Friday, June 29, 2012

"Professional Artists in their Youth:" Juried Exhibition of Ohio High School Art

The Ohio State University's Urban Arts Space downtown Columbus hosts through July the 2012 High School Juried Exhibition. This show was the brain child of Meena Oberdick and Olivia Wallace, two interns at Urban Arts, then seniors at Columbus Alternative High School. In addition to conceiving the show, Oberdick and Wallace prepared and advertised the call for entries. They organized the submissions for the professional artists whom they had recruited as jurors. They raised funds so that cash prizes could be awarded. Thanks to the skills they've developed as interns, the pair laid out the show and helped the winners install their work. I'm thinking, in fact: Where's the "high school" in this?

Emily Linville, Insignificance, 2012. Detail
Mixed media.
Author photo.

I don't seek out student shows. This isn't a prejudice necessarily about the work on the walls; it has more to do with intrinsic confusions about how work is selected for student shows and what, exactly, is being showcased. 

Bravo to any efforts that highlight the creative efforts of students; cheers for any opportunity the public has to admire their work. But whether any child is producing "good" or "bad art" is secondary by far to their being educated to exercise certain parts of their minds and spirits—as they do with any other discipline. 

In my book, a student art show should demonstrate the creativity that every child is endowed with. It shouldn't be a competition that makes children drag apologetically home muttering that Johnny or Janey is a good artist (witness the horse that looks like a horse!) and he or she is not. Art education isn't all about end products. It shouldn't necessarily be about products at all.

So there's unfortunate semantic confusion about what we call "art" in education, and it's a distinction that's central to the High School Juried Exhibition. For this show, there was a call for entries—for finished works. The artists were self-selecting; the works were vetted, and quality judgments were made by a jury of professional artists. Everyone involved had the same goals and put themselves in the same world.

Normally, a school art show includes a sampling of work, tending to favor what the teachers see as neat or comely work. Parents want to see horses that look like horses; they want kids to bring home projects they will be proud to frame. So the huge shows of student work display "artistic-looking" pieces, no matter whether the students may in fact be succesfully learning how to think in three dimensions or to grasp the concept of perspective. A child's production needn't necessarily be the proof that they're learning about visual experience and thought.

In their articulate, thoughtful statement (indeed, the graduate-student show in the adjacent gallery is introduced by bombastic prose tending toward an incomprehensible point), Wallace and Oberdick imply the distinction between school art curricula and what students who wish to be artists long for:

"Many schools are often unable to provide students with the comprehensive experience needed to successfully progress in the demanding professional art world, either due to curricular restrictions or a simple lack of funds and resources. While a high school art program can provide basic tools in technique and the creative processes, most programs cannot emphasize real world application of these skills after graduation. As a young artist, it can be difficult to find substantial footing when caught in the void between 'juvenile daydreams' and the expectations of the professional art world." 

The show Wallace and Oberdick put together is a first professional experience for people who need to learn the ropes and don't usually get the early start they crave. It's a great idea.

Michelle Uzomba, Bunkatsu, 2012
Michelle Uzomba, Fumeina, 2012
Because so much of the work in this show is so good, it reminds us of how little it takes in terms of media or technical facilities to be fascinating. How long has it been since I've seen a show in which fascinating images were identified as "photographs" simply, rather than by descriptions of specialized processes and equipment? The image is the thing for Michelle Uzomba in two portraits of a girl who remains squarely posed before the camera yet denies it her face. Denies it? Or, in the acts of looking away, moving, and closing her eyes, presents everything we really need to know about her? The double-faced portrait, Bunkatsu, is titled by a Japanese word that means "division." Fumeina, the title for the single image in black and white, is Japanese for "unknown." 

Uzomba's images are dignified. There is no dissonance between the woman's strength and her beauty. I like this. It's as if a female viewer is implied, since there's a masculine tradition of sexualizing images of defiant pretty women. These pictures are womanly and self-assured, betraying considerable introspective power. 

Another piece that delighted me was Alison Easter's We See Everything. This sculpture would probably not be entered in a show beyond the high school level for the simple reason that it's made of humble materials that people forget about beyond the "beginner" level. This  tree consists merely of an armature covered with pictures torn from magazines.  
Alison Easter, We See Everything, 2011-2012. Mixed media.
Author photograph.
On the grand level, it is an antic, ebullient, and irresistibly attractive event. Its branches reach out in every direction like friendly arms and its stout, no-nonsense trunk give it the sense of reliable indestructibility. It's wise and old with the joy of youth. It's shape reminds us of Sendak's wild things, of St. Exupery's baobab tree, of Lisa Simpson's spiky form, or even of Keith Haring's twitching urban kids.

We See Everything is covered with faces and eyes; they look at you, and you can't help but close in and look back. The whole event is an embrace of observation and the joy of engagement. Easter has made this piece work from every angle, at every distance, without causing the viewer the smallest pause over any tiny detail that might throw off the balance of color, weight, or tone. She's created an enormous play space. It's  like a day at an enchanted park; it's a work to fall in love and spend hours with.

Kira Keck titles this arresting piece, Harm (Trich). "Trich" refers to trichotillomania, a disease of hair pulling or skin plucking: Note the uneven sets of lashes around the many eyes. The washed out images of individual eyes stand in contrast to three images of the self-abuser. In the picture on the left, we see her impassively "harming" herself, in a close-up that obscures a landscape of bright green grass and beautiful blue sky. But her act seems of secondary interest to the astonishing color Keck has achieved in the girl's skin, sensuous lips and sapphire-blue eyes. We have to wonder about perceptions of harm. While the subject is obsessed with the eyes as the loci for lashes and as the focal point for disease and diagnosis, yet from the outside we see a vivid, warm, girl with crystalline eyes—her lashes and brows barely compete with the depth of color. Perhaps she sees individual hairs where we see "the big picture." Keck has found a powerful way to convey the nature and force of an obsession.

Kira Keck, Harm (Trich), 2012. 
Linocut, pastel, digital print, marker.

Shaundrina Jones was the only artist I noticed who referred to a work of art from outside of contemporary culture. Her Girl Deep in Thought lifts a female figure, well known for eluding an intrusive masculine gaze, and gives her a life of her own in a space of her own,orld, wrapped in serious contemplation. I'll admit that at first I thought this was an original self-portrait: It took me a minute of groping to realize that this is—and is not—the figure on the right from Gaugin's Women of Tahiti. 
Jones removes the tropical flower from the woman's hair and replaces it with two puffy pig-tails, pulled up high on the head, replacing Gaugin's ambiguity with clear definition of a girl. But this is a deep girl. She is evading nothing; rather, she gives the impression of one facing up to serious matters that she sees clearly, right out of the corner of her eyes.

I think Jones' concept and its realization in a strong, isolating, vertical box and earthy palette are gripping.

Throughout 2012 High School Juried Exhibition I asked myself if I would encounter themes of adolescence. Introspection and identity were the most apparent—but these are themes for any age, which could compel my attention in any circumstance.

The opening image for this article comes from Emily Linville's fresh and hopeful meditation on Insignificance, a concept most of us first contemplate in youth. Linville's approach is elegantly simple and visually satisfying. Her white painted surface isn't a view of Nothing, but of complications effaced; there's a lot going on under the surface. Through a tiny crack breaks one word in small print, insignificance, divided into syllables, articulated for emphasis.

Linville carves from the rough surface disguise an opening through which a young face peers. The girl is part of a glittering, surreal environment populated with iridescent fish, luminous forms that could be computer boards or skyscrapers; signs in Japanese; old people bundled up against the snow; crumpled scraps of papers and the depths of the cosmos. 

The contrast between the fascinating mysteries of the hole and the engulfing blandness of the white surface could be completely trite, but the girl's anchoring gaze, directly fixed on the viewer, turns the piece into a big question—and questions are what we want, not statements, polemics, or breast-beating. Are we facing a person looking back from the side of wisdom to us who still believe in our insignificance? Is this girl rejecting the whole idea that we might assume to be the sniffling province of self-indulgent youth? Perhaps we are invited to think about this circle as a spot, or a mote, and to think how much life a speck contains—the angels on the head of a pin? However we wish to understand this (we are looking in; she is looking in; we are spectators; she sees the bright world around us, which we neglect...), "insignificance," takes on a whole new...significance.

All of these artists are significant, and all these exhibitors are artists. May this be an annual show, and may "high school" always be prominent in its title. Art is art, and this is an invigorating reminder that it flourishes wherever people have the will to make it. 

2012 High School Juried Exhibition runs through July 28 at Urban Art Space in Columbus. For details, see


  1. I agree with your assessment of "high school art" and "juried exhibitions"
    I feel some of that regarding music contests for kids, which pit products of stage parents and years of private lesson against children who are taking music lessons for the first time, and whose parents often cannot afford private instruction.
    In any case, beautiful stuff.

    1. I appreciate your comparison. It's clearly relevant.

  2. This Sunday morning a new Art work will be placed in public, free for the taking. Marc Breed, has for 42-years placed art in public, in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Ann Arbor, immediately prior to arriving here in 1997. While many within the arts field, cannot tell you exactly what Marc does. The reason is as complex as is the artist himself. Mr. Breed works in whatever medium is at hand, with an eye firmly following the global arts dialog. He also is fully-cognizant of first amendment issues surrounding the arts. A fight he relishes. If you yourself conduct a web-search, the impression you'll be left with, is of a simple confidence man, who happens to be an artist. When the truth is that his faux ads are negative space, to the art which you'll well remember. And yes, many of his works are prurient.
    But, when at 15 you created a trifle, which later became the symbol for the anti-war movement. The expectations for yourself, are on a somewhat different plane.
    A small graffiti-esque piece will be left in or around Lakewoods' Root Cafe'; sometime this Sunday morning. For a man who rumors swirl around, he has been leaving us a huge bounty, for the taking.
    So far, such far flung fans have included Viktor Shrekengost, Dr. Dre, and Museum curators internationally.
    Many of us collect this artist whenever and wherever possible. With Larry Flynt's collection boasted an entire portfolio.

    Dr. Stanley Workman, Art Historian
    & Professor Emeritus