Wednesday, April 3, 2013

It's BFA season again

I went to the photography BFA show at a local university today.

It is very clear that the Department of Art, Art History, and Design is not at the top of the university’s priority list. It is housed in a handsome old college-gothic building (left over from the days in which it was a priority) with “ART” in art-deco letters over the limestone arch at the main entrance. Alas, the building could use a good sprucing up – even a thorough cleaning wouldn’t hurt. It is outright shabby inside. The hallways are dark and drab. The walls are grubby and need paint at the “It looks like hell in here – let’s paint!” level. A hastily added cable tray dribbles along the ceiling to carry CAT 5 cables for the resident computers. The woodwork looks like it needed refinishing in about 1960. Since classes were in session I didn’t go into any classrooms today but, having gone to lectures and meetings there not that many months back, they are no more inviting.

My topmost pet peeve is with the gallery in which the BFA show was hung. It is named in honor of a very distinguished painter/professor the memory of whose dual career as a working artist and inspiring educator deserves all the praise and honor that can be heaped upon it. Alas the gallery is a couple of ex-classrooms knocked together into a single space with marginal lighting and unattractive signage directing visitors to it.

(But I digress.)

I got there a bit after 10 a.m. and found that the gallery doesn’t open until noon. (It seems to me that I find this out every time I go there.) However, a group of students were in the gallery for a class so I quietly joined the rear of the pack.  It turned out the one of the students was one of the BFA candidates and was giving a short talk about her project. I was delighted. The instructor gave me a funny look but said nothing so I hung back and tried to look invisible.

Her project is hard to describe but I’ll give it a pop. The photographic part is a set of positive transparencies, probably 8 ½ x 11 inches, of what appear to be random scenes and figures printed on overhead projector materials on an office copier. There are two sets of them, each set joined end to end then formed into a circle. One circle is perhaps four feet in diameter and the other perhaps three. The two circles are suspended from a hub of two small electric motors by a spider’s web of thin cords. One motor turns the inner circle counterclockwise and the other turns the larger circle clockwise. At the concentric center of the two circles is a bare electric light bulb to illuminate the photographs. The surrounding room light is dim.

At the risk of seeming flippant about it – her talk didn’t make a lot of sense to me either. I would have loved to ask her some questions so I hung around after the class broke up but she vanished.

I regret to say that of the ten or so projects on display there is exactly zero that held my attention or even gave me a notion as to why I should be interested in looking at them. Conceptual art is definitely not my bag – especially when there are no clues to let the uninitiated viewer in on the hook – but that’s still a low average.

Now a BFA (or MFA) project is always a challenge. A 19, 20, 21, 22-year old student is asked to do something original. That has always seemed to me to be an unreasonable expectation. How many artists have found their voice (or any voice at all) at that age? Well, maybe a few. For most, the effort to define the project turns into a race to find something that nobody else does. Of the photography MFA holders that I know not one will show me the MFA project they did. Frank Lloyd Wright admonished young architects to plant ivy around their first few buildings to conceal their youthful follies.

My master’s degree is not in art (electrical engineering, if you must know) but my graduate advisor took an attitude toward his students that has some bearing on this issue. He held that the purpose of college training is to teach the student the basic skills, to expose the student to the history of their chosen field, and to develop the mental agility competently to use what has been learned. He was adamantly opposed to the demand that a graduate student produce original results of lasting interest as a requirement for granting a degree. His passionately held belief was that original work was rare enough overall and damn near extinct at the level of an emerging engineer's abilities and experience.

He assigned each of his master’s degree students a project (that he chose knowing the students general interests) instead of requiring a thesis. He expected that the student would demonstrate an ability to define, seek out, organize, and present results. “This was a bad idea!” was a perfectly acceptable outcome as long as it was well justified. This reminds me of the time-honored practice of a young painter filling in the easier bits of the master painter’s work – demonstrating skill worthy of the master’s trust.

I see no reason why an analogous process would not work for photographers. In fact, I see it work every year. Photographic Center Northwest doesn’t grant degrees but does grant a certificate that requires a final project. The certificate projects, shown in the center’s gallery, usually look more completely worked out -- display a degree of cohesion, show more technical skill, consist of more work -- than I saw at the BFA show today. Most of them are connected to the student’s interests as an artist and as a person. Each is accompanied by an artist’s statement that helps the viewer get inside even the more challenging projects.

PCNW also has a collaborative program with another local university that does grant a BFA in photography. Their BFA show is coming up shortly and I’ll certainly go see it also. Their BFA projects look a lot the PCNW certificate projects on steroids – larger, more comprehensive projects but still rather completely worked out. Their gallery space is more attractive that the one I visited today (and the building is less shabby, too).