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Gelman Studio Series Brings a Bit of the Artist's Life to Visual Arts Students

By Loralee Nolletti

Brett Cook-Dizney, painting of neighborhood jazz musician Ryan Sawyer

Proximity to great art and artists is a lure for those who come to New York to study the visual arts. Yet some graduate students who leave the academy never experience what it really means to be a working artist in this city. Never having climbed the long flights to reach an artist's loft nor having seen an artist's world of works in progress before the show.

This fall Columbia's School of the Arts is bringing that real life experience to some of its aspiring artists, when five celebrated New York artists open their studios to a group of graduate students from the Visual Arts Division who are participating in the Herman and Eve Gelman Studio Visit Series.

All five are internationally known Harlem-based artists with studios in proximity to the Visual Arts Division graduate studios, including: Ghada Amer, painter; Chakaia Booker, sculptor; Ellen Gallagher, painter; Brett Cook-Dizney, painter, and Julie Mehretu, painter.

Through the Herman and Eve Gelman Studio Visit Series, begun in the Fall of 2000 with a grant from Ellen Gelman, the artists will be asked to open their studios to a group of ten students at a time to observe and discuss the artists' works in progress. No faculty member is present during these visits, which contributes to the artists directly engaging the students.

"What students need is a real experience, not the sound byte," said Jon Kessler, associate professor of visual arts and chair of the Visual Arts Division. "The real experience is one that reveals the struggle the artists are involved in and dispels the mystery of creation."

The experience for students is very different from the typical format where artists come into the classroom to present slides of their work. More intimate a process than the slide show, the studio visit demands more of the interaction between student and artist and the results can yield far more.

"Students can see what they can't see in a slide show. For the students, the artist becomes a sort of signpost for their beginning experience in New York. A kind of closeness can develop, when a student walks up three flights, for example, and sees the battle scars of an artist's work," said Kessler.

Kessler, noting the opportunities that the University's location affords its aspiring art students, said, "Before we started the studio visit program, I was struck with the absurdity of artists with studios a mile away coming in to show our students slides of their work. I thought great artists are a mile away, and we're here on campus. What's wrong with this picture?" said Kessler, "I realized that we had to start taking advantage of the fact that we are in New York. That's very different than being in Providence or New Haven."

This year's fall visits were organized by Kessler with help from Thelma Golden, deputy director for exhibitions and programs at the Studio Museum in Harlem, which for more than 30 years has been recognized for its role in promoting African American art and artists into the mainstream of American and international art, and Christian Haye, founder of the Project, a gallery of contemporary art located on West 126th Street that has presented works of artists from the Americas, Europe, Africa and Asia.

"The five artists represent the diversity of artists working in Harlem today. They represent a broad range of talents," said Golden.

Brett Cook-Dizney has been described as "a painter with a high social purpose." Using spray paint instead of brushes, he paints jumbo-size portraits of local Harlem residents, including teachers, preachers and the unemployed, and nails them to abandoned neighborhood buildings without signing the work.

Abstract artist Ghada Amer also departs from painting in the conventional sense. Her large-scale paintings are examples of abstract expressionism that push the boundaries of painting by incorporating sewn imagery directly onto the surface of the canvas. The imagery is representational and highly sexual with the suggestion of bodies being made and violently undone.

Ellen Gallagher is a collage artist and painter in the minimalist tradition, except for the clues or hints of issues surrounding identity and racism that emerge from her work on closer study. Of Gallagher's 1998 show at the Gagosian Gallery in Soho, Nelville Wakefield wrote, "Nestled into the quilted backgrounds are the faces of an itinerant minstrel show, a delirious jumpin' jive of thick grinning lips, whites of eyes, and pickaninny heads. Beautifully drawn, the effect is nonetheless disarming - as though the artist had decided to open a suitcase full of forbidden history and dump the contents in the pure space of abstract minimalism."

Born in Ethiopia, Julie Mehretu is an abstract painter whose works are part painting and part drawing. Her subject matter centers on public spaces—government buildings, airports, highways and street grids. Her imagery overlaps architectural plans and graphic symbols with patterns and shapes, recalling "cartography and architecture, urban planning and science fiction."

The only sculptor in the group, Chakaia Booker works with unconventional materials. She manipulates rubber from discarded, used tires to create large, free standing forms, sculptures that focus on social and cultural issues. Her work has been featured in the Whitney Biennial.

Ghada Amer, Colored Drips/Figures en Zigzag, 2000

Ellen Gallagher, untitled 1998

Julie Mehretu, untitled, 1998

Chakaia Booker, Blue Bell

Published: Nov 05, 2001
Last modified: Sep 18, 2002

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