Have you ever wanted to be an art student for a day? Sit in on a studio crit? Or join a conversation about art?
You can do this by visiting a work of art so well camouflaged that you might not even realize it is art.
The piece — “The Peninsula School of Art” by MECA sculpture student Robert Doane — is dynamic and deep, but it’s one of the most welcoming works of art I have ever visited.
In fact, just writing the name plays into Doane’s conceptualism, because usually, titles of works of art go in quotations and names of schools do not.
In this case, it’s both: “The Peninsula School” is a work of art and an actual school that is free and open to the public.
Unfortunately, its last day in the ICA’s center gallery is Sunday. However, PS’s open-to-the-public Crit Club will continue to meet from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesdays.
The highlight of PS’s camouflage is the work on display within its exhibition space. Without the art on the walls, it might be easier to see the school — with its desk, couch, ping-pong table and popcorn machine — as the work of art.
Moreover, this camouflage plays into ICA director Daniel Fuller’s unusually hip and assertively savvy take on contemporary art. Instead of being a white-box gallery art backdrop, Fuller has transformed the ICA’s agency role from passive to active.
In the halls and galleries, you will find assets such as the ICA’s book-making tools (ICA is a member of the Publication Studio Network) and the uber-edgy AAAARG Library, a 10,000-card catalog of textual material web-posted for redistribution.
PS is fun. It’s like going to a salon. You can bring your art for a crit. There are discussions about the works on display. You can discuss your ideas, ask questions or just listen.
But even if you choose to be a wallflower, you are still part of the work, and this is where PS gets really interesting.
Basically, PS is a “happening” — a form of art invented in the 1950s in which the distinction between the audience and the performers is dissolved.
To a particularly unusual extent, however, PS is not theater — it’s real; the art, the school’s mission, the participants’ experiences are all real. There is no pretending (and therefore, no pretentiousness) involved.
Camouflaged as it is, PS’s insistently functional literalness makes it anti-theater.
So how is it art? First of all, it’s a scheduled exhibition in an art gallery. (Yes, that matters.) Secondly, it delivers an art experience to an art audience.
While this list could go on, PS ultimately (and comfortably) opens the doors to philosophical discussion and self-criticism as a tool of cultural education and critique — stuff at the very heart of culture.
I attended (and participated in) a discussion about Philadelphia artist Alex Da Corte’s readymade-based sculpture “Triumph” — a stylized high-end plastic dog chair pushed onto its nose with a plastic “#1″ fan-finger on its tail and a cell phone held up by an iStuck gum wad phone stand.
It was a fascinating conversation among students, professionals and members of the public about sculpture, design, re-purposing, plastic, garbage and even copyright and property rights. (I think Da Corte stole the chair.)
I also attended a crit at PS at which members of the public showed up with art. They included a complete novice, students from the University of Southern Maine and MECA, and two professionals whose work I admire very much: James Chute and Jonathan Blatchford.
I was particularly interested in Blatchford’s difficult canvas, because I admire his exhibited painterly orchard landscapes. Problem solving with a smart, young painter like Blatchford is an amazing opportunity for the art-interested public.
Despite their absence from the dialogue at ICA, I am particularly impressed by the philosophical reverberations of Doane’s “school.” After all, on some level, a school within MECA smacks of competition — which effectively reminds us that art education can be a commercial product in America.
So, while much conceptual art grump-stumbles against commercialized objects, Doane is effectively flanking the idea of the marketable art education.
On one hand, it’s a success story in Maine: MECA and USM’s degree in art and entrepreneurial studies come to mind first, but in just a few years under department chair Jeff Badger, for example, Southern Maine Community College’s Fine Art offerings have grown from one art instructor to 36 this semester.
On the other hand, commercialized education inspires the worst kind of corporate intrigue. For example, former Maine Gov. John McKernan has been under False Claims Act legal fire as CEO of Education Management Corp. — which operates the nationwide Art Institute schools — for its alleged “multifaceted, corporate-wide scheme” to capture as much money as possible from the U.S. Department of Education’s financial aid programs. At issue is the $11 billion in federal grants and loans used by students to pay tuition to the Art Institute and its sister schools under McKernan.
PS is about art education as consumer product, but Doane’s work is more focused on direct engagement with art in the most positive sense. MECA should be proud of what Doane and Fuller are accomplishing. I am certainly impressed.
If you’re interested, show up to the Wednesday Crit Club. Everyone is invited, and it is a happening place.
Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at: