Portrait of the artists — as subjects, as stylists, as exhibitionists
By Brian Fitzgerald
A painting . . . of artists painting?
It’s only fitting that the largest piece in the CFA School of Visual Arts Faculty Exhibition at the 808 Gallery is a 94” x 126” oil on canvas depicting of a roomful of art students hard at work. The Art School, by CFA teaching associate Damon Leher, captures the energy and spirit of the creative process unfolding in the studio.
And in the middle of the scene is a student working on a painting of a nude model. This dynamic is especially apropos for the exhibition, one of the highlighted events of CFA’s 50th anniversary, because the school of visual arts, since soon after it was founded, has placed a strong emphasis on the study of the human form. After all, the human body is one of the most inspiring — yet complex — subjects to paint and sculpt. Renaissance artists, for example, saw it as the reflection of the divine.
This teaching philosophy has served the school well. In the 1950s, then known as the Division of Art, it quickly developed a national reputation for excellence under the leadership of director David Aaronson, according to Nick Capasso, curator of the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, Mass. Aaronson, now a CFA professor emeritus, “believed in an education based on the mastery of materials and techniques and the study of the human figure as the most important imagistic vehicle for expressing both personal emotion and universal humanistic values,” writes Capasso in the Faculty Exhibition catalogue.
Observational drawing — especially the rendering of the human form — is still an important part of academic instruction at the school of visual arts, and this tradition is evident in two hydrocal (casting plaster) sculptures in the exhibition. An untitled nude female created by Associate Professor Isabel McIlvain and The Pugilist at Rest, by Assistant Professor Christopher Untalan, have Renaissance-like qualities.
The school still enjoys a reputation for figuration, Capasso writes, as evidenced by the work in the exhibition by faculty who pursue the direction of naturalism: Richard Raiselis, Harold Reddicliffe, and Richard Ryan, associate professors, along with sculptors McIlvain and Untalan. Figurative expressionists, who create formal distortions of the human figure, are represented in the work of Professor John Walker, Assistant Professor Dana Clancy, Associate Professor Batu Siharulidze, and Douglas Shaw Elder, a technical associate.
That’s not to say, however, that the school, while a bastion of naturalism and figurative expressionism, hasn’t extended into abstraction. Abstract artists contributing to the exhibition include Professor Hugh O’Donnell, Assistant Professors Joel Werring and Deborah Cornell, and Associate Professor Alston Purvis.
The works span genres and media and range from small- to large-scale. Purvis’ mixed media collage van Wyck is a mere 6.5” x 4.5”. O’Donnell’s gigantic 84” x 96” painting She Writes Language in the Book of Trees engulfs the viewer with color.
Graphic artists and photographers are represented as well. Assistant Professor Stephen Frank’s photo Red Light District, Amsterdam, features a bride smiling for the camera while her groom stares at a window display of bondage devices in front of a sex shop.
“The exhibition reflects the extraordinary diversity of our faculty,” says Judith Simpson, director of the school of visual arts, which has been presenting faculty exhibitions since 1963. This year’s show is the most comprehensive to date, with more than 90 works — three times as many as the last faculty exhibition, in 2002. Simpson says that the size of the 808 Gallery makes it the perfect venue to house a faculty exhibition during CFA’s yearlong 50th anniversary celebration. “It’s a monumental year for the school of visual arts,” she says. “We really wanted to showcase the faculty, and the fact that we had access to 808 increased the possibility for them to enter more than one or two pieces.”
Half a century after its founding, Simpson points out, the school of visual arts is still recognized nationally and internationally for the quality of its faculty. And, as teachers, “our faculty are consistently rated high by their students,” she says. “It is this caliber of professionalism that makes our school outstanding.”
The School of Visual Arts Faculty Exhibition is at the 808 Gallery on Commonwealth Avenue through Friday, January 28, and is free and open to the public The gallery will be closed during intersession, from December 23 to January 3. For more information and a full calendar of CFA’s 50th anniversary events, call 617-358-0922 or visit www.bu.edu/cfa.
10 December 2004