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Just What Are Those Grad Students Up to?

For most professional people, years spent in graduate school translate into titles and higher salaries. But for artists, a master of fine arts degree guarantees precious little.

Teaching jobs, which generally require a graduate degree, are hard to get. Certainly, no degree will give an artist greatness--or even ease the burden of selling and showing work.

All a graduate program in studio art can supply is specialized equipment, space, advice and free time.

In UC Irvine’s fine arts department, equipment is in short supply and most studios are tucked away in a Santa Ana industrial park. (Ceramics and sculpture students have work spaces on the main campus, but small ones they’ve had to jerry-rig themselves.)

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Depending on which student you ask, some faculty guidance (a) must be sought out, (b) is not especially worth the effort, or (c) is downright irrelevant.

Which leaves: free time. Not a bad thing--time to experiment, to improve. Still, during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, its Golden Age, UCI’s art department was famous for the exchange of highly idiosyncratic ideas between well-known faculty and students, a conceptual orientation, a deliberate lack of emphasis on technique and craft.

Today, as one student says, “There’s the overall feeling the school is a joke. Nobody has any illusions that this is a great, hot program.”

The current crop of 16 graduate students is extremely diverse, including recent undergraduates and women who have raised families, artists from across the country and across the world. There are painters, sculptors, photographers, a ceramic sculptor, none of whom subscribe to a particular “school style.”

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Some hope their degrees will lead to teaching positions; one student already has been teaching for a decade. Another looks forward to continuing a career in performance art. The majority expect to keep toiling as waiters, secretaries and what-have-you in order to make time for creative work.

Here, four grads talk about how the overall graduate experience has, or hasn’t, worked out for them.

For Ando Yuichiro, who came to the U.S. from Japan six years ago and has been hacking out a life in downtown Los Angeles, UCI is a dull and disappointing place.

His cigarette dangling, hipster-style, from his lip, Ando (“everybody just calls me Ando”) is openly scornful of the university and its placid, suburban setting.

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“Being a graduate student here, I don’t learn from anybody. I was teaching drawing (as a teaching assistant) last quarter and my professor kind of took off. . . . Most of the teachers, they’ve been here 20 years. They’re dead.”

UCI also reminds him of the bourgeois side of Japan he hates. “People are talking about a car, a boyfriend or girlfriend, cosmetics. . . .”

Grad student life in Irvine is certainly a contrast to the tough neighborhood of the downtown L.A. motel where he lives and works as a manager. He claims he took that job when an earlier one--tracking down runaway girls for a private investigator, at $600 a day--got too dangerous.

Ando came to the U.S. as an exchange student at Pepperdine University in Malibu in search of good times and a more liberal society. He got interested in art because the classes didn’t require him to speak English.

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Now he paints abstract canvases and sells some of them through an agent in La Jolla. He also makes videos.

“They’re pornographic,” he says casually. “Most of my girlfriends are strippers. They pose for me for free but sometimes I’ve gotta pay.

So is this supposed to be art or pornography?

“I’m not really showing sex-sex,” Ando replies. “I’m using nudity as a kind of vehicle to present problems of the society, whatever.”

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Talk to Ando for awhile and the swaggering front turns truculent. He is angry about racial prejudice. “Always the white student gets something. You know what I mean. . . . You’re always kind of in-between. You want to belong to something that’s going to make you feel secure but you don’t.”

He has resigned himself to patiently sticking out another year of grad school to earn a master of fine arts degree because it might help him get a green card. But he doesn’t have a clear picture of what he’ll be doing after that.

“It’s really hard to survive in this world,” he says quietly, his wistful side showing. “After I graduate I may not have a show for 10 years. So am I still gonna paint? Who knows.

“It’s a real loose program,” explains Alan Nakagawa, a performance artist with a serenely Buddha-like manner. “Basically, there’s one class that you have to attend, the quote-unquote lecture series--and it’s not absolutely mandatory that you go to every single one--and independent study. You get together with one instructor for a quarter and you just talk about your work.

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“I’ve been sort of wandering around doing my own thing. Once in a while an instructor will come and help. It’s sort of like, hey, I got my M.F.A. but gee, I never went to class!”

Performance art--which borrows elements from music, theater and the visual arts--is only a couple of decades old, born of a rebellion against the rigidity of classical art forms. As a youngster, Nakagawa felt that his interests in art and music “always ran parallel to each other and sort of against each other, like I had to make a decision (to choose one or the other).”

Then during his undergraduate days at Otis/Parsons in Los Angeles, he met a painter “who sat me down and asked, what did I want to do? I said I wanted to merge (art and music) in a modern opera format.” And lo, a performance artist was born. Before he graduated, Nakagawa began appearing with recognized people in the field, like Nancy Buchanan and Suzanne Lacey.

To hear him tell it, UCI simply fell into Nakagawa’s lap. A professor familiar with his work asked him if he wanted to be in the graduate program, and he figured it was a good deal. “I knew the UC system was wealthy so there would be some support here. And I knew I could use one of the theaters.”

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After grad school, he figures he’ll just find another friendly institution willing to dispense support, space or equipment to get him to his next artistic destination.

A wiry, matter-of-fact young man, Brian Tuan majored in engineering during his undergraduate years at UCI. He remembers watching fellow students “sort of slave through all the math and all the engineering just so they could get that secure job.”

He wasn’t impressed. Meanwhile, art looked like “an interesting area. . . . There’s so much freedom, especially at this school. You don’t really have to know anything to make art here.” He laughs. “I think I could more or less throw anything into my show at the end of the year and just be able to argue it reasonably well.”

Not everything about art at UCI appeals to Tuan. He’s disappointed that the studio art department is physically isolated from the rest of campus because he thinks that leads to students becoming entrenched in narrow areas.

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“I think there’s a whole variety of fields that can be brought to art to enhance your own progress,” he says. Not surprisingly, he believes one of these fields is engineering.

Tuan’s homemade goofy kinetic sculptures play music, flash lights and zoom around. One looks like a miniature parade float with a revolving abstract painting. It plays “When the Saints Come Marching In.”

Looking at art with the fresh gaze of an inquisitive traveler in a foreign realm, Tuan sees it as one of many little universes of specialized activity.

“I guess every object has a certain personality or characteristic, and I find that rather interesting,” he says. “For instance, I’m doing some work with guns and a gun itself has a lot of power, just the image. I’m sort of contradicting that power by painting it really goofy and very decorative and adding lights and stuff.”

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Tuan’s own take on guns has little to do with hobbyists, the gun lobby or even the ban-the-handgun contingent. “I think they perceive it as a political thing (but) I kind of like (guns) from a mechanical standpoint--the way they function. . . . So far, I just view them as another commodity that people seem (attracted to). It’s just like the art market. There’s a whole collectors’ world and it’s a commodity situation.”

With a buffer year before he has to leave school, Tuan doesn’t know if he’ll try to support himself as an engineer. “I don’t find the job market that interesting.” But he doesn’t think he could support himself as an artist, does he? “That’s what everyone says,” he answers dubiously.

For four years after she graduated from UCLA, painter Martha Jackson worked at a string of secretarial jobs, one of which still occupies 30 hours of her week. The main reason she enrolled in the graduate program at UCI was “to find a peer group and network in which I could discuss ideas.”

That hasn’t happened to the extent she hoped. “There’s a distance in this school. In part, that’s because there are lots of commuters here, but the entire school for some reason seems not to encourage a lot of interaction.”

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Still, Jackson likes the lack of structure (“In a weird way it sort of mimics what’s going to happen when you get into the real art arena”). She has made it a point to get to know as many instructors as possible and spend as much time as possible on her own work.

Some grad students are gloomy about career prospects, even in teaching, and are resigned to working at menial jobs to support their art--for a few years, anyway.

“It’s nice to think you’ll get a teaching job,” says Steven Riddler, “But the six to eight (colleges offering positions at any given time) are generally not places where any normal person would want to move. . . . In waitering you think on a five-hour time scale. I can make enough money to live on and still have plenty of time (for art). I just don’t want to be a 50-year-old waiter.”

But Jackson looks forward to teaching art, in public school. Her fiance is also an artist who wants to teach.

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She was particularly intrigued by faculty member John Paul Jones. “He’s just wonderful in describing the excitement and pleasure that can be gained by learning an artistic process,” she says. “He’s got his whole system down. The way he instructs the first day--I kind of look at it as the invocational or inspirational--and the next couple of days he explains everything. It’s amazing.”

During her first year Jackson had trouble focusing on her painting. Some of her pieces were “just dead and I knew they were dead but I couldn’t resurrect them for some reason. It was a type of block.”

This year, working “intuitively,” she has produced a large body of work “very much about ideas and things that are very close to me.” One canvas that incorporates the melancholy image of a Pierrot figure from a famous Watteau painting is, she says, “a little about death, about things slipping out of your grasp.”

But there is no mystique in her mind about what it takes to become a better artist. "(My professors) were talking about how after five years most people drift away and don’t continue doing work and after 10 years, if they’re not making work, you know they’re never going to make work again . . . It’s nothing I hadn’t already considered . . . .

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“It’s sort of like going to the gym. You have to get yourself out of the house and not be afraid of it, not be afraid to fail.”

Work by the UCI grad students is being shown in an ongoing series of weekly exhibits at the Fine Arts Gallery on campus through June 4. The gallery is open every day but Monday from noon to 5 p.m. Information: (714) 856-6610.


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