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Monday, June 6, 2011

PAFA Annual Student Exhibition, ICON June 2011

There may be nothing quite like it in the nation: student artists with their work on display mingling with potential patrons and buyers in a party circuit atmosphere where the only “bad” vibe is a theatrical frown or two because the generous open bar has just run out of champagne.
For an art lover, events like this don’t get any better.
The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts’ (PAFA) 110th Annual Student Exhibition (May 13-June 5, 2011) preview this year hit a milestone. The word in the crowd is that the works on exhibit from third-and-fourth year students, as well as Bachelor of Fine Arts and graduating Master of Fine Arts students, was better than ever.

After years of unglamorous solitary creation in the “dorms” of studios, classes, and trial by fire experimentations (which inevitably include a fair share of artistic failures), the PAFA student finally has the opportunity to help arrange their first show. For the emerging student-to-adult artist ready to step into the world as a creator, the Annual Student Exhibition is a crucial first step. The exhibition’s preview party, besides being a great opportunity for artists to chat with potential buyers, also doubles as a serious competition and critical venue for these (almost) former students.

Since most of the works on the three floor exhibition space exhibition are for sale, the air of expectation among the artists is high.

Will the public respond favorably? Or will they walk past and nod politely, their eyes set on the next artist’s work?

“I think this years’ show is a good looking show in terms of installation,” Jill Rupinski, PAFA’s Appointed Faculty and ASE Coordinator told me by phone. “The students did a really good job in putting a more professional look on the show in terms of editing their work, and thinking hard about what they wanted to show. This was less concern about throwing everything up on the walls in terms of selling work.”

With the work of 128 student artists on display, Rupinski says there’s more crossover work this year as well, with sculptors doing painting and vice versa. And sales so far have been good, with some works commanding what Rupinski calls “hefty prices,” especially among graduate students who left careers to return to school.

“We always say to the students, if you get a large price for a piece you may not get that large a price after school. We tell them that our venue, the annual student exhibition, is heavily marketed and advertised.”

The Exhibition comes on the cusp of school graduation, when exhibiting students will pack up the paintings that don’t sell and implement plans to head home, wherever that may be.

I got a taste of this when I visited the PAFA studio of Master of Fine Arts Exhibitor Roman Serra.
Serra, who hails from Detroit, grew up on a farm and worked as a landscaper before winning a scholarship to the school. An abstract artist, his small studio is identical to the other students’, about as large as a boxy efficiency apartment. Sectioned off in an old automotive warehouse with an exposed factory-like ceiling, the off-white walls in the cubicle are paint splattered as is the floor.

“People like the floor,” Roman tells me, “but before I leave for Detroit I have to repaint the walls, though you can see the hearts my girlfriend painted there.”

I look up and notice half a drawn heart, the other half hidden behind one of Serra’s works.

In this vast space student voices can be heard coming from other cubicles. Most seem to be packing to leave their studios for good. Along the hallway are bunches of stacked paintings, awaiting U-Haul or SUV transport.

Serra, who plans on studying and working in Italy in September, and who has an upcoming exhibition at The Sporting Club at the Bellevue, tells me that the groundbreaking shovel he designed for the Lenfest Plaza groundbreaking was chosen as the winning shovel over other student-designed shovels.

“I did something different than what other people did. I made it into a staff of power, a sort of Shaman’s staff . I carved it with a diamond blade grinder. I wanted it to have a special quality. The school was impressed with what I did. Then they asked if I would be a presenter at the groundbreaking and if I would carry a 65 pound paint brush and present it to Mrs. Lenfest.”

Serra says he’s disappointed that his Philadelphia experience has been on the mediocre side.

“I think Chicago was a better city for my work. There are a lot of conservative tastes in Philadelphia when it comes to buying work. It’s been hard for me to support myself.”

Sometime during our chat, Serra mentions a friend, Tyler Kline, who has a studio on the other side of his.

I met Kline rather serendipitously while touring the preview party. Kline, a slight of build guy with a small goatee, was pacing in a remote corner of the exhibition space some distance away from his work when we began speaking.
He told me he is primarily a sculptor and describes his work as something that’s “after post modern.”
“It’s grotesque romanticism for this new 21st century,” he said, “which has been shaped by the September 11 attacks and this ongoing holy war.”
He tells me that there is a political element in his work but that he tries not to make it “upfront.” “There are certain veiled things alluded to, a lot of it is allegory.”
“I’m concerned with not being overly obvious, in not creating things that are quickly read. Ten years ago I was doing overly political paintings and I look back now and realize that I was just perpetuating an aesthetic—perpetuating things that I didn’t want to happen.” A native or Portland, Oregon, Kline’s political paintings then had a lot to do with the World Trade Organization protests in that city.
Kline, who bought a house with his wife some time ago in what he calls a “fringe area between between East Falls and Germantown,” plans to make Philadelphia his home. “Philadelphia is not the art market place that New York is, and most artists here can’t make a living from selling art. I think Philly has Manhattan beat as far as things being produced in the city. It has Brooklyn beat.”
He tells me about his membership in an arts collective, what he calls an “alternative performance/installation laboratory for the Creative Arts,” the Little Berlin Gallery on West Montgomery Avenue.

An avid skateboarder, Kline says he skates around the city in order to “watch the urban space.”
“One corner of urban renewal instead of the gentrification of neighborhoods in the building of condos, is building alternative spaces. Now we have working class artists buying houses and turning around these spaces. Skate parks,” he said, “are popping up in underused playgrounds that were formerly open air drug markets.”

While the PAFA preview party offers its fair share of spotting ‘Who’s Who,’ —I’m thinking especially of watching Gerry Lenfest pour himself coffee and getting to ask if anybody asked him for money today—that was not always the case. Thrity years ago, Rupinski says, the preview parties were “less of a cohesive effort in advertising,” and that during the party things were so quiet “you could hear a pin drop.”

But preview parties for some of the artists can be rough. Rupinski tells me that faculty members then are on the lookout for artists who seem to be having a meltdown because nobody is talking to them about their work. “This also is an education,” she says, “so we go over and talk them up.”
“When there’s a dull moment for a student, I see them standing there all pretty in their finer attire and I come over and say, ‘Tell me about your art, talk to me.”
The Dean of the School of Fine Arts agrees.
“The Annual Student Exhibition is perhaps the single most important event in the school year,” Jeffrey Carr told me. “It draws together all the various elements of the Academy, museum and academic programs, and it is a clear statement of what we are and what PAFA values. We are a strictly fine arts school and also a unique combination of school and museum committed to the evolving diversity and vitality of the fine arts in America.”

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