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Drink Up: Ceramacist Irvin Tepper likes to scrunch, fold and deform coffee cups.

Coffee Calling

The lowly coffee cup ascends to art in the hands of Irvin Tepper

By Michael S. Gant

ARTIST IRVIN TEPPER would like a macchiato, but he'll settle for a cappuccino. I order a shot of espresso. We're in line at the cafe on the San Jose State University campus, where a retrospective of Tepper's work is on display through Nov. 8. Our drinks come in nondescript Styrofoam cups, but curiously, the graphic printed on the side depicts a sturdy, old-fashioned ceramic cup, the kind that waitresses who call you "Hon" sling around diners. And that shape--rounded, capacious, with a full-sized loop in which to stick your fingers--has been a constant theme in Tepper's art since 1975.

Tepper has transformed that platonic shape (and its faithful saucer) into a thousand variations--some sketched, some cast in bronze, most slip-cast and kiln-fired, then enlarged, deformed, crumpled and sanded to a papery thinness. They are cups as ruins, like ancient buildings evoking past grandeur, or at least past grandiose conversations fueled by caffeine. "I drank too much coffee," Tepper confirms about his days as a young artist/photographer/conceptualist hanging out in cafes in San Francisco's North Beach. He started sipping espressos early, before 8am, at Cafe Trieste. He spent time across the bay, on Telegraph in Berkeley, at the Mediterranean. Some days, he'd get up to 14 espressos. He says he's cut back.

For Tepper, the classic coffee cup is like a universal ear, soaking up the stories of everyone who sits down at a cafe table and starts talking. In the margins of his drawings of coffee cups, Tepper often writes down snatches of overheard coffeehouse philosophizing and confession: a mother arguing with her daughter; a man musing about the strangers around him. Always wide open, Tepper's cups are also like mouths. They talk back. The "Complaining Cup" of 1979 can't resist offering its own comments: "I'm the cup and I've got problems too. ... [The owner's] son says, 'We need new child, this stuff is old and worn out.'"

It's a full-time job keeping up with coffee cups. In his search for the multiple variations in shape and applied designs of restaurant ware, Tepper has accumulated hundreds of examples. "I've bought cups from around the world," he explains. "I discovered eBay, and I became obsessed; I couldn't stop." Tepper, who teaches industrial design at the Pratt Institute in New York, plans to turn the tables on his subject, with his own limited-edition artist's creations: a saki set, triangular plates, even salt and pepper shakers. You can see samples of Tepper's works in the handsome hardbound catalog for the show; it's a genuine coffee-table (appropriately) book--a first for the art gallery. The text is fascinating, and the illustrations copious, but they can't do justice to the varying scale and subtle, almost translucent textures of the pieces themselves, which should be savored close up, like a damn fine cup of coffee.

When Cups Speak: Life with the Cup, works by Irvin Tepper, shows through Nov. 8 at the Natalie and James Thompson Art Gallery, inside the Art Building, San Jose State University.

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From the October 17-23, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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