Friday, February 26, 2010

AU Alums and Faculty Featured in Chelsea Show: Diverse Painting to the Max

AU alum Kate Gartrell reviews a show featuring AU Alumni and Faculty.

In her New York Times piece “Post-Minimal to the Max” (Feb 10, 2010), Roberta Smith critiqued the recent overabundance of blockbuster museum exhibitions by big-name post-minimalist artists. Citing MOMA’s current Gabriel Orozco retrospective, The New Museum’s recent Urs Fisher show, and The Whitney’s Roni Horn retrospective, among others, Smith argues convincingly that major NY museums have developed a peculiar myopia in the kind of work they showcase:

…regardless of what you think about these artists individually, their shows share a visual austerity and coolness of temperature that are dispiritingly one-note. After encountering so many bare walls and open spaces, after examining so many amalgams of photography, altered objects, seductive materials and Conceptual puzzles awaiting deciphering, I started to feel as if it were all part of a big-box chain featuring only one brand.

If Orozco’s lonely cardboard box and yogurt tops were getting her down, Smith ought to have hopped the subway to Denise Bibro Fine Art in Chelsea, where a recent show of work by alums and faculty of Chautauqua Art School would have provided a generous antidote. “Chautauqua: A Continuum of Creativity,” featured works by 25 faculty and 25 alums of the long-running summer program in its 100th anniversary year. Owing to the school’s strong tradition in painting, most of the 50 artists represented are painters, and a number also have ties to American University’s art department. The diversity of painting styles represented, however, speaks as evidence not only of a vibrant and multi-generational painting culture, but also of a pluralist educational philosophy at work in the two institutions.

As an alumna myself of AU’s MFA program, I often tell people that one strength of the program right now is its diversity. Retaining its traditional base as a “painter’s” painting program, AU has evolved to include faculty trained in modernist, post-modernist, and contemporary art theory and practices. AU faculty represented in the Chautauqua show are Don Kimes and Stanley Lewis. The list of one-time AU visiting artists in the show includes Julie Langsam, Elena Sisto, Glenn Goldberg, Charlie Hewitt, and Stephen Westfall. In one stroke, this handful of artists represents the continual presence of modernism (Hewitt’s expressive abstractions, and Westfall’s minimal and op-art pieces) and its questioning by a new generation (Langsam, who shows us the “setting sun” of modernism, led a provocative seminar at Chautauqua last summer).

“Pluralism” and “diversity” may sound like buzzwords, but let’s not underestimate their relevance in the context of art education. Particularly at the graduate level, students are often engaged– and rightly so – in evaluating what they’ve been taught previously, deciding what to hold on to and what to set aside. Artists or not, most people go through a similar process in their 20’s in relation to their parents. As students we have the right and responsibility of exposure to a range of possibilities. I often reflect that I could have gone to a more stalwart (formalist) “painting” program than American, but if I had, I would have missed making an informed and enthusiastically affirmed decision to paint as I do.

AU student alums included in the show are Heidi Leitzke (Italy Program), Whitney Kovar (BA), Jeremy Long (Italy Program and MFA), Amber Scoon (Italy Program MFA), Alyse Rosner (MFA), myself (MFA), and Dan Steinhilber (MFA). The diversity and strength of their work suggests that these young artists used the plurality of AU and Chautauqua’s painting cultures to push their work towards deeper individuality. From Scoon’s textured lead sculptures, to Leitzke’s imagined undersea-scapes, to Long’s Piero-esque interiors, their work reveals a process of absorbing influences to hone an individual vision.

As the show at Bibro Fine Art suggests, Chautauqua and American remain two places in an “anything goes” art world where students can go to begin absorbing and making sense of contemporary painting’s diversity. Those who share Roberta Smith’s misgivings about post-minimalist monotony in the city’s museums can take comfort this diversity. Now if only MOMA would sit up and take notice…

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