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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Nearby hangs Christian Salazar's Stop Action, a fragmented portrait of an androidish man that's presented on six small canvases. Salazar paints in primary -- almost fluorescent -- colors, and the geometric background of the canvases recalls the gridded guts of a computer.
Hernan Bas's April Preparations and Eventual Trip in May for the Arrival of Ms. A is a work of fictional autobiography told through photographs and objects. The "Ms. A" in question is aviator Amelia Earhart, and the installation, which takes up an entire gallery wall, documents the artist's make-believe journey as he goes to meet Earhart, who, it appears, is returning from one of her flights. Bas's fantasy memoir is constructed by way of large photos that the artist manipulates, washing them with paint to enhance or blur certain images. The first photos show the artist preparing for his trip and traveling in a car. At the end of the sequence, a girl who bears a close resemblance to Amelia Earhart appears, ensconced in the cockpit of her plane or posing on the ground. Further elements of this fantasy are provided on the floor, where some objects sit in a row: old letters, men's shoes with holes in the soles, medicine bottles, an empty vanity case, and what looks like a plane's instrument panel. Bas's narrative is a bit oblique, but it conveys a romantic tale that most viewers know will end in tragedy with Earhart's disappearance. The photos are meticulous and the installation on the whole is neatly and affectively arranged; Bas has a good eye for three-dimensional composition.
Among the New World seniors, Alejandro Cardenas is undoubtedly the class clown. Here he exhibits his Proposals for Senior Showcase, plastering one gallery wall with drawings, doodles, press clippings, photos, and other ephemera that include a swatch of plastic grass and a Post-It note. Cardenas's cartoonish illustrations are displayed as if they were serious proposals submitted to one of his teachers for the work he would contribute to this exhibition. Actually, they compose a Mad Magazine-style spoof of conceptual and performance art. Among the proposals displayed, one shows a musical stuffed moose ("song playing will be the Canadian National Anthem") with museum goers lined up behind it waiting to look into its butt. A proposed performance piece involves a mannequin covered with spikes that explodes, "killing everyone at the opening." Another provides instructions to go to the beach and "attempt to give away a chunk of fire coral." Elsewhere on the wall, still another proposal calls for a land mine, a canvas taped to the ceiling, and gallery goers who will unwittingly participate in a new form of spatter painting when the mine goes off.
Other ideas refer directly to artists on the cutting edge, whose work Cardenas obviously admires but doesn't hesitate to poke fun at. For example, a picture of some strange-looking chunks floating in a tank placed in the middle of a gallery is accompanied by the text "Simultaneous tribute to Damien Hirst and Joseph Beuys: Lard and Felt Suspended in Formaldehyde." Admittedly, this whole thing is silly, a classroom prank that could fall flat in less talented hands. But Cardenas, combining the principles of conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth and the humor of Beavis and Butt-Head, has made a hilarious piece. As with the work of the other artists exhibiting here, Cardenas's ideas may be adolescent, but the quality of his work belies his years.