Boundless Ambition—Part Curiosity, Part Vision

Boundless Ambition
Part I:

September 7 - November 9, 2011

Part Curiosity, Part Vision
The progressive school teaches the [student] to think for himself instead of passively accepting stereotyped ideas. It keeps always in mind the fact that each [student] is different from every other, and that what makes an educated person useful in his particular walk of life, what makes him interesting, what makes him an individual, is not his resemblances to other people but his differences. [1]
John French, 1931
All we had was boundless ambition, a set of convictions about the possibilities of private secondary education and the need for drastic changes. [2]
John French, 1931
The year 2011 marks an important milestone for The Cambridge School of Weston, as we mark our 125th anniversary of responding to the need for drastic changes in education. Fittingly, the title for this year's series is taken from a quote by John French, who during his first year as head of the Cambridge School in 1931, boldly moved the school from Cambridge to Weston, when and where it received the name by which it is known today. More than giving the school a new name, John French helped to establish some of the core tenets of the school's program, which may be found alive and well throughout the fabric of the school today. With a spirit of acknowledgment and celebration, this year's series of triptych exhibitions examines CSW's treasured boundary dissolve between faculty, staff and students. Specifically, it addresses our shared convictions about the relationship between learning, personal voice and working in the world. Far from attempting to be exhaustive, the series aims to explore our tenets and convictions vicariously through three exhibitions that highlight the creative expressions of only a handful alumni, faculty and staff. Thus, each exhibition in the Boundless Ambition series provides just a glimpse of certain aspects of The Cambridge School's shared identity, which when considered all together, offer insight into what makes us a unique educational institution. As CSW celebrates our approaches to teaching this year, visitors to the gallery are encouraged to look for the threads that connect learning and practice by virtue of the differences between traditional art and the contemporary works on display.
Part Curiosity, Part Vision, in a sense, highlights an aspect of the school's practice concerned with a student-centered approach. Put another way, the exhibition showcases the results of our approach as evidenced by the unique ways the artists have evolved their own creative practices and how each thinks for him/herself as a maker of objects or images. As the school attests, honoring cognitive diversity through experiential learning yields myriad strategies for problem solving, and that is at the center of our present exhibition. Notwithstanding, the variety of creative problem solving that fills the gallery, for all its apparent diversity of approach, also shares a common thread within contemporary art vernacular. As conceptual artists, the alumni of Part Curiosity, Part Vision persistently ask questions that suspend what is known in order to find something surprising as they work in their respective studios; and the resultant art tends to prompt shifts of mind.
For Dan Wood '88, Providence-based and visiting critic at Rhode Island School of Design, appropriated text is found poetry, waiting for new significance. Wood scavenges the realm of the printed page for headlines, clippings and images in an effort to recreate printed matter by bringing back outmoded technologies and juxtaposing the lost with the found. Founder of DWRI Letterpress, Wood often works collaboratively, taking cues from patrons who are in need of antique printing services; but his own studio practice pushes the work further by making yesterday's forgotten pulp fictions, today's news. When confronted by Wood's Pinko Pfizer Proof—of which only nine of the original fifty are on display here—Andy Warhol's Campbell's Soup Cans easily come to mind. But unlike the celebrated Pop artist's roughly hewn and seemingly repeated screen print series, Wood's letterpress pieces are true repetitions of a print-of-a-print, of a pill on perforated paper, reproduced with exquisite craft. Warhol amplified 1960s Pop culture. Wood amplifies the print itself. He literally enlarged the printed image of a pill's paper backing—not the pill—until it revealed the Ben-Day dots, which is a kind of conceptual nod to contemporary pop-a-pill culture. But Wood's selection of imagery, with its typical penchant for the oddball and the ironic, does not so much make icons of contemporary culture as Warhol's did, as much as they raise questions about it.
Recent MFA graduate and Brooklyn-based, Darcy Brennan Poor '99, is a printmaker concerned with drawing the fleeting presence of the body. Whether drawing familiar domestic objects such as chairs, tables or bathtubs, or using her own body as a drawing tool, Brennan Poor looks for artifacts that record bodily movement and evidence of repeated presence over time. Aligned with contemporary artists Janine Antoni and Vija Celmins, Brennan Poor blends thoughtful practices with painstaking labor. "Paper as a site is a common thread between my drawings and prints," she explains. She uses layering and abrasive techniques to capture the elusive. "I excavate and uncover layers to reveal the weight of the body." Similar to Antoni's Slumber, but obviously an invented process, Brennan Poor's Sleep Print series exposes the relationship between voluntary and involuntary systems. To make each work in the series, Brennan Poor prepared four etching plates beneath a bed sheet, and she literally slept on her idea. During her nocturnal drawing, her bodily movements rubbed away the etching ground beneath, recording the weight of her body and she eventually etched and printed each plate. There is a palpable silence or stillness in her Sleep Prints that paradoxically mark the places where unconscious bodies once shifted and removed the etching ground. Like night constellations, her unusual prints seem to hold still, though they are of course products of motion. "Drawing and printing are different sides of the same coin" Brennan Poor points out "and with them I try to pit control versus accident, conscious drawing versus unconscious drawing."

In an "urgent pursuit," Deborah Goldman '65 of Key West, Florida, creates art to combat entropy and loss. Intentionally using delicate, if not ephemeral materials, Goldman pits one reality against another to establish conceptual tensions. She stacks photographs in rows and columns, repeating imagery that in many ways asserts the here and now. For Goldman, "keeping track" and counting time blatantly establishes a rhythm of persistence. Always teetering on the brink of collapse, her explorations of the fabric of memory, with its inherent impermanence and decay, is held in check not only by a seeming image repetition, but also by selected hardware, designed to hold with minimal grasp, providing the possibility of impromptu movement. Goldman's pieces move with the slightest breeze and seem to dance even when still. Due in part to the shimmer and play of light and shadow upon curling edge of paper or cloth and wall, Goldman's imagery never seems stationary, despite the still photography. Thus, her ensemble of work celebrates a kind of perpetual dance, as if to rally a call for carpe diem. In For Aubrey, for example, though there is obvious visual repetition, the careful observer will notice Goldman's typical staggered sequences are subtly dispersed with repeated images that are rarely, if ever, the same size—as if to say each moment requires something different. Goldman's work, like minimalist composer Steve Reich's, escapes the confines of the grid. Due to this insistence on playing off the grid, a theme of transcendence overtakes Goldman's initial subjects.
With serious playfulness, Carmelle Safdie '00, often muses, "When I grow up I hope to be able to draw a circle." For recent MFA graduate and Astoria-based Safdie, simple imagery can cloak complex ideas and be "confrontational." As she boldly points out, "It can manifest itself as self-deprecating dumbness, laugh in the face of authority, or show loving appreciation for the outdated. It is celebratory in the face of all that should be serious." Safdie's work stands out for its exceptional design quality and its Bauhaus simplicity, but it gets its critical edge from a healthy dose of skepticism. Like a John Baldessari text painting or installation, Safdie pokes at the very processes she embraces. Safdie's creative disposition is reminiscent of Baldesarri's famous installation, "I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art," in which he asked his students to repeat that phrase over every wall surface. Before Safdie sets out to create a body of work, she looks for a stimulus and a pointed set of restrictions, but more importantly, she targets absurd, taboo and loaded subjects. Armed with simple tools and the stuff of low art—a straight edge and compass, permanent markers, newsprint and printing ink—Safdie's Squaring the Circle and The History of the Problem series are created with high precision and ceaseless attention to detail. And therein lies the rub, the humor, the irony and the confrontation. Why such perfection for such lowly, impermanent materials? What about mistakes? Look closely; simple things can be deceiving!
Matt Johnson '96 makes sculptures of everyday-looking objects in his Los Angeles studio. However, "common" could never truly describe the quality or actualities of his work, which are easily missed if the viewer just accepts what they think they see. What is prevalent in Johnson's work is his resourcefulness and virtuoso approach to object-making, despite the technique. Many of Johnson's interests have led him to invent technologies or push them to an extreme. Johnson always works to scale, but uses materials that tend to be unassociated with the original forms he references. With unyielding compromise, Johnson creates works that mimic objects we rarely pay much mind to, but the work does not end with exceptional resemblances. With a Duchampian tongue-in-cheek and deadpan zeal, Johnson plays with ideas, histories and words. With a nod to Duchamp's Readymades, Johnson's objects unfold in the viewers mind as the concepts about the objects encountered transform from the mundane to the extraordinary. Johnson's work differs from a readymade, however, due to his assertion of labor—something Duchamp tried to avoid. For example, Johnson's delightful game of making an elephant out of orange peels seems an end unto itself until the viewer reads the checklist, which reveals its true form to be an oil painting over a bronze sculpture. In another work, a crow is made out of bronzed crowbars. It may be said that the artist treats the everyday as a decoy to hide the true identity of the objects he makes. Johnson is an alchemist, a magician who transforms ideas into weighty objects of thought.

Part Curiosity, Part Vision
is perhaps best considered as a foray into play. In a sense, what each artist seems to demonstrate is that they all start with the question: What if? And when such a question becomes the vehicle for creation, whenever an artist ventures outside of what is known, they truly operate on their own. As conceptual artists, their drive to create does not stem from any traditional form of creation—there is no manual to reference, no treatise, no time-honored method from which to replicate or recapitulate a particular style of art. None of these artists were taught how to make this work that is on display; these artists followed their own ambitions. While attending CSW, individuals are shown the importance of thinking for themselves, with all the splendor of their own cognitive idiosyncrasies. And because these five artists have clearly established unique professional identities for themselves, it is important to recognize that these flourishing differences are iconic and apropos of French's pedagogical aspirations.
Todd Bartel
Gallery Director, Curator

[1] George St. John, Jr., Individuals and Community—The Cambridge School: The First Hundred Years, Windflower Press, Cambridge, MA., 1986, p. vix.
[2] Ibid, p. 21

The Cambridge School of Weston is a progressive high school for day and boarding students in grades 9–12 and PG. CSW's mission is to provide a progressive education that emphasizes deep learning, meaningful relationships, and a dynamic program that inspires students to discover who they are and what their contribution is to their school, their community and the world.