Sunday, May 20, 2007

Oxbow Incident

Oxbow is a remarkable visual arts high school nestled along the Napa River in Northern California. The brainchild of arts patron Ann Hatch, it has been in full swing for almost a decade and draws students from around the country. About 45 teenagers attend at a time, progressing through various media in 11-hour days (academics are also required) that span a single semester. Weekends home are discouraged; discipline is a must. End-of-the-semester projects are white-knuckle events as serious as college-level shows.

Situated at the looping bend in the river, the school puts young artists under the tutelege of noted painters, sculptors, printmakers and mixed media artists, all the while making sure they eat according to the gospel of Alice Waters. It echoes the Ox-Bow School of Arts on the shores of Lake Michigan, which is affiliated with the Art Institute of Chicago. It also alludes to Thomas Cole's 1836 painting entitled The Oxbow.

A friend of mine, Emma, is just finishing her semester there, and Sunday three of us visited the campus to view the students' final projects. As we moved from beautiful studio to beautiful studio (designed by architect Stanley Saitowitz) we discovered that the young artists had undertaken daring personal and philosophical explorations, pushing their skills hard and striving for real mastery and depth. Repeatedly the projects revealed sharp young minds passionately focused, expressively fluent. I found their courage inspiring.

And as a dance person, I found the recurrent presence of the body in the show a thought-provoking surprise. The arts have changed radically since the advent of AIDS. As bodies began to disappear at a staggering rate, especially in the arts world, the body was no longer a second-rate player that could be taken for granted but the first and most important game in town. Whether sick or well, diminished or pumped up, the body began to be portrayed in rich and complex ways in the years that followed, and narrative became a kind of robe that revealed and obscured the form. That trend has lasted: embodied art is everywhere.

As I thought about this, I realized that the renewed primacy of the body in visual arts harkens back to the rebellions of the Bay Area School painters (led by Richard Diebenkorn, David Park, Elmer Bischoff, and Joan Brown to name a few) against Abstract Expressionism. These painters, many of whom were vets of WW II, saw the body as central to humanism in a post-Hiroshima/Auschwitz world. Today, in an increasingly violent and uncertain world, we're once again forced back to first principles; the body is where we begin.

Oxbow's kids, with not a whit of sentimentality, claimed the body with this kind of exigency, and the human form, whether in mixed media, video, paint, or sculpture, was presented as the single verifiable if still elusive reality. As our current last frontier (there will always be a new last frontier), the body is the place where culture, economy, religion, sexuality and ethics intersect. As such, it is the figurative as well as metaphoric battleground for conflict. It is also the place of redemption. These young artists seemed to know that, and their faith in the body was amazing.

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