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Jeanie Weiffenbach Brings Vision and Cutting-Edge Taste to UCI’s Art Gallery

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If her record is any indication, the new director of the UC Irvine Art Gallery will hoist the same adventurous flag that’s flown over the facility for much of its 34 years.

Jeanie Weiffenbach, who stepped into the post March 1, exhibited nationally known artists whose work tackled abortion rights, child sexual abuse and corporate media dominance during the past decade as the San Francisco Art Institute’s director of exhibitions.

She braved the new world of technology with an installation in which viewers logged on to the Net to build virtual bodies. She also sought to vanquish cultural stereotypes by showing new work by young, tradition-busting artists from Mexico.

“The work she showed was always extremely current,” said Ella King Torrey, art institute president. “And she never shied away from raising challenging, important, sometimes controversial issues.”

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“I don’t see her as someone who will compromise her vision,” said Renny Pritikin, chief curator of San Francisco’s equally vanguard Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. “Her departure was a loss for the Bay Area.”

Indeed, the composed yet passionate Weiffenbach has lots of ideas for UCI’s gallery, including plans for its new high-tech multimedia center. But blunting her cutting-edge taste for a more conservative community is not among them.

“The mission of a contemporary art gallery should always be to give artists opportunities to make new work or to show their most recent work, without relying on the tried and true--even within their own careers,” Weiffenbach said. “So you take a lot of chances, but it’s usually worth it.

“I’ve always felt that institutions of higher education, because of the academic freedom and dedication to learning, support experimentation.”

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The Chicago native, 58, succeeds Brad Spence, who won critical praise for intellectually demanding exhibits. In the early and mid-1990s, the radical political focus of Catherine Lord rekindled some of the energy associated with the gallery when UCI graduate Chris Burden brought international attention to Orange County by having himself shot in the arm in a 1971 performance.

A soft-spoken woman with piercing blue eyes, Weiffenbach has spent most of her career in academia.

Fresh out of the University of Wisconsin, where she earned an master of fine arts degree in painting, she worked for eight years at New York’s Museum of Contemporary Art until 1975, mostly as an assistant to the registrar, and in the celebrated museum’s curatorial department.

“MOMA was still small back then, and everybody worked on everything,” she recalled during a recent interview at UCI. “It was incredible.”

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She then became the first director of the University of Colorado Art Galleries, where over the next decade she increased the school’s exhibition budget by 700% to $40,000 and gave early exposure to such prominent artists as Eric Fischl and Martha Rosler.

She continued that trend at the San Francisco Art Institute, showcasing then lesser-known artists such as Nicole Eisenman and Sue Williams, as well as Karen Finley, Robert Williams and other established provocateurs.

Reaching beyond continental borders, she also exhibited contemporary artists from Ireland, Australia and Mexico.

“Jeanie has a talent for catching very strong artists at an early point in their careers,” said Gary Garrels, painting and sculpture curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. “She also had very deep ties with the artists community here, yet kept a national and international outlook.”

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Though Orange County’s cultural maturity lags behind San Francisco’s, Weiffenbach embraced the challenge of overhauling the UCI gallery to “start something new. It’s one of the most exciting things anyone can hope to do.”

In June, as part of a $23.7-million upgrade of the university’s School of the Arts, the gallery will close for a yearlong renovation. When it reopens with new wood floors and paint, school officials say, so will a 3,300-square-foot, high-tech multimedia learning, research and exhibition center for computer scientists, engineers and artists.

The two contiguous spaces will be called the Donald R. and Joan F. Beall Gallery and Center for Multimedia, endowed with $1.5 million from Rockwell International Corp. in honor of the Bealls, the firm’s former chief executive and his wife.

The university, while maintaining its commitment to low-tech contemporary art, hopes the computer-filled center will generate digitally created art in various forms and creative experimentation on the Internet, administrators said.

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In line with this, the entire University of California system is slowly developing a graduate program in digital art. Its students would design video games and Web pages, or produce multimedia projects combining imagery and sound with other art, music, dance or engineering students, said studio art department chairman David Trend.

Said Weiffenbach: “Communications technology and audiovisual technology are being increasingly used by artists, and we want to be among the first to showcase some of the newest efforts in that area.”

Two years ago, Weiffenbach organized a collaborative, interactive installation at the San Francisco Art Institute by Santa Barbara artist Victoria Vesna in which thousands worldwide logged on to the Net to design their own futuristic virtual bodies.

A History of Bold Experimentation in Art

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With these bodies, composed of character traits and physical attributes, participants entered four cyberspace venues, such as “home” or “limbo,” or created their own graves and “deleted” themselves, said Vesna, a former Laguna Beach resident. Participants in “Bodies INCorporated” could choose their sexual preferences (including hermaphrodite and “other”).

“Jeanie was very bold,” Vesna said. “She gave me a chance to really try it out in a big way, and since 1997, I’ve done it or parts of it in Dublin, Los Angeles and Melbourne, and this summer it’s going to Venice and Rome.”

While in San Francisco, Weiffenbach also showed work from Soundculture, an experimental festival--based each year at various sites around the world--that features Pacific Rim artists. They make installations involving electronically generated sounds that “may or may not be called music,” said Weiffenbach, who still calls herself a technological neophyte.

“I’ve had to educate myself as I’ve gone along, but what’s exciting is doing things we don’t know about yet.”

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Such unusual work could make it doubly difficult to achieve other university goals of broadening the gallery’s audience and raising its profile, Weiffenbach conceded.

She hopes that a new facade, a 1,100-square-foot cyber-cafe and eventually new signs will help realize those goals. Community-related exhibits she’d like to do could also help by, perhaps, exploring Orange County’s ethnic diversity or its suburban identity.

She recently chatted with Trend, an old friend, about how the changing face of suburbia has affected Orange County. “I don’t know how that would be made manifest in an exhibition, but it certainly could be very interesting,” Weiffenbach said.

“In terms of the development of culture, this part of the world is among the most interesting.”

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Unlike New York, which still takes many of its cues from European art history, “California is at the edge of the Pacific, which is a completely different orientation. I think our relationship to the other parts of the world needs to be explored.

“Orange County also has a heavy concentration of high-tech industry, which is fascinating and creates another kind of atmosphere. How can I say it? We’re in a culture that looks to different sources.”

During the next year, Weiffenbach will be looking to various sources to help raise money to operate the revamped gallery. Its recent annual budget has been roughly $85,000, school officials said. Although that probably will increase, no amount has been set, which, characteristically, doesn’t bother Weiffenbach.

“I came here partly because it wasn’t definite,” she said. “That left the most possibilities open.”

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