“MFA Candidates”

U.C. Berkeley

Not much attention is given to the “class” of art I am thinking of. Generally, if I am interested in a show, it is a group show. Most artists work on their own small’ problems in more or less tiring permutations which I find difficult to digest in one-person shows (unless the artist is particularly good). Group shows seem inherently more interesting simply because they offer more variety. Finding common bonds (or, as the case may be, common errors) among disparate works that are produced in the same milieu is more challenging than mere labeling—boxing artists in the latest chic categories. I am also thinking of Roberta Smith’s revealing comments about the Whitney Annual (to get into an important show you have to have “education” and conversely, to get into grad school you have to be in a big show, preferably in New York), and Darby Bannard’s comments in Studio International to the effect that students everywhere are being intimidated by “those” magazines.

I think of these things while walking through the “MFA Candidates” exhibition. The work seems far from up-to-the-minute New York painting. Then I think: these people will be getting jobs soon, and influencing students all over the country, influencing with their art seen in the flesh, not in magazine illustrations. I wonder if they will be communicating expertise or experience, the experience of being in school. This is the academic art of today, the institutionally sanctioned art, churned out and certified by a group of . . . MFAs.

What is the common bond that makes these works function as a unit in their first trip to the big museum? They are all early works, student works, but we should expect some kind of professionalism; they are examples of art influenced by some famous artist or another. I assume this is how they made it through school, cribbing off an authenticated style. More to the point is the omnipresent preciousness and corresponding smallness of scale (or lack of finding the proper scale). There is also a lack of intellectual structure. All the works have this terrible inconsistency—into any given style there is added a completely incongruous affectation which invalidates whatever charms the work might possess.

Take the first work, the anomaly in the group, the Conceptual piece. Glenn Jampol shows us what a short distance it is from Minimalism to Conceptualism, from all-white embossed Xs on paper to The Function of X, four photos placed on the museum floor. The photos show four “real” Xs placed at obvious points in the museum (at the ends of cantilevered stairways). In itself, it’s a nowhere piece, except for the fact that the whole thing is given a melodramatic, superfluous method of presentation, the lighting, which hangs from the high ceiling coming down to within inches of the photos (four lamps). Ostensibly about place, point of view, perspectives, etc., the lighting reveals the true nature of the piece, turning it into cheap theatrics. Although undoubtedly deriving from an honest source (and if you don’t believe in honest intentions, you can’t take any of this seriously) you can’t get past that damn affectation.

Everything else is your regular painting or sculpture. The work appears dissimilar and it’s odd to throw it into the same bag—mannered or affected. But it’s tempting. Most is either ersatz funky or belatedly psychedelic. Try psychedelic. Ray Holbert looks ten years behind the times. Nothing can look as stale and dated as “shocking” juxtaposition of bright color, lots of dark (the perennial black light effect) and loads of technically slick color spectrums. To really understand these things, you have to know the titles: Solar Alternative, Far In Is Far Out, Spirit of Interplanetary Chromosomes, and finally and prophetically, a Kohoutek series. They aren’t meant to be ironic either. How do you get past the titles, and the fact that they are barely good magazine illustration? Tony Wong works similarly. Painting gas stations, McDonalds, drive-in movies, etc. All very dehumanizing. And they’re so small! His collages, single, strangely cropped magazine illustrations, with their false atmospheres, disappear before your eyes. Trying hard for mystery, they become claustrophobic and sarcastic. (I find it difficult to omit that Wong shows no evidence that he can handle painting materials.) Leon Schulman does a campy number with kitchen pastels and silver. There is a sick eroticism in his work, a sexist aspect which is hard to ignore. A woman’s leg slinks through most of his bricklike structures. It’s cold painting, slick and sickly. (While viewing these works a person came up and asked me, “What do these things mean?” I stuttered and tried to say something intelligent, but I couldn’t apologize for the paintings. What bothered me is that he felt cheated somehow; he was personally offended, as if something were being hidden from him.) I don’t know how the paintings got there.

Carol Fremlin paints very well. She uses all the classic techniques: stumbling, scratching, palette knife, rough and smooth brushing, washes, impasto, everything. The color is rich, well composed. But her scale is off. On such small canvases arabesques have to be cramped into place; gestures are turned into cragged, drugged lines, into Art Nouveauish decoration. Areas which would be inspired on a large scale have no room to breathe, no room to be as serious as they could be. For no apparent reason, each canvas is made smaller by adding a white border or framing edge, which is most distracting. It only emphasizes the jewellike quality of a potentially strong, expansive space. Hers is the only work I would like to see more of, however; it gives a little substance to the painting part of the show.

The people doing sculpture are fairly easy to deal with—their problem with scale is all the more exaggerated, since finding the proper scale in sculpture is essential or everything falls apart. David Lurie constructs funky wood sculptures using very thin splintery pieces of wood and branches whose shapes are inflected with hand-fitted woodpieces (as in Two Way Split). Lurie’s sculpture depends so heavily on Wiley’s work that you can’t really discuss it on any other level; it also looks like a weirdly enervated di Suvero. Roff Barnett’s symmetrical pulley piece is too small to work, or maybe too large; the weights are labeled “40 1/2 lbs.” to demystify, but the structure itself looks like a swing set and the scale confirms the reading. It’s a rather facile balancing act. Finally, Rudy Serra does a rough and tough sculpture, a round wooden box with sections and filled with gravel. The work begs to be done in molten lead. Gravel detracts from the sense of weight which is necessary to get the point of the enterprise. Gravel has always looked incredibly undense and airy to me. The sculpture looks like a difficult sandbox; only its intentions are heavy.

It’s necessary to emphasize that no one here is really doing “New York” art; there is relatively little kowtowing to those fictional ideals. There are, for instance, no large, abstract, post-painterly, sprayed canvases, and no philosophic investigations. There has been very little saturation of information, and the influences you can detect are usually from Los Angeles. The lack of hard-core intellectualization may be a weakness or a strength, I’m not sure. It’s possible that an anti-New York attitude might create a new sensibility.

Jeff Perrone