‘Skeptical Belief(s)’ Exhibit Displays Varied Styles of CalArts Graduates

Times Staff Writer

Ask David Salle what he remembers from his college days and he gives an answer with which many might identify.

“I was confused,” recalled the 35-year-old painter, who went to the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia in the early 1970s. “I also worked hard. I was serious about what I was doing.”

Salle, whose blend of confusion and seriousness became grist for a highly controversial career, remembers the “endless curiosity” of his favorite teacher and the experimental fervor of his peers--one of whom was Eric Fischl, another painter who went on to renown.

Salle, Fischl and others who attended CalArts have brought the school a reputation for turning out unusually determined artists. That determination is the backdrop for “Skeptical Belief(s),” a show of work by 58 CalArts graduates that opens tonight at the Newport Harbor Art Museum.

Susanne Ghez, director of the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, first assembled the exhibition there in May; here, it has been doubled in size by Ghez and Newport curators Paul Schimmel and Anne Ayres.

CalArts, founded 18 years ago with funds given by animator Walt Disney, provides one of the country’s more progressive arts educations. “There is no one position that (CalArts graduates) take,” Schimmel said. “They are abstract painters, pop painters, minimalists--but these people aren’t any one of these things. They are very well informed about everything that is going on, but they don’t sign on the dotted line of any one theory.”

The show further reflects the gamut of contemporary art forms, including painting, sculpture, site-specific installations, drawing and videotaped performance.

Cindy Bernard, who graduated in 1985, photographs designs inside the official envelopes sent by banks and museums, looking for “abstract patterns that are a form of concealment.” She said she is asking questions about the role of financial value in art.

Mike Kelley is a 1978 graduate who tends to change styles, even mediums, for every new exhibition. A skilled draftsman, he recently had a show at a Los Angeles gallery of hanging pieces, felt taped to fabric. One piece represented a Christ figure surrounded by animals.

If questioning traditional artistic practice seems to be a CalArts hallmark, so are high degrees of articulation and savvy about the demands of artistic success (among other things, students are given sound grounding in up-to-date critical theories). But the success of superstars Salle and Fischl is not the show’s foundation. In fact, it contains just two works by each.

“What impressed me is that there were these later generations of artists who were doing really strong work,” Ghez said. “It didn’t stop with Salle and Fischl.”

The school emphasizes painting less than conceptual modes of expression; students are taught that the technical abilities to draw or sculpt always should be used in the context of an idea.

“My assessment of the importance of CalArts has been in its emphasis on something beyond the strictly visual basis of art,” said Howard Fox, curator of contemporary art the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “I think that one of the most important ideas to come out of that whole mind-frame is that you can’t trust visual information as a sole or irrefutable entity.”

An example of this mistrust of purely visual expression is the complex work of Stephen Prina, class of 1980. One of Prina’s pieces for the Newport Harbor show is titled “The No. 1 Single From Billboard’s Hot 100 Sing Chart for the Week Ending January 23, 1988/(Aristotle--Plato--Socrates, 1982),1988.”

According to the artist, the piece is rooted in its relationship to another work of his, recently purchased by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. That piece consists of reproductions of paintings by Rembrandt and Jacques-Louis David, hung beside a tape recorder playing readings from Plato, Socrates and Aristotle.

For the Newport piece, Prina removed the picture frames from the work in Los Angeles and reused them to frame a series of abstract drawings. He has replaced the classical quotations with Michael Jackson’s top pop song “The Way You Make Me Feel.”

What is Prina’s point?

“It’s a critique of the notion of genius,” Prina answered. “And Michael Jackson is there because he’s part of mass culture, and it is implicated in our experience.”

Prina, who lives in Los Angeles, is close friends with Kelly, much as Salle and Fischl were close after they left CalArts. There is a major difference: Where Salle and Fischl believed they had to move to New York to launch artistic careers, Prina and Kelly have stayed in Los Angeles.

Both said it is an indication of how the Los Angeles art scene has grown since CalArts opened. Starting with about 150 students, the school now enrolls about 900. “When people ask me whether I’ve considered moving to New York, I say I don’t have time to consider moving to New York,” Prina said.

“I can stay here and be very busy,” Kelley said. The two have taken part in 24 exhibitions in this country and abroad and were interviewed for a May, 1987, “Art in America” piece on young Los Angeles artists.

Cindy Bernard has had much less professional exposure than Prina and Kelley, yet she has more work in the show--12 pieces--than most of the other artists. Schimmel said she is an example of a young artist who he believes will be making her mark in the near future.

“I think that one thing CalArts does is to instill in you this consciousness of the marketplace,” Bernard said recently while showing a sampling of her work in a West Hollywood gallery. “There is a tendency at CalArts to be very savvy about fashions in art, but there is also an awareness that many of the people coming out of CalArts are setting those fashions.” John Baldessari, 56, an artist-teacher who has been at the school since 1970, has been a leading influence at CalArts. Along with artist Douglas Huebler and others, he has shaped its conceptual orientation.

“It is very important that we have artists as teachers,” he said. “Also, we’ve always made a point to consider the students as artists from the time they get there. . . . From the very start we all agreed that we couldn’t teach art but that we could set up a situation where art could occur. We didn’t teach in the traditional manner--from line drawing to value drawing (with shading) to painting in values and then warm and cool colors, and then painting with a full palette.

“The rule of thumb was, ‘No knowledge ahead of need.’ We would hire somebody to teach something as a student needed it.”

Baldessari and others said the school has become more conservative since he first arrived on campus. “The first school catalogue listed a class in joint-rolling,” Baldessari said. “We don’t have that anymore. . . . There is more of an emphasis now on theory, on doing the correct kind of art . . . a reticence to experiment and a fear of failure.”

Can Baldessari, the teacher who made the greatest impression on Salle, predict which students will become the most successful upon leaving CalArts? “The only idea I’ve gotten about predicting successful art is that quite often it will come from people on the second rank down in school. They’re the ones who work the hardest.”

“Skeptical Belief(s),” opens today and continues through March 20 at the Newport Harbor Art Museum, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays, and noon to 6 p.m. Sundays. Admission: $1 to $3. Information: (714) 759-1122.