Mary Stokrocki's contribution to the ASU Faculty Art Show at the Nelson Fine Arts Center neatly summarizes the hollow feeling one is left with after viewing the exhibition. Titled "THE UnBAREable lightness of being," the piece is a vertical rectangular outline traced in flesh- and blue-colored crayon on the surface of the gray partition that supports other artworks. In the upper-left corner, she has penciled in "nothing"; in the lower right, "being." That's all she wrote. Ah, the unbearable lightness of Mary.
Since Stokrocki is not a professional artist, but a professor of art education, she might be forgiven such a slight and pretentious offering. But in the empty space, she has outlined we could place many of the pieces in this show, with similar effect. Between nothing and being falls a shadow made of empty technique and trite content, with very few exceptions.
Janice Pittsley, for example, teaches drawing. She shows a pencil drawing of shaded geometric forms which does nothing but display her skill. She takes no steps beyond filling the paper with lines and volumes, as though mere depiction constitutes meaning. But it doesn't. Piet Mondrian, the master of abstract restraint, said, "Curves are too emotional." But he knew what he was talking about. I get the feeling Pittsley could fill walls with these drawn shapes, yet manage to avoid any flicker of emotional tension. The same thing happens with Tom Eckert's sculpture "Calla Lily." On a faux granite shelf stands a red-lacquered bottle, a tube of lipstick and, reclining among them, a calla lily, all carved and machined from wood. It took incredible skill to mock these forms, to sand them and paint them, but to what end? What more does this technique say about fragility, vanity or femininity than, say, photographing the original objects? Only that Eckert's damn good at what he does. That's called craft. It may be beautiful, and it may engage us to the point where we say, "How did he do that?" but we say the same thing about the special effects in Total Recall. We like to be fooled by trompe l'oeil, but we recognize its superficiality. Too many of these artists seem to want to get by on technical skill, jazzing around to hide their impoverished imaginations. James White's neon sculpture "Hot Flag," for example, shows the U.S. flag, made of glass strips, draped between red neon tubes supported on both ends by crumbling classical columns. It's too big for a night-light, and too dim for a lamp, so it must be an artwork.
James Pile paints contemporary scenes in a precise, cartoonish style, his forms outlined in severe frontality. In his contribution to the show, he presents his persona, The Kid, as a tourist in a Mexican border town, complete with cowboy hat, beard, aloha shirt and the usual souvenirs. He fills this ancient cliche with such painstaking detail that it makes you sad to think that he thinks it's worth such effort. But it isn't. Pile, along with most of his colleagues, shies away from any images that might elicit too strong a response from the viewer, much less the artist. Throughout the exhibition, you sense an atmosphere of emotional distance, as though the artists' hearts were dipped in plastic. Now I know that elliptical restraint is the postmodern pose--too cool to get hot--but to me it looks like these people are afraid to engage the magic that could change them. By magic, I mean images and themes that carry power, such as sex and death; archetypal symbols and the evidence of change, growth and decay.
Instead we see such subjects as: a roomful of artist's models who couldn't be more bored with each other (Jerry Schutte), a pseudo-David Salle painting with upside-down figures (Nick de Matties), two cartoon lovers longing for each other (Henry Schoebel), a ceramic deer (Ron Gasowski) and an inexplicable conglomeration made up of test tubes, mirrored glass, cast plaster and steel (Ed Gillum).
Some artists in the show do engage magical themes, and I count their students lucky, because they have teachers who can show them not only technique, but worthwhile form and content.
Consider the well-known Earl Linderman, for example, who has been exhibiting for forty years. I was surprised at my own strong response to his painting, "You Do Something to Me." Like a scene from a Noel Coward play, it shows a Twenties-style flapper and dandy dancing in close embrace, their sharp eyes and wicked smiles mere inches from each other, liquid arms entwined amid a thick wash of white paint. You just know they want to slip away and Do The Nasty.
But there's more going on here than lust. The eyes are too knowing, the smiles too perfect, the arms too facile and smooth. We're looking at a couple of slick customers here, a pair of users just beginning a long dance of deceit and emotional swordplay. It makes you want to stick around for the fireworks, and that makes you wonder about your own morbid fascination with other people's conflicts.
Randall Schmidt, who teaches ceramics, offers a quieter, sadder peek into private life. He's made a wicker stool out of clay, on which he places a green cushion, a plate and fork, a half-eaten chicken pot pie, and some Oreo cookies (all made of clay, and glazed with the appropriate colors). The title snaps the scene into focus: "I Always Hurry Home to Watch Vanna White." These simple elements combine to form the image of some lonely woman (I assume, but it could be a man) sitting on her living-room floor, eating a solitary and haphazard dinner. Spellbound by her dream of glamour, she consumes and is consumed by the same lack of imagination that dominates this art exhibition. With a handful of well-chosen details, Schmidt gives us just enough clues to trigger a flood of ironies that seem almost too painful to contemplate. For example, consider how television offers forth the trappings of power, then robs and drains us of personal power at the same time. Or consider how great our emotional needs must be, if a celebrity as paltry as Vanna White can capture us. Schmidt taps that vulnerable place in us that identifies with his imaginary person, and he does it with six elements.
By contrast, Kathryn Maxwell's mixed-media piece uses a myriad of details, in both her images and materials, to summon a vision of religious terror and transcendence. Titled "The Mihrab," this large, mostly paper, wall construction defies simple summary. It looks roughly like a cross section of a squat minaret, its frame composed of hundreds of thickly painted turquoise whorls all bunched together like wool. These alone could occupy your gaze for quite a while.
At the top, Maxwell has pasted eight flying demon figures, four on each side, reaching for each other. Coming from the bottom and sides, and printed on some kind of mesh screen, are three pairs of red skeletal hands and arms, reaching up in an imploring manner. Other textures and materials surround these main images. There is an inner frame, for example, festooned with swirls of spattered black and red paint. The eye begins to focus obsessively back and forth, in and out, in a frustrating attempt to pin down form and content.
But "The Mihrab" eludes simple analysis, in the same way that the Muslim punishment for theft--amputation--makes us shake our heads in disbelief. At the door of a different religion, you must leave your reason, your past, your culture, which is too scary for most of us. Maxwell's piece captures much of that sense of xenophobia, while at the same time transfixing us with its masterful technique.
Most of the artworks in this show don't come close to those by Maxwell, Linderman, and Schmidt, and a few others such as Jack Stuler, Tamarra Kaida, and Dan Collins. (The 33 artists here represent less than half of ASU's art faculty. Space and time limitations precluded a bigger exhibition.) So at least two thirds of the artists exhibited showed work that betrayed a distressing lack of emotional engagement, and favored a preoccupation with technical skill. You could understand, and even applaud, such characteristics at the other end of the campus, among the physicists, engineers and computer scientists. But these are artists, art historians and art educators. It makes you wonder whatever happened to the examined life.
The ASU Faculty Art Show will be at the Nelson Fine Arts Center on the ASU campus through February 3.
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We say, "How did he do that?" but we say the same thing about the special effects in Total Recall.
It's too big for a night-light, and too dim for a lamp, so it must be an artwork.
Consider how great our emotional needs must be, if a celebrity as paltry as Vanna White can capture us.