“The art of seeing well is a necessary skill, which fortunately can be learned.”
Michael Kimmelman, "The Accidental Masterpiece"
What if anything connects the diversity of work presented by the six artists in this exhibition? Besides the fact that they all are Art Center alumni, it seems to me that the creative endeavors presented here could only have been the work of educated artists - artists armed with a skeptical yet fertile knowledge of historical precedent, visual culture and with a particular insight into contemporary critical thinking. These disparate artworks, executed in a variety of familiar and new languages, are also technically well made – using the old to make something new. The varied intentions in these works by Mark Tansey, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Jennifer Steinkamp, Pae White, Sharon Lockhart and Charlie White have at least one thing in common, they embody an excellence revealed through an integration of making and meaning, which has long been the essence of Art Center’s fine art program.
At Art Center, students are encouraged to see art as more than a purely expressive pursuit, but equally as an intellectual inquiry. The art department nurtures a mastery of mediums, critical awareness, visual experimentation and verbal competitiveness. The teaching here is evolutionary, the result of restless introspection and cultural reflection, derived from a consideration of what art has been and suggesting possibilities for what can come next.
This first exhibition of a small selection of notable alumni working in fine art will hopefully be followed by others, since there are fascinating threads and linkages that could be revealed in various potential groupings. For example, in these particular selections from work by Sugimoto, Lockhart and Tansey, we can see a form of self-consciousness regarding the implications of modernism and the possibilities for art making; while in other potential alumni groupings - perhaps with artists like Pae White and Jorge Pardo, or Jennifer Steinkamp and Doug Aitkin we might experience the dissolving of boundaries between art and design, or art and mass media. We live in a multi-cultural age flooded with information and entertainment and technological innovation, a circumstance mirrored by the collision of ideals we see daily in the work of our students in both applied art and fine art. This perpetual conflict of values is increasingly understood and illuminated through the open-minded and complex work explored here by Art Center’s alumni.
"The first service of an art school is to give the prospective student a view to the many specialized fields of art application and to discuss the student's work and ambition with him and his parents."
-- Which Art School? brochure produced by the Art Center School, 1935
Its name has begun with "art" since its 1930 inception, and even in its early years, the school offered courses with titles like "Significance of Art," and classes in still-life and figure drawing. Yet its mission eschewed students pursuing applications of their talents and training in the field of what Art Center College of Design now terms "fine art." Its founders favored guiding students toward "art applications" in fields one might call (to use problematic terminology) the "commercial arts."
Fine art didn't edge its way in until later. Its presence became felt as the result of the collective presence of numerous artists teaching in the school, including Lorser Feitelson, who eventually launched a painting program. It evolved into the Fine Art Program in the late 1960s and 70s. Key teachers in the Fine Art Program's early years included Llyn Foulkes, Scott Grieger, Renée Petropolous, and Laurence Dreiband, who is now the program's chair. The program has continued to evolve, offering multiple specializations alongside the Art Center's other established tracks, and in the late 1980s, developing a world class graduate program with the support of then president David Brown, and with the help of faculty Richard Hertz, Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, Stephen Prina, Mike Kelly, Liz Larner, Lita Albuquerque, Patti Podesta and others.
The six artists in this exhibition--Sharon Lockhart, Jennifer Steinkamp, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Mark Tansey, Charlie White, and Pae White--as representatives of an ever growing roster of impressive alumni, remind us that while still relatively small compared to the collection of other goings on at Art Center, fine art has become one of the college's major art applications.
From when Edward Kaminski first began erecting elaborate still-life constructions for the study of would-be product photographers in the 1930s, Art Center's photography program has been known for its emphasis on technical mastery. Kaminski's penchant for mingling chance and control in studio setups comprised of found objects lives on in the work of Hiroshi Sugimoto, whose projects often have involved the careful selection, styling and photographing of what are in essence found studio setups. These include works made at Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum, where models never once broke their poses as Sugimoto arranged lighting based upon Hans Holbein paintings; studies of shadows in a Tokyo apartment, which he had replastered to most evenly distribute light; and photos of vintage German "stereometric exemplars"--hand-made three-dimensional models of trigonometric functions that uncannily resemble early modernist sculptures. Included in this exhibition are photos from his "Theaters" series, in which he opened the shutter of his camera for the duration of whatever film was playing in a given movie palace, resulting in a glowing white rectangle that, while occupying the center of each image, functions principally as source of illumination for the periphery, which becomes the photo studio, the object and the main event.
The highly produced setup and staging of photographs, as well as films, also has become central to the work of Sharon Lockhart. This is to be expected from an artist, perhaps better understood as an auteur, who--in projects ranging from filming choreographed practice drills enacted by a girls' basketball team to photographing art installers posing as if in action with a hyperrealist Duane Hanson sculpture of construction workers taking a break--often has tended toward a kind of deadpan, baroque, social theater. Such is true of Lockhart's photos in this exhibition, which picture an individual attempting to recreate the process used by Morris Louis to create his paintings. Marrying the sentiment of the debunker, the do-it-yourselfer and the kitchen tester with the odd homage of Hans Namuth's films and photos of Jackson Pollock at work, Lockhart's progressive pictures of pictures in progress throw a kink into the symbiosis and tug-of-war as to both the ability to command attention and reason to exist of both the image and its objects.
Highly auteuristic, the works of Charlie White harken to a role once commonly occupied by artists--that of committing to image what could not be recorded visually in history/myth. Though popular film has never shied from recreating, with varying degrees of fidelity, even well-documented scenes, as well at the utterly mythic, makers of static art images seem often to have succumbed to a post-photographic fear of giving image to that which already has been captured on film, or that which has not. As evident in works such as "Champion," however, White, using the camera as a device of both capture and fabrication, pulls into photography what once was the task and luxury of painters and sculptors, and draws from the examples of their varied accounts to imagine, and to give image. And in using photography, as well as following the Renaissance and Baroque convention of staging the mythological and historical in the present, he brings myth into our present. "Champion" as much depicts David and Goliath as it does a son of privilege wrapped in a bed sheet after having done something very bad. White's play between the known myth and the mythical known extends as well into his recreations of scenes we do in fact know or relate to from photographs, and blurs the status of those images as to their existence as recordings or filters.
The photographic, or photographish, image also is central to the recent work of Pae White--large tapestries generated via a computer-assisted weaving process from digital scans of collages and other hand manipulations of two-dimensional material. These works, which fall between graphic design, product design and fine art production in both practice and reference, are perfect examples of White's oeuvre, which takes hints from the turn of postminimalist sculptors and painters toward unconventional materials, formats and venues; the conceptual artists' move away from media specific practice; the Pattern and Decoration movement's embrace of that for which it is named; and the designer's varied consideration of audience, end- use and context in the conceptualization and generation of product. White's work reminds that all such concerns once were within the consideration of what today history has rarified as "fine artists," though such individuals once involved themselves in what today would be broken into the practices of illustrator, graphic designer and decorator. And in so doing, White's work places its viewers (read: navigators, users, participants) at an intersection where the stylistic and decorative meet the social.
Such an intersection is precisely where one finds oneself with Jennifer Steinkamp, who perhaps more than anyone else in this exhibition represents a case of talent and inclination meeting opportunity and access. Initially an advertising major, Steinkamp started and finished her ten years of off-and-on undergraduate study at Art Center--the later part of it coinciding with her also functioning in the college as a teacher's assistant, instructor and systems administrator--and then completed her graduate studies at Art Center as well. Steinkamp and Art Center's undergraduate and graduate fine art programs literally grew up together. Undeniably, there were other key influences in her development, but where else could the mature Steinkamp--an individual who has found in digital animation a meeting place for the abject, formal, beautiful, political and sublime--have developed than in a place where she could bounce ideas off the likes of Mike Kelley, Patti Podesta, and Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, and then go tinker around in the Silicon Graphics lab? What is at least in part the echo of such experience is found in the evocative, digitally animated explorations of natural form and movement in this exhibition.
And while painters of his generation turned back toward representational imagery in a variety of contexts, Art Center also would seem to have been an ideal simmering pot for Mark Tansey. The artist has commented that his best education came from his work as a professional illustrator, and Tansey's paintings in fact function as illustrations. Some might read that as a negative comment, but read on. The relationship between an illustration image and a text is in best circumstances a companionship arrangement in which neither becomes a redundancy. Successful illustration expands and even helps you find the text, even when it's right there on the page. This is true of Tansey's paintings, which exist in companion relationship to the interwoven and expanding texts of contemporary discourse (of art, culture, society). No doubt the legitimacy of making images in such relation--in a manner that in Tansey's example is clearly less get-along-and-go-along, but nonetheless very much in the tradition of what long was art's role-- was reinforced in Tansey's experience at a college including both a strong foundational curriculum and a program dedicated to illustration. In Tansey's case, this seems both the result of the example of practice and the example of faith, as such is what separates him from many artists who began making image-based painting in the 1970s. While it would seem many were caught up in the debate as to what a painted or drawn image could or couldn't do (with much work of the period bound in a perverse blend of relish and self-doubt), Tansey, though instinctively critical, never showed a lack of faith in representational painting.
Attempts to explain artists' practices as the sum of training deserve our skepticism. After all, what schooling could possibly explain Charlie White? I cling, in part because of artists like him, to the idea that artists are somewhat born talents, or at least mostly the products of influences that piled up long before they found themselves in art school. Yet from sculptor Michelangelo's decision to take a job painting a ceiling to one-time painting student Richard Serra's impulse to tinker with the industrial materials he knew from old day jobs, history has shown that the emergence of artists' talents or capacities is shaped by opportunity, access and experience. Perhaps this is where these six very different artists find common ground at Art Center--that in proximity and contact with the multiple "art applications" that seem almost to eclipse fine art in the college--whether taking an odd elective class outside the fine art program, picking up a day job in a computer graphics lab, or simply catching an inspiration in the hallway--while involved in the intense study of fine art practice, these artists began to define their own unique art applications. Here we see the sum of their talents, their life's experiences, and their training maturely and masterfully applied.