“I have exposed myself to art so that my work has something beyond just the usual potter,” renowned artist Beatrice Wood once said. Indeed, this philosophy seems to infuse every corner of her Center for the Arts in Ojai, which somehow feels more like the home of a well-traveled art history professor than a gallery-museum. And the gallery’s latest exhibition, Contemporary California Clay, is right at home in the world of Beatrice Wood. Incorporating around 60 pieces from 25 artists, the exhibit offers unexpected combinations of cultures, styles and forms.

Just visiting the Beatrice Wood Art Gallery is a full immersion experience. After nearly an hour-long drive through the Ojai Valley and onto Highway 150, the idyllic setting put me into that nature-appreciating, artistic mindset in which I wistfully imagine what it would feel like to have ceramics experience beyond elementary school pinch-pot projects. The panoramic view of Beato’s beloved Happy Valley had me in cliché transcendental-poet mode before I even opened the door.

But not a solitary Hudson River School oil is to be found within the walls of the Mama of Dada’s home-turned-gallery. Augmenting the permanent collection of Woods’ works adorning the walls — and the occasional fireplace mantel — is the first of two small rooms devoted to Contemporary California Clay, which began July 12 and runs through August 24. Coated in wrap-around display cases and punctuated with three pedestals, the arrangement of the works is compact in the first room; the Logan Gallery section of the exhibit, which houses some of the larger pieces, is roomier.

Admittedly, for this small-time art appreciator, the scene was initially a little overwhelming. Accustomed to the largely canvas-confined genre of painting, I fixated on the sheer variety of shape and form. A series of iridescent plates looked down on a collection of curving black sculptures decorated with creamy geometric patterns. I studied for several confused seconds the elaborately angular Karl Yost work “Teapot” before I could locate a spout. Yes, it was, in fact, a teapot. And yes, my confidence in my artistic sensibilities was a little shaken.

Clearly, this exhibit is aiming for “beyond just the usual potter.” And, bearing in mind the life and art of the gallery’s namesake, what at first seems disparate is often a call to the artist within every viewer. Beatrice Wood’s own multimedia works deliberately showcase influences from France to India to Japan, and from Bohemianism to Dadaism (for more on Wood, see “Of Art and Men,” Arts, 3/13/2008). And the pieces of the Contemporary California Clay exhibition continue this tradition of disarmingly potent fusions of cultures and periods.

Despite the gamut of artistic visions and tastes in the exhibition, each piece seems to complexly balance the artist’s influences and own innovations. Latin American punches of color, Middle Eastern arabesques and mathematical and geometric elements shine through many of the works. Incarnated variously in the coloring, decoration and sometimes the title of a piece, these combinations quietly connect otherwise dissimilar works, and highlight elements of each other that might only be noticed through comparison.

Further reflecting Wood’s own artistic ventures, the most prevalent influence among the exhibition pieces seems to be Asian cultures and artistic traditions. Whether a few decorative dark lines evoking wood-block images, or a lotus relief rising from a jade-glazed plate, I was drawn to artists whose works touched on oriental themes.

2This isn’t to say the individual pieces can’t hold their own outside a clever arrangement or mental game of compare-contrast. Particularly striking to me was Karl Tani’s collection of Zen stoneware. “Stick and Stone Zen Bowl” attracts attention with its irregular shape contrasted by patterns of parallel and curving lines in various shades of brown. The inclusion of driftwood and a sea-polished stone bring to mind the sensory world of beach combing, but with a sense of fluidity and peace. I am not one to usually imbibe inner peace from dishes, but in the realm of the Beatrice Wood Center for the Arts, I wanted to try to see beyond just the prettiness — or disquietude — of the ceramics.

It is that dichotomous challenge to both artist and viewer of seeing “beyond just” that lends a unique, eclectic atmosphere to California Contemporary Clay. This type of art appreciation won’t necessarily appeal to every art lover. And, of course, there were some pieces I didn’t understand, connect with or really even like. For the most part, however, the exhibit’s individual works coexist in a complimentary way, a way that travels in step with the permanent collection of Beatrice Wood’s own creations.   

Contemporary California Clay runs through Aug. 24 at the Beatrice Wood Center for the Arts (8560 Ojai-Santa Paula Rd., Ojai, 646-3381). The gallery is open Fri.-Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. For more information, visit www.beatricewood.com.