Alumni Art Exhibition honors success of graduates

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Author: Vivien Reece

The Alumni Art Exhibition is bursting with Japanese ceramics, abstract paintings and finely shaded portraits in Weingart and in the lesser known Mullin gallery, near the Greek Bowl. Opened on March 22 in celebration of Occidental’s 125th Anniversary, this showcase seeks to bring students into contact with alumni artists and inspire artistic and generational dialogue. Professor Linda Lyke and Agne Jomantaite ’11 organized the show and chose the artists from a list of alumni mostly from the last twenty years who had majored in either art or art history.

“One of the most rewarding aspects of the show was to talk to the Alums and learn how influential our professors have been for their developing art practice,” Lyke said.

Visiting the gallery is a great way to see the legacy of other Occidental students, including alum and former professor George Baker ’58, whose fountain sculpture has become iconic on Occidental’s campus. The breadth of artists represented in these exhibits, from older graduates such as Baker to more recent graduates such as Jomantaite, allows visitors to see artists of widely varying generations and backgrounds brought together through the school they shared.

The piece that stands at the forefront of the gallery, created by Kenturah Davis ’02, speaks to this theme of difference between background and generation. Davis’ status as an artist in Los Angeles, evidenced by A&E Network’s decision to feature her art in a documentary about Ray Charles and her involvement with Occidental’s art department, made the organizers of the event interested in giving her a prime location to display her works. One of Davis’ featured pieces, entitled “Different,” portrays a man in profile stamped with the recurring letters D-I-F-F-E-R-E-N-T all across the piece. It is a black and white drawing, with a distinctly somber tone. This tone comes both from the serious expression on the man’s face as well as the boldness of the letters labeling him as an outcast, shielding his true profile from view.

The piece is moving, in the figurative sense and in the literal as well. The letters spelling out “different” distract the viewer from the skin, face and soul of the man, creating a tension between the elements of the drawing. The face of the picture turns to his right and to the viewer’s left, so that upon walking in, the visitor follows the face’s gaze. The gaze continues to follow the visitor as she turns left into the gallery, approaching the rest of the collection.

On the other side of this wall looms Davis’ site-specific drawing of one of the first African American women to graduate from Occidental, Janet Stafford ’52. Davis came into the gallery every night for two weeks to work on the piece. Using her own handwriting, she wrote and rewrote one of her favorite passages from “Invisible Man” in order to form the background and shape the graduate’s face. The heavily shaded sections construct an illusion of utter darkness created by writing the same text on top of other letters, so that a portrait emerges from the different shades. Both works are compelling conversations about shade, image and words. The first picture, “Different,” suggests the power of words both to trap and misjudge in some cases. The portrait of Stafford, made up of words from “Invisible Man,” suggests the power of words to empower and liberate in other cases.

In the corner of the same room, John Wells’ ’79 pottery stands on display boxes. He was a student of Linda Lyke’s ceramics class and decided soon after graduating that he wanted to devote himself to this art medium. He moved to Japan and became an apprentice of the traditional Japanese form of ceramics. Two ceramic vases and a ceramic pointed figure, shaped like a shark’s fin, comprise his works featured in the show. The pieces are mostly reddish and gray, with some blue and brown speckling. The unglazed works are simple, austere and in the traditional Japanese fashion.

A piece that hangs in another room, contrasting completely with the traditional feel of the ceramics pieces, is a poster that declares in yellow print over black background, “I will al-ways love you” by Tucker Neel ’03. At the bottom of the poster there is a fringe of little pieces of paper to tear off. On the pieces there is a phone number to call-it appears that visitors may actually take off a piece and call the number for a surprise.

This work reveals the artist’s humorous response to homemade advertising in America, suggesting that these fringed papers tacked onto every telephone pole and tree in the city provide a strange, even ironic sense of community in a world so dependent on the internet and on advertising in general.

Jomantaite’s work also takes up a prominent space in the gallery as it incorporates life at Occidental directly. She created an interdisciplinary major including religious studies, ECLS and politics in addition to a minor in art during her time at Occidental. It is a colorful, largely abstract piece created from subtle images of certain buildings around the college beneath a flurry of completely abstract shapes and contours.

“I wanted to investigate how geography affects people’s experiences,” she said. Movement and energy characterize this piece. She thought these themes best represent life at Occidental. “My hope was to have people experience it that way,” she said. “If they take a second longer they see the pillars and recognize that it’s Oxy.”

Both Jomantaite and Lyke express the hope that more students will visit the galleries to honor the success of Occidental graduates as well as to cultivate an appreciation for art in general. For students who study subjects other than art or who feel as though they don’t understand it, Lyke has some advice.

“The best way to approach viewing new art is to see how the work engages you. Your own life experience can add to your understanding and enjoyment of the work,” Lyke said.

The gallery will remain open until April 22 and all students are especially encouraged to attend.

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