More Fun in the New World

When you add it all together, the 26 visual arts majors graduating from the New World School of the Arts high school have won two and a half million dollars in scholarships to university-level art programs around the nation. New York City's esteemed Cooper Union School of Art alone courted six of the New World graduates with full-tuition scholarships for its selective freshman class of 60. (Five of the New World graduates accepted. Reza Moghadam, a 1996 Presidential Scholar, opted for a similar offer from the Maryland Institute, College of Art.)

Beaming from behind the desk in his office in the New World building downtown, visual arts dean Mel Alexenberg describes his seniors as if they were the art world equivalents of blue-chip scholar-athletes. "They're like prized football players," Alexenberg notes. "Every art school competes for these students."

Senior Showcase, the exhibition currently on view at the school's first-floor gallery, offers testimony to young, emerging talent. Technically, the work of these seventeen- and eighteen-year-old artists is remarkably accomplished. Their grasp of color, composition, and media is, as Alexenberg points out, at least as mature as that of most college art students. The graduates also studied art history during their four-year tenure at New World, and they have obviously been influenced by a plethora of artistic movements, most noticeably neoexpressionism, graffiti art, and conceptual art. But their paintings, sculpture, and installations are fresh and original, not merely derivative.

Although the works are formally quite sophisticated, their content is not quite as developed. The subjects they deal with, the ideas they convey, are unmistakably adolescent -- this is the output of high school students, after all. Although the contrived titles of a lot of the pieces (one example: John Howlett's expressionist painting of two snarling foxes is called 4 Gold Teeth [How I Learned to Ditch Art School and Become a Criminal Psychoanalyst]) suggest the young artists are trying hard to appear jaded, the work itself shows that they haven't yet learned to mask their emotions. They can't help but put their personalities on display. Works both figurative and abstract evoke elements of high school drama: sexual tension, identity crises, peer pressure. There's an endearing awkwardness to the work in the show, with more teenage angst on these walls than in an episode of My So Called Life. It's precisely the kind of raw expression that makes for good art.

A diptych by Danamarie Hosler, for example, shows a long-haired teenage girl sitting alone on the grass with her head down, her thoughts far away. She looks rejected, maybe by a boy, maybe by a world she feels she doesn't fit in to or doesn't even care to understand. (If only it were That Easy to fool people to lean Against fence posts and shield closed eyes. Bluebirds and Fairy wings -- a heart-shaped badge reads "Happy" -- you must know I'm not fooled is just half of its title. Hosler should get an -- for creative writing alone.) One half of the diptych shows its subject sitting legs apart; in the other she strikes a languid pose, lying on her side. Both positions subtly suggest a budding sexuality that, indeed, pervades the girl's presence and probably her thoughts. Above each figure the artist paints a bright, whirling sky, part van Gogh, part Peter Max, but this fantastic element is merely distracting. Hosler's emotional portraits would have been stronger with a more sober background.

On the other side of the gallery hangs a group of paintings by Lu Gold, collectively titled -- Sunday Painting. In the largest canvas, an intense self-portrait, the artist paints herself as a classical ballerina sitting on a sofa. Wearing a dance costume and pointe shoes, the girl stares directly at the viewer. Her blatantly troubled countenance dispels the idealized image of the on-stage dancer and reveals gnawing insecurities. In this incisive piece, and in smaller self-portraits and several small paintings of flowers also hung here, Gold reveals herself as a perceptive and sensitive artist.

Elsewhere, Nora Mora's charcoal drawing Eighteen Exits is a fluid composition composed of elegant, morphing female figures. Mora has a strong graphic sensibility, and she creates a bold, almost abstract pattern of geometric shapes in her study of feminine body types. She also incorporates some criticism of women's role models as they are glamourized in the media; for instance, on top of one thin, shapely torso the artist has pasted the typed word mentira (lie).

In two large paintings -- Obtained Data from the 4 Month Abyssal Dive and Reasons Why the Data of the Four-Month Dive Were Omitted -- Keith Riley paints a hectic jumble of African-looking masks, geometric shapes, and graffiti tags and squiggles. This is well-executed work, if heavily reminiscent of Jean-Michel Basquiat's savage paintings. Thankfully, Riley adds a more clearly rendered portrait of a coolly pensive youth at the bottom of each canvas. These representational figures make the paintings more interesting. The aforementioned deluge of figures and forms swirls above the teenager's head, bringing to life the vertiginous thoughts that have overtaken his brain.

Abraham Diaz's Proper Man's Closet hangs from the ceiling like a large mobile; Diaz has placed clothes he has made himself on wooden hangers and hung them from wooden bars suspended next to each other at eye and shoulder level. He fashions his men's vests and women's corsets, panties, and stockings from heavy wire wrapped with gesso-soaked gauze. The stiff, white sculptures have a simple, organic quality, and they look something like orthopedic casts. Some are accented with long pieces of raffia woven into the cloth as corset strings or sewn in a clump on the panties to resemble pubic hair. Diaz, who often paints portraits of a feminized version of himself, has created a closet in which one can try on different gender roles and identities. It's an engaging work, both formally and conceptually.

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