Thursday, February 25, 2010

A Day in the Country

Too often we denizens of the big cities, especially those of us involved in what we are pleased to call the "art world," tend to think like Warty Bliggens. Never heard of Warty Bliggens? Find out about him here. Warty is a toad who thinks that he's the center of the universe. You'll remember, perhaps, that I mentioned Pete the Parrot the other day, who palled around with Bill Shakespeare at the Mermaid tavern. Warty is another creation of Don Marquis, who came up with so many wry and truthful observations about human foibles and pretensions.

So yesterday I had a speaking gig at California State University, Channel Islands, out in Camarillo, a good way from our little Los Angeles center of the art world universe. To get there, Ellie and I took a circuitous route through a steady, misty drizzle of insistent rain to Oxnard, another small-ish city near Camarillo, similarly distant from the epicenter. We went there to see an exhibition intriguingly titled Harmony Reverberates Optimism, curated by the artist Ronald Lopez. Arriving at Oxnard College, we found not a big institutional building with a white-walled gallery space but a small cottage where the exhibition was installed in what once had been the living space. It was soon crowded with an enthusiastic gathering of students and others, all engaged with the work of the six socially-engaged women artists included in the show.

This is not a review. Suffice it to say that it was a fascinating show, much bigger in its intellectual and aesthetic reach than the tiny space in which it was assembled. Check out the site and look at some of the images. Iranian-born artist Azadeh Tajpour created an installation in one small room, its floor inches deep in strips of shredded paper with the names and some personal details of each of a mere 4%--by one count, there are many of others--those already killed in the conflict in Iraq. The viewer is invited to wade through the "trash" that is all that remains of these human lives, and contemplate the tragic waste. Kristin Ross Lauterbach & Christina Lee Storm present clips from a longer movie, "Flesh," which documents the trade in human flesh right here in the back streets of Santa Monica. Ofunne Obiamiwe, a Nigerian by birth, offers an interactive, participatory installation called "Status of Women", playing on the new medium of social networking by "realizing" the idea of a Facebook page, inviting a dozen women to contribute profiles--along with an intimate article of their clothing--which are then framed and hung as artworks on the gallery wall.

Lea Redmond seeks to raise consciousness about the clothes we wear, and where they come from--perhaps, too, from what kind of sweat shop. She includes a world map, where she asks viewers to note the origin of the clothes they're wearing, to cut out the label that identifies it and pin it to the map. I was surprised to find that my new jacket came from Bulgaria! And finally SaeRi Cho Dobson shows a series, "Seven Deadly Seams," in which she hangs hand-printed garments on a line, as you might see them swathed in transparent plastic covering at the cleaner's, imprinted with socially-conscious messages about the ethnic economic, and labor issues in the dry-cleaning business. Of this seemingly dry (forgive the pun!) material, she creates a lively and provocative visual display.

Kudos to Ronald Lopez, then, for having been able to assemble a show where social engagement blends successfully with visual interest, from the aesthetic point of view, and sometimes powerful emotion content. That all this happens to be installed in a tiny cottage on a modest campus in a small town away from the hub of art activity makes it, for me, all the more interesting. Warty Bliggens notwithstanding.

From Oxnard College we circled back through that persistent slow drizzle--really more like a heavy Scotch mist--to Camarillo, a town I had only every heard of as the site of what used to be called a "mental institution", the one closed down many years ago by Ronald Reagan's draconian spending cuts. Turns out to my surprise that the 1930s era Mission-style buildings are now the site of the newest California State University campus, CSU Channel Islands. Who knew? Obviously not this Warty Bliggens. I had no idea...

But what a delightful campus. You approach it along a winding road, between vast agricultural fields with rows of healthy-looking vegetables--looking all the fresher for the still-falling mist that drifted, yesterday, late afternoon, in and out among the surrounding hills and woods. A bucolic paradise, it seemed to us, which offered no hint of the presence of a university campus at the end of the road. But when you reach it, the campus is indeed an attractive one, with mostly low buildings, tree-lined avenues, and great, grassy expanses of courtyard. At the center of this essentially traditional California environment...

... we were surprised to drive past a truly spectacular piece of contemporary architecture, later identified for us as the John Spoor Broome Library...

.... designed by the noted British architect Norman Foster. This, in what in Warty Bliggens-speak might be disparagingly called "the middle of nowhere." We live, as they say, and learn.

You think that way out here parking would be a snap. Well, no. Our assigned parking lot was crowded, and we were lucky to find the last remaining space. It's clearly a busy, active campus. In the art department, our destination, we were welcomed warmly by Jack Reilly, Professor and Chair of the department, at whose invitation I had come to give my talk. Jack gave us a tour of the department he has nurtured since the opening of the school, just a handful of years ago, and we found a good number of working studios--painting, ceramics and sculpture, a computer animation lab--where students and faculty were hard at work and obviously productive. (Jack tells us that some of the studios are shortly to be moved, as the department continues to expand to take in more students and, soon, a start-up graduate program.) The measure of success, in an art school, is what's happening on the walls and, these days, on the computer monitors; and CSUCI students are clearly getting some excellent instruction and passionately engaged in what they do. A good feeling, everywhere we went.

Then a quick tour of the library. It's an amazing building, within, designed with the full range of a library's purposes in mind--ample, accessible shelving for books and other materials, wide open, comfortable spaces and numerous small niches for private study. In the contemporary educational culture, electronic media form an important part of a library's services, and these seemed state-of-the-art and, again, freely accessible. There's a small gallery--with a current installation by Barbara Drucker, and a computer animation studio. Above all, the library has a great feel to it: it manages to be spacious and efficient, but also warm and uplifting to the spirits, a pleasure to spend time in. We wished we had more...

My talk, I think, went well--to judge by the reception. I felt I was a little slow in getting warmed up and reaching out to the audience, but once I reached the point where I felt comfortable and hit my stride, the words began to flow in a way that felt good to me. One test of success, for me, is the number and quality of questions that I get once I'm done talking, and here the questions were many, and went deep. And the individual responses, at the end, were genuine and gratifying.

All in all, then, a good day in the country. I woke this morning with Warty Bliggens in my mind--along with a healthy reminder of what we too often forget: that no one is entitled to think of himself, or herself, as the center of the universe; and that our ignorance serves us badly when we think ourselves as such.

1 comment:

Buddhist_philosopher said...

Wow - sounds beautiful, and great pics. CSU Channel Islands? Too bad they're not hiring Buddhism instructors, I'd be there in a heartbeat. Thanks for sharing.