Those who know me know my outrageous affection for student art. Yes, student art is less developed than professional art, less focused, less sure of itself. It’s the kind of thing that expects to receive a grade, not a review. Much of it is predictable. But just as often it is fresh and ambitious. So here I am, reviewing a student show and even recommending it. The show is Now You See Me: Portraits, all works on paper by the students of Creative Citizen Studios and installed in GPAC’s downtown offices. Not only is this an exceptionally strong showing of student work, it was also a standout when it opened during the last gallery crawl. It will be open again during this Friday’s crawl, so now is your chance to see what I’m raving about—and make up your own mind as to whether I’m raving with reason, or plain raving mad.
The sitters are mostly local artists. (If you’re embedded in the scene you may recognize Larry Rippel, Jim Rugg or Tom Sarver, among others.) Several individuals have been represented more than once. It is always a pleasure to see the same subject handled differently by different talents, and the strategy of juxtaposition is used by the curators to great effect. Two of my favorites are undated portraits of Connie Cantor, hung together on the long west wall. While the resemblance between the two is clear, the stylistic differences are sharp.
One portrait is by Mick Fisher, a rising star at CCS, who has captured Cantor in clean, confident lines. She is framed with a cushion of space around her head and shoulders, at three quarters length with her hands folded in her lap, legs crossed. She confronts the viewer directly with eyes and mouth wide open, frozen and oddly regal. While formal, even conservative, much like a corporate head shot, the composition is anything but dead. In fact, Cantor buzzes with energy. This energy is largely achieved by Fisher’s selective coloring, which fills some areas (hair, jacket, shirt) with the flat areas of saffron, black and watermelon pink. Yet the monochrome fields are not unmodulated; individual pencil strokes produce a surface of uneven density. Other areas—Cantor’s face, jewelry, and wide jacket lapels, and one hand—are left starkly blank. This idiosyncratic choice is jarring. It produces a sense of shock, much the same as seeing two different techniques or styles joined in the same painting (think David Salle’s eclecticism).
The same technique is deployed with equal success in Fisher’s portrait of Carol Royall. Her face and hair are naturalistically colored, but her t-shirt and exposed arms are simple black strokes. In both cases, the blank areas should make the portrait feel unfinished; the fact that it does not reveals the level of Fisher’s talent.
Compare the same sitter rendered by Lee Kennedy. Here, the lines run wild, as if charged with an electric current. They do not contain form so much as approximate it. Here, Cantor seems older and more energetic, about to spring from her seat or sing a line from Wagner. Kennedy frames his subject more tightly, which lends the portrait a barely-contained intensity. She has the same red hair and pink shirt depicted by Fisher, but her jacket—or rather, the area where a jacket should be—is colored with energetic patches of tight, jagged lines in bright pink, mint green, blue and red. Whereas Fisher’s portrait has a frigid, confident clarity, Kennedy’s almost dissolves in the heat of its own making.
Similarly intriguing pairs were the portraits of Carol Royall, as portrayed by Robyn McKee and the double portraits of Jeff Schrecken Gost and Lisa Toboz, which appears in three versions, by Kennedy, Fisher and Jami Johnson. I bounced back and forth between them, stumped by the raw fact that humans can see the same subject so differently. These differences are of artistic personality and are irreconcilable. Rather than obtaining a clearer picture of the subject by examining several versions of it, I realized the subject was long gone, swallowed by the original images before me.
Other strong portraits include Michelle Cleese, by Johnson, which portrays the sitter as a sly, quasi-cubist head sporting stylist round glasses and a bright red pout, and Mick Fisher’s own schematic self-portrait with a stuck-out tongue.
In the end, these portraits are still class exercises and should not be overburdened by outsiders’ expectations. But seeing a suite of so many strong works on paper whetted my appetite for larger, more ambitious paintings. I also longed to see these pictures framed professionally and hung in a proper white cube. Despite the heroic efforts of GPAC staff, the “Big Room” on the seventh floor remains a dull office space with all the usual distractions: drop ceilings, carpet, dark painted walls, and kitchen sink (literally). However powerful the work, it inevitably succumbs to the hideousness of its surroundings. (Remember when Seth Clark exhibited here?)
I should also mention in closing that all the CCS students are teens and young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. While I think it is important to identify the artists, I resist identifying the artists with the art. As a critic I strongly feel, and have always felt, that when art is hung for a public, it leaves the sphere of its maker’s history and intentions and floats autonomously on the stormy seas of public opinion. It must sink or swim on its own merits. Nevertheless, I am alive to the fraught trajectory such artists with disabilities have followed through, and against, modernism. (I have written about this elsewhere.) So, to acknowledge the unsettled state of that legacy, I have identified the artists by explaining why they should not be identified with their art. Some critics will undoubtedly disagree that mine is the best approach. I hope that all my readers will visit this amazing exhibition during tomorrow’s gallery crawl and make up their own minds.
Now You See Me: Portraits on now through July 2015 (exact date TBA) at Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, 810 Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15222. Weekday hours by appointment. Call (412) 391-2060, ext. 228.