Art School, Confidentially Speaking

While many are familiar with the movie inspired by the same name, Art School Confidential
was originally produced as a comic book poking fun at the art school experience. 

As the season of art exhibition openings and festivals gets under way along with a new academic year, I wanted to share a catalogue essay I had the privilege of writing for the faculty art show of the Department of Fine Arts at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. Opening this Friday, September 16th at the Cloverdale studio from 6-9pm, “Art School Confidential: Then and Now” features an intriguing set of themes related to the art school experience, but also presents them in a powerful framework that juxtaposes fantastic art projects from the participants' past (when they too were in art school) with art works from present-day practices. 

Having read over the summer the complete version of Steven Henry Madoff’s important edited book of essays and interviews contributing to conversations about the future of art school, Art School (Propositions for the 21rst Century), I began my observations through the lens of those debates.  As both an instructive and highly conceptual show, the final exhibition raises many critical questions about what the art school experience can offer to both its students and the broader public. 

 *note* Where possible, I have included direct links to personal websites and/or CVs all of the artists featured in my essay—the individual art works can be viewed at the Cloverdale show and will also have an afterlife as a virtual exhibition (link to be posted when available). 

Dorothy Barenscott

“No school is a school without an idea.”
Steven Henry Madoff, Art School (Propositions for the 21st Century)

What is it about art school, and the art school experience in particular, that signals such mystery, fascination, and fear? Perhaps it has something to do with the enigma of the artist’s role in our modern world—the power possessed to extract, focus, and represent the best and worst of who we are— or maybe it has more to do with the wider question of what a liberal arts education delivers in an increasingly utilitarian and results-oriented university environment.  However we approach the question, the spectre of art school conjures notions of alchemy, a touch of danger, and the profound capacity for transformation.    

In the past, art education based on the European model was forged in the tradition of the atelier or “workshop” method where apprentices were taught a valuable skill set from a principle master. Starting as early as the Greek era and gaining force and recognition in the late medieval period, the focus of art making was based upon a system of empiricism and the handing down of abilities to reproduce observed phenomena. Mimesis ruled the curriculum, as did the ability to follow a strict set of rules for art-making.

Over time, art schools have evolved to facilitate a much more subjective endeavour, foregrounding individual creative interpretation and discovery, together with a more issues based approach to the making of art objects that takes into account the long history and theory of art. Along with this shift, the focus towards group evaluation and negotiated feedback via the studio crit now predominate. For some students, this signals a difficult challenge. This is perhaps best characterized in the film from which this exhibition takes its title, Art School Confidential (2006), where the protagonist must adapt his own vision about what it means to be an artist to those of his instructors, his fellow students, and the world around him. In a favourite line from the movie, Professor Sandiford, an acerbic art school instructor played so brilliantly by John Malkovich, exposes the fatal error made by many an aspiring artist:  “Now, everyone don't be so hard on Jerome. He is attempting to achieve the impossible. He is trying to sing in his own voice using someone else's vocal cords.” In this sense, the process of falling apart or going to pieces and then coming back together again appears to typify the experience of many art school students.

A special chapter was even recently devoted to the mysteries of the art school “crit” in Sarah Thornton’s wildly popular ethnography Seven Days in the Art World (2008), exploring the many subcultures constituting today’s contemporary art scene. Therein, her interview with famed CalArts studio instructor and artist John Baldessari reveals something elemental about the ritual of group critique utilized by almost all North American art schools.  “Art comes out of failure…you have to try things out” he explains, adding “You can’t sit around, terrified of being incorrect, saying, ‘I won’t do anything until I do a masterpiece.’ Students need to see that art is made by human beings just like them.” 

In this exhibition, we bear witness to objects created precisely within this context of vulnerability, transformation, and the very human process of experimentation. These are faculty and department associate and support projects, past and present, which constitute the ambitious and multiple roads to success forged in art school and beyond.  The interrelated themes of the exhibition, much like a student’s rear view at the end of their art school years, are set within the conceptual frame of “Then” and “Now” orienting viewers through the gallery space.

The passage of time is marked out in a number of provocative ways. At its most literal, we see the material and unintended marks of deterioration in Maria Anna Parolin’s "Carega" Chair—the consequence of an art student’s rookie mistake of not framing and storing art work properly—but also in her more recent project Consumed Series, which deals with the juxtaposition of littered manmade and organic objects. At its most symbolic, the theme of time is played out in theory-based transitions within long established practices—Frank Fan’s early ceramic works give way to an exploration of the semiotics of pot making in Times River, while the spirit of collaboration and human desire to shape the natural world unites Scott McBride’s special interest in new media art with Kent Anderson’s bold experiments in sculpture in Suspended Wall.  
The interrogation of identity so key to the art school experience is likewise a principle theme of the show. We see approaches moving from the more distinctly personal and individuated, as in Robert Gelineau’s early Untitled double portraits set alongside his more recent explorations into the transgression of socially constructed boundaries in How Do I Look?, together with Paulo Majano’s interrogation of “uncanny” figurations in Valley Woman, Man and Kira Wu’s poignant and intimate image capture of her mother in Woman with the Bracelet.  Sibeal Foyle’s timely My Sister in Benghazi series bridges the personal with the historical, reflecting on comparative experiences of violence and the view of war at a distance. This emphasis on identity and the contours of history—critical to an understanding of how we construct our collective experience—is also present in other components of the exhibition, played out in Eryne Donahue’s study of memory preservation in Family History, Merrell Gerber’s recollection of dark moments in human activity with Faggots, and Nicole Brabant’s reflections on human/animal correlation in Hive Study.

As an exhibition seeking to instruct as much as it seeks to question, the themes linking Art School Confidential also reveal traces of knowledge gained through years of sustained art practice. Nancy Duff’s The Artist’s Studio: A Real Allegory (after Courbet) confronts emerging artists with the weight of art history and the cult of artistic “genius”, while Excerpts from the Artist Taxonomy Series recognizes the present-day conditions of artists’ many artificial worlds. Traces of this wisdom and dialogue also emerge in the installation of Alison MacTaggart’s interactive Promising Objects examining notions of invention and problem-solving set alongside the visible struggle to mediate traditional painting within a post-industrial context in Elizabeth Barnes’ Proliferation of Possible Plausibilities.  We are still reminded, however, of the instructive dimension of art objects through David Lloyd’s Candle Lanterns, initially conceived as class demonstration pieces for beginner’s projects.  Other works reveal the consistency of exploring core themes over the span of a career. This is seen in Ana Black’s investigations into the conflict between viewer and performer and the model of experience in Teen Beauty and Audition Series, together with Terry Sawatzky’s kinetic experimentations culminating in the mash-up between past and present 3D and 2D forms in the Albatross Series.

What then is the place of the art school today and what role does art education play in the shifting and rapidly changing world that we inhabit?  We find clues in the exhibition through Kent Anderson’s ironic wall sculpture Bright New Idea, reminding and even warning us of grand claims to ingenuity. Still, Scott McBride’s whimsical Sketch for a Video advises students of the value associated with play, humour, and “fun”—hinting at key components to success and longevity in an arts career. But more than ever before, these are critical questions to ask as we all seek creative and out-of-the -box solutions to an accumulation of unanticipated and pressing global challenges. At the same time, artists themselves face a confluence of institutional change, including the increasing pressure to professionalize early, the growing influence of contemporary art market trends, and the revolution in new media and information technology (together with their many new theories)—which all threaten to transform the terms of current art making practices.

Most recently, these issues were probed by poet and writer Ann Lauterbach in a poignant essay “The Thing Seen: Reimagining Arts Education for Now” in Steven Henry Madoff’s Art School: Propositions for the 21st Century (2009). At the conclusion of her treatise, Lauterbach asserts the urgency and importance of art education to the vision and fabric of democratic social space: “How do we inform the public that art is not a luxury, not mere entertainment, that artists are not spoiled children of an indulgent culture? Perhaps most important, how do we slow down our responses so that our opinions are aligned to judgements that are informed by what we know? How do we convince the public that neither complexity nor difficulty in art—in thinking about and responding to art—is a formula for estrangement but an invitation to imagine solutions to seemingly intractable problems and predicaments in contemporary life?”

For Lauterbach, as indeed for the multifaceted participants in this exhibition, the answer lies not just in the creation of critical and provocative art objects, but also in the facilitation of open and free-flowing conversations in the studio and classroom that generate new ways of seeing and challenging what students encounter in their world. “To teach persons to make art,” writes Lauterbach “is to teach them to resist the commodification of their wills and desires, to use flexibility and ingenuity in the face of adversarial forces, to build a capacity for the attention and response to which is not like them or belongs to them.” That is the real secret, the mysterious alchemy and transformational power of the art school experience represented by this exhibition. It is a secret that continues to play an equal role in art school’s great power and in its perceived and sometimes necessary danger.