like the images themselves, comment on his own memories, on art historical references, landscapes or urban structures.

Ashley Kistler, curator of the Hand Workshop, finds commonalties between Rosenbaum's work and the humor and irreverence of pop and West-Coast funk artists of the '60s. "He mentions especially the liberating work of California artist Robert Arneson," she writes in the show catalog, "whose surreal, iconoclastic interpretations of household items in the mid-sixties helped to catapult the medium of clay from the realm of crafts to that of sculpture."

Kistler also has selected for the show a series of clay maquettes that served as models for the artist's larger pieces. These miniature models provide a tactile trail of the thoughts behind the progressively distilled imagery and themes he's explored through the years. "Oftentimes when I'm building one piece, I'll have an idea for another piece, and I can just make a model for it before my thoughts fade away," he explains, "to test it."

"Poetic License" follows a solo showing of Rosenbaum's work at the Clay Studio in Philadelphia this summer and coincides with "Bourbon Bottles," a national invitational featuring works that reinterpret the bourbon bottle at Louisville's Kentucky Art and Craft Gallery.

Rosenbaum's "Cradle," his recent commission for the Richmond Ambulance Authority, will grace the site's Hermitage Road entrance sometime later this year. The bronze image includes a pair of hands sheltering a cityscape, a composition that, he observes, "symbolizes the role that the Richmond Ambulance Authority plays for the city."

Rosenbaum also was tapped to design the recently revived interdisciplinary Governor's Awards for the Arts 2000, which will be presented to nine Virginia artists at the Carpenter Center Oct. 14. The design, a hand clutching a flashlight, recalls the search symbol used by some computer software programs, illustrating in a pop art vernacular the challenge inherent in discovery.

Considering his opportunity to work in bronze with "Cradle" and on a smaller scale than usual with the Governor's Award, the soft-spoken Rosenbaum pauses, then notes, "One of the great joys at this point for me after working with ceramics for 30 years is to be confronted with these challenges. The last thing that I want to do is only the things that I know."

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