artbeat (2006-10)

Artistic Narratives

Building confidence through competition

by Kevin Crowe

"I never thought I’d have to defend seriousness,” Susan Sontag once wrote. Her career as a novelist and social activist eventually led her to briefly write on aesthetics. Joe Fyfe, one of the judges at the 59th Annual Student Art Competition at the Ewing Gallery, feels that Sontag’s words best describe where the evolution of art is taking us.

“The values of the country have gone much more into lifestyles,” Fyfe says. “I don’t know how to bring them back from Martha Stuart and snowboarding, back to painting and classical music.” Art, he warns, seems to be morphing with pop culture. The young artist who grew up with the rise of pop-art will view the world through a different lens than, say, Henri Matisse and Arnold Schönberg. “The kids in art school now are already accustomed to art being intertwined with pop culture,” Fyfe adds. “In 30 years it won’t matter what I think, because I won’t be around.”

So, what are the kids up to these days?

Apparently they’re into everything, from poignant political critique to environmental consciousness to absurd minimalism. This kind of multifarious creativity reflects the spirit of the competition, which is dedicated to the memory of local art arch-advocate, Betsy Worden, who died earlier this year. Worden will be remembered for zealously promoting our local art scene, as she was always willing to donate her time and money. Many local artists now remember her as the first person to buy their work. Her memory, with any luck, will continue to foster artistic maturation, inspiring artists to ardently rewrite the historical narratives that define art and culture.

Since 1947, the first year of the competition, the popularity of the event has exploded, as more than 150 students submitted more than 400 works in three categories. Awards were given to entries in fine arts, graphic design and art history. An essay by Sara Stone Primm, entitled “Max Ernst: Organized Chaos,” quixotically paraphrases one of the more salient goals of any artistic endeavor, which is making sense, even if it’s only an ephemeral kind of sense, out of chaos. Chaos, according to post-modern eggheads, is something more than a simplistic “absence of order.” It is, as literary and cultural critic Stuart Moulthrop instructs, a condition for possibility.

“I was actually very impressed with the range of things that I saw,” says R. Brian Stone, who judged the graphic design entries. “I found that the topics they were engaged in were really interesting.” Stone explains that the true power of good design rests in the creativity of the artists, those who can use their works as tools to affect change.

“I looked at two things,” Stone explains, “at projects that communicated their message well and things that went into deep exploration.... It’s a public forum, a point for people to have discussion, not only about their works, but about the works of their colleagues, other areas of perspective to validate what they’re doing.”

It’s all about visual language, creating a medium that can clearly and effectively transmit an idea. As young artists struggle to find a visual voice, they experiment and absorb the world around them, those factors that are continually in flux. “I’m much more interested in radical choices than being impressed,” Fyfe says. “I think curiosity beats out talent every time. I think curiosity is the supreme artistic quality.” Curiosity usually defies criticism, usually propels artists to explore deeper into interesting territories.

“In classes you suffer through critiques all the time,” says Cindy Spangler, the collections manager at Ewing. “But I think the students are so thrilled when their work gets accepted. It’s a tremendous validation of their efforts.”

Many of the pieces that were accepted for the competition contain the obligatory modernist moniker, Untitled , which doesn’t do much justice to the immense amount of space that these works cover. One piece by David Jewell, the aptly named Bush Guevara , splices the faces of George W. Bush and Che Guevara. It’s a tad unexpected, as many a left-leaning artist is likely to wear a Guevara t-shirt and bemoan the oppressiveness of post-colonial capitalism. Another work, by Andrew Hock, has “Beware of God” written in large black letters.

There’s philosophic cacophony happening at the Ewing Gallery; whether an observer agrees with the messages presented is immaterial. Every artist involved has brought a personal worldview to the exhibit. “It’s a risky thing to put your work on a wall,” Spangler says. “You’re very vulnerable presenting your work, which represents a lot of yourself.” Her statement is especially appropriate considering the breadth and scope of this exhibit. This isn’t a genre show; it’s the best of all worlds, the whole shebang, an admixture of the sordid and sublime parts of the human experience, all voiced differently. “It gives them confidence,” Spangler adds.

“If you approach a work confidently, that’s how you’re going to engage clients,” Stone says in agreement. “There’s a lot of good work that never receives exposure. If it’s desirable, exposure follows.”

As Thomas Watson, Jr., the man responsible for putting the IBM logo on 70 percent of the world’s computers, once said: “Good design is good business.” That’s going to be true, no matter how artists see the world around them. Good art, of course, prevails in the long run, after the historical narrative has been written and rewritten to incorporate artistic brainstorms. It’s part of the process, and students are smack in the middle, desperately trying to pick up where Sontag’s voice stopped—still hoping to defend their own seriousness and validate their voices.

What: 59th Annual Student Art competition