The Color of Life

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We are lucky to have here, in southern California, some of the best art schools in the country. But when several years ago, I went to one of them to see an exhibition of works by students graduating from the Master of Fine Arts program, I left the galleries feeling rather depressed. Most of the art was inept, and I felt sorry for the parents who had been duped into investing thousands of dollars in their kids' education, with such a dismal return.

at080311a.jpg So you can understand my hesitation about going to see the exhibition of this year's MFA graduates at UCLA's New Wight Gallery. What tempted me was the modest, well-designed brochure presenting a sample of work from each artist. I decided to stop by the exhibition, planning to spend there only a few minutes; instead, I ended up staying for over an hour. Not only did I like the works of all four graduates -– three painters and one video artist -– but I was also surprised by the level of professionalism with which the exhibition was installed. As an extra bonus, two of the painters, Claire Baker and Benjamin Britton, happened to be there, and I had a delightful chat with both of them.

at080311b.jpgI liked some of their works more than others, and they didn't seem to mind me saying so. Both artists, already in possession of their own style, demonstrate surprising assurance working on a small as well as a large scale. Both have a predilection for bravura brushwork. Considering the fierce competition among art dealers for fresh, young talent, I was interested to hear if either of these two had already been approached. Not yet, I learned. If you want to see this exhibition, hurry up: it closes this Thursday, March 13. Over the next two months at the New Wight Gallery, there will be three more exhibitions of this year's MFA graduates, each lasting only one week. I definitely want to see all of them and wouldn't be surprised if smart collectors and dealers do the same. To find out the schedule of these upcoming exhibitions, go to the Art Talk page on the KCRW website and click on today's program. And there you can actually see the artworks I'm talking about.

at080311c.jpg Now, a friendly warning: turn off your radio, because what you are going to hear next might break your heart. The new exhibition, The Color of Life, at the Getty Villa tells the complicated story of the use of color in European sculpture from ancient times to now. It might be shocking for many of us to learn that the beautiful, white marble Greek and Roman sculptures that we associate with the purity of classical style were not that pure to begin with. They definitely were not white. Now, thousands of years later, one can only detect traces of brown – deep in the carvings of locks of hair, or pink – at the corners of the mouth. And the exhibition shows a few such examples.

at080311d.jpg However, it's difficult to stomach the full reconstruction of the color scheme for some ancient architectural fragments and sculptures...The colors appear to be not just bold, but simply garish. The very idea of Greeks and Romans having bad taste gives me the shivers. Could it be that the whole European notion of classicism in visual arts, with its attempt to resurrect ancient ideals of purity, is based on false assumptions? The exhibition also presents a few excellent Renaissance portraits with a heavy application of paint.

at080311e.jpg But the most unusual object on display is a full-scale, anatomically correct 18th century model of a female body lying on silk cushions. The beautiful face has an expression of peace, the skin is translucent, the long, dark hair is real. But from chin to pubic area, the skin has been removed to reveal brightly colored, intricately carved organs, allowing medical students to study the human anatomy. This sleeping beauty comes courtesy of the Museum of Natural History in Florence.

Art MFA Exhibition
UCLA New Wight Gallery
Broad Art Center, Room 1100

Art MFA Exhibition #1: Thursday, March 6-13, 2008
Art MFA Exhibition #2: Thursday, April 3–10, 2008
Art MFA Exhibition #3: Thursday, April 17-24, 2008
Art MFA Exhibition #4: Friday, May 2–8, 2008

The Color of Life: Polychromy in Sculpture from Antiquity to the Present
Getty Villa
March 6 – June 23, 2008

Banner image: John Kilduff, Performance based painting from the television show Let's paint TV (detail); Oil on canvas/watercolor; 2005 – 2008