Art school has always been about stealing from your elders, then hacking your way through those influences to something of your own. For centuries, that meant copying master works and drawing from live models to discover new ways of depicting the human body’s arching slabs of meat in perspective. But that was before Cubism fractured the body, Abstract Expressionism dispersed it, and Minimalism dispensed with it. Now all we’ve got is amorphous Pluralism, and students have no cohesive movements to revere or rail against (although dealers desperately flog Neo-Whatever-isms to boost sales). Still, while beauty and conviction can’t be taught, talent can certainly be enhanced by technique and critiques, and that’s where art schools come in. So, join us on a jaunt through the training grounds of Gotham, where today’s students grapple with that utterly useless, but hopefully enthralling, object—or event or concept—that is “art.”
There are still plenty of institutions that will drill you in the eternal basics of the figure, and the Art Students League (home of such august alumni as Jackson Pollock and Georgia O’Keeffe) has long featured rotating exhibits from individual instructors’ classes. In the gallery on May Day was Paul Oestreicher’s maniacally grinning skeleton astride a charging horse, the bones, muscles, and sinews (of human and beast) convincingly sculpted from tricolored clay. Jayson Mena’s roughly foot-high sculpture of a puppy-bellied young woman, while perhaps not perfectly proportioned, offered nonchalant poise. (Hormones may briefly prove blinding for novices confronted with nude models, but the serious student is soon lost in a cloud of charcoal dust while squinting past an outstretched thumb to measure thighs against torso.) Instructor Frank Porcu exhibited life-size, energetic drawings, in which colored chalk delineated geometric weaves of muscles while sussing out how many stacked skulls equal the full height of a body. This is pipe-armature and pushpin discipline, eschewing frames and polish in favor of a down-and-dirty understanding of flesh and bone. (theartstudentsleague.org; work by students deemed the best from each class will be exhibited May 19–25 and June 2–11)
Arriving at the National Academy just as the judges were selecting winners from among the 234 student works on display, the Best in Show staff decided to award a few blue ribbons of its own. Only one coincided with the 38 official picks: Stephanie Terelak’s atmospheric gray abstraction, its floating shapes and shifting light owing a debt—as does much abstract painting nowadays—to Terry Winters. Our eye also snagged on April Kim Tonin’s lithe Thirty-Second Gesture Drawings, featuring a progressively more bent-over model, a classic method for developing eye/hand coordination. Finally, we were struck by Victoria Wulff’s truly odd painting, Theater of Faith, wherein pedestals and flowers painted with scabby, clashing pigments marry yesteryear’s surrealism to contemporary dissolution, an anxious composition that thankfully didn’t take its Prozac. (nationalacademy.org; closes May 14)
In Brooklyn, Pratt‘s senior-thesis photography show, “Hire Education,” offered a gamut of expertly presented digital and old-school emulsion prints. Kristen Klosinski’s magnified color shots of hairy warts and viscid lesions turned flesh into fascinating alien landscapes. Andy Zinsser went spelunking through the psyche with his collection of black-and-white snapshots of bizarre intimacies—one features a young boy in his underpants threatened by the shadow of the photographer looming over him. Colleen Schultz’s large shot of a couple kissing as they flash themselves with their own camera held at arm’s length explores our era’s penchant for exposed privacy. (pratt.edu; closed)
If Pratt’s exhibit had the sheen of a Chelsea gallery, visiting the crammed-together studio cubicles of the School of Visual Arts‘ MFA candidates got one nearer the hurly-burly of creation. Cameron McPherson’s suave destruction of his own studio space—a collapsing wall held in place by a twist of metal strut, gray flooring jimmied upward to form a trapdoor leading to an older substrate half an inch down—led to a conversation with a visitor about form, theory, plagiarism, action painting, and sports. Open studios are great for breathing the miasma of art, whether a searching figure study or Tom Weinrich’s satirical, tri-part video of exasperated handlers stage-managing President Bush’s legacy. (schoolofvisualarts.edu; various shows, including MFA Illustration and Computer Art exhibits, will take place from now until mid-June)
While SVA’s rabbit warren of clashing master’s-degree aesthetics exudes affable competitiveness, the undergrads at the Cooper Union display a thoughtful camaraderie. Just one example from four floors of engaging group shows: Jessica Minn, Maximiliano Ferro, and Benjamin Santiago forged a kinship by collaborating on a ramshackle tent that sheltered a video monitor and was festooned with colorful balloons. Minn’s yellow-and-blue painting evinced a frazzled exuberance that Ferro’s contraption of air blower, ping-pong balls, and amplified guitar strings sonically emphasized. Santiago’s détourned Mario Brothers video game added sunny gravitas, as players scored not points but Joseph Campbell quotes: “And so every one of us shares the supreme ordeal . . .” (cooper.edu.; on May 27, the school opens its annual exhibition of art, architecture, and engineering)
A very partial list of spring exhibitions includes MFA thesis exhibits for Columbia, through May 25 (flcart.org/exhibit.htm), NY Studio School, through May 21, (nyss.org), and NYU through May 24, (nyu.edu/pages/galleries), plus St. Johns University’s Annual Student Art Exhibition on the Queens campus through June 30 (stjohns.edu).