by Christopher Hoeting

The College Art Association just wrapped up its annual meeting at the Westin Hotel (February 12-15th) inside Chicago’s Loop, just six blocks south from of The Art Institute of Chicago. The conference highlights the academies offering of artist talks, panel discussions, workshops, interviewing sessions, and a book fair among other things. Or as Chicago artist and painter Steve Amos cynically comments, “Beware of the foul smell emanating from the South Loop; the pile of bullshit known as the College Art Association conference is in town.” Perhaps this cynicism radiates from the overall posturing, networking, and opportunity to debate/discuss the state of the Arts in the Academic world of Colleges, Universities, and Art Schools. In my visit to the CAA’s conferences it is both clear that relatively no one agrees on the plentiful approaches to the classroom from traditional to so called contemporary/progressive teaching methods. Every detail is scrutinized or discussed in the hallways and conference rooms with little to no attention to the outside world beyond the academy.


The conference is more of a celebration of those who broke through to full time status than the real look at results/impact the work holds for education at large. While those who have secure employment enjoy catching up with colleagues, up and coming recent graduates, teachers and professors scurry to fine tune portfolios, burn DVDs, print off resumes, and organize packets for interview sessions. (One can spot these people by their hurried pace and anxious waiting faces illuminated by the screens of their Mac Book Pros – and lack of the coveted conference badge.) While sitting in front of my illuminated screen completely complicit in this whole process, I hear the voice of a former colleague from graduate school. The words that keep ringing in my ear from our conversation are “Who doesn’t have a 3D Printer, we have three.”

Perhaps Chicago native Steve Amos made the aforementioned comment to highlight the isolation that the conference represents, especially after leaving teaching for the administrative world of the nationally recognized Chicago based not-for-profit Marwen. From our discussion it is clarified that the hot air that Steve and I talked about radiating from the conference is just “Talk” and in the higher education world of the fine arts programs in the United States – colleges and universities are the last bastion of not-for-profits without measurable outcomes. A high price tag for many students does not seam to matter. In contrast to a not-for-profit like Marwen, which has achieved top-notch programming, state of the art facilities, and unparalleled technology in the classroom – all free to its constituents, the academy still struggles with putting tuition dollars to work for students and lacks comprehensive data to adequately measure outcomes. It is clear that looking toward future training in the arts that there is room to grow and that money spent needs to provide quantifiable results for students.

While in an interview session in the basement of the Westin Hotel, I found my teaching portfolio packet being scrutinized by an unnamed east coast art and design school. As the card stock pages of images turn, the interviewer said to me “This is definitely the work of the Foundations program at the University of Dayton, very Bauhaus influenced, with a sigh. Which I took as a backhanded compliment to mean – “How Traditional… with a yawn.” As this comment lingered inside, I took the opportunity to head north on Michigan Ave. to scan the collection of artworks at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Inside the walls of this seminal American museum are real examples of research thru the ages and numerous artworks stand out as running parallel to the subsets of educators. As I continued to return to a small selected group of artworks spread throughout the Art Institute I realized that several works specifically relate to archetypical approaches inside the walls of many college/university art programs. It is thru this lens that I will discuss, compare and contrast academic trends by looking back into the recent past to the byproduct of the art historical examples by contemporary artists to discover a small group of works broken down to four concurrent trends inside the academy, including the Purist, the Conceptualist, the Collaborator and the Installation Artist. These four approaches dominate art education at this time.

The purist is a media focused artist who hones in on one material for research. Although there are many inside the walls of The Art Institute and academia, an example of Chicago’s own, Ivan Albright, has an excellent approach to purist painting. One of the three pieces by Albright currently on display entitled That Which I Should Have Done I Did Not Do (The Door, 1931-41) exemplifies the craftsmanship of a fabricator. The skills needed for such a detailed artwork took more than 10 years to perfect, which by today’s standards is unheard of. In this work the symbol and subject of the door and floral arrangement are used to convey the metaphor of death’s door as a threshold. The liberties taken in the painting reinforce the dark tone of the artwork along with the vivid detailed textures and symbols that reach rather universal themes. Both Albright and many purists choose to master a medium to explore universal themes and formal structures that can be seen represented in many fine art programs that are material focused, typically with an emphasis on observation. Elements of this material driven approach offer an entry point into idea development, which offers a substantive way to build a foundation thru materials, leaving more complex idea development to be found through studio practice. As this approach evaporates inside the academy the commercial side of art becomes dominated by pure craft and many art schools leave their students with few skills to develop a sustainable studio practice.

Ivan Albright – That Which I Should Have Done I Did Not Do (The Door, 1931-41)

In contrast to the purist, in the upper level gallery of the contemporary wing is an example of conceptualism by Bruce Nauman called Human Nature/Life Death completed in 1983.  In this work the artist uses neon tubing with clear glass tubing suspension frames. The work is a beautifully constructed object created to convey meaning through text-based relationships that flash on and off to draw on new implications. In this wall mounted piece the work flashes back and forth between Nature/Animal to Human Nature and back to Human Animal, while interspersing life and death among emotive based text (ex. love and hate). The work is contemplative and deep in meaning. Nauman is a giant in the early formation of conceptualism of the last four decades and an artwork such as Human Nature/Life Death has all the hallmarks of a conceptual work when it succeeds. The work is simple, clean, well constructed, and has a poignant message conveyed with grace. The archetype of the conceptualist can be located in just about every art school and upper level program at most universities and colleges, now increasingly dominant at many art schools. As the foundation of material based programs fall away in the academy, so goes the conceptualist ability to fabricate. The result is a student thrown out into the world to find fabricators, if financially feasible, or compromised ability to physically construct an artwork beyond a talking point. The programs that balance the conceptualist and the purist find harmony in conceiving ideas and construction methodology.

Bruce Nauman – Human Nature/Life Death

On the lower level of the contemporary wing tucked into a corner exhibition space was a rather complex and demanding 18 minute three channel video loop (Rear Projected16 mm black-and-white and color film, sound, transferred to three-channel digital video) by filmmaker/artist Isaac Julien (Director) and Javier De Frutos (Choreography and Movement). The piece entitled: The Long Road to Mazatlán completed in 1999 is an important work for the artist and a strong example of collaboration in digital media. The film earned Julien a nomination for the coveted Turner Prize in England back in the late 1990’s. In this work Julien collaborates with Javier De Frutos to cross boundaries into performance/dance in an excellent interdisciplinary artwork. In this highly seductive film, Julien investigates the politics of gender, identity, race, and sex. The Long Road to Mazatlán stretches across three screens that are placed side by side. Julien’s narrative shifts between representation and fantasy, showing the characters within a series of richly constructed tableaux. This approach to digital artwork and collaboration across disciplines in the visual art arena offers stability and grounding to artists working in unfamiliar territory. In an academic setting the insertion of trained professionals working in their respective disciplines (in this case: a performer/choreographer teaching performance) offer a foundation of training that can now be offered at all levels. Merging with trained, digitally based artists, filmmakers, choreographers, and other disciplines appear to be a significant trend in the direction of team teaching students to work collaboratively on large projects. This approach is also penetrating aspects of foundation programs, but structurally is yielding better results with advanced undergraduates and graduate students. Many schools are compartmentalizing programs into large facilities to promote this learning and resource sharing into the future. The collaboration not only allows artists to work with each other to elevate the scale of projects, but it also creates a learning opportunity for production and process. As film and digital content increasingly become the focus of the contemporary conversation, works such as Julien’s The Long Road to Mazatlán become the model for merging elements of skill/craft into highly realized collaborations involving conceptual practices integrated into time based solutions. Like it or not the movement into the future is inevitable. If the idea of this individual working can be could be compared to the return to hyper localization, then the collaboration is the move towards globalization with content based media and real applications for the modern work place, which is to say that there is real return on investment. Corporate culture and marketing underlie this approach to teaching.

Isaac Julien – The Long Road to Mazatlán

The Final work is part of a solo exhibition by Christopher Williams called The Production Line of Happiness, which offers a purely conceptual approach to photography in an installation/site specific artwork that spans all three levels of the museum. Several large-scale exhibits integrate photography, text, and “super graphics”—lengthy text excerpts printed at enormous size on a boldly colored background. The only positive thing that I would like to say about this artwork is that it is complex and unfolds in layers throughout the exhibition spaces. The deeper that you explore this concept-based piece the more that disappointment sets in. It begins to deconstruct aspects of commercial photography and graphics to critique aspects of a capitalist society. The photographs, images, and text are cold and uninviting to the viewer. The piece is successfully repulsive, confusing, and multifaceted. I may have been the only one to actually go completely thru the piece and at each step my temperature began to rise with frustration. However, The Production Line of Happiness does effectively convey the repulsive and cold nature of advertisement, product design, and plays with text in this ambitious installation. The main problem that evolves in the piece is that in an immediate sense – it does not draw you in – the nature of the subject does not integrate well with the “discovery” promised in the pamphlet, quite the contrary. The Installation approach of large graphics and relatively empty galleries leave you with a feeling of emptiness and perhaps this was the intent. I am left emotionally empty and discontented. Inside the walls of the academy this approach is the most troubling because of its complexity. The cross threading of multifaceted elements that unfold in a site specific installation makes for complex combinations of concept, material manifestation, and exhibition design – which at an undergraduate level is like learning to run right out of the womb. The results undoubtedly fall well short of anything that is legible.

Christopher Williams – The Production Line of Happiness

In light of my visit to The Art Institute of Chicago I personally took the opportunity to reflect on these archetypes in order to better understand and grow into the future as the needs of students change in the current environment. The College Art Association conference represents a time to talk to colleagues/friends and think about teaching methodologies, sharing ideas, and coming up with solutions about training artists to survive. Because of the interview process, I asked a mentor of mine, Patrick Craig, painting professor at The University of Maryland, What do you look for when hiring at your institution? He came back quickly with a very simple answer. “Promoting critical thinking and encouraging good studio practice.” Perhaps this is the simplest way to think about teaching, that a multifaceted faculty inside a balanced art program offers a mixture of all four archetypes as a way to engage team teaching. It is a lot like politics – if one side wins out over another, we all suffer equally and are victimized by the slick, superficial, and increasingly the financial.

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