IF A PAINTER assembled his easel in the resonant cranny of a shop's front door at Harvard Square, the wet thud of soused camel's hair as his paintbrush hit the canvas propped on its tripod probably wouldn't pull a crowd. Unlike musicians or actors, someone who makes strictly visual art tends to go at it alone. It is hard to concoct a performance with audience appeal while etching acid into copper plate, sculpting clay--or daubing paint on canvas. But in the long run, interaction with an audience is just as important to the visual artist as it is to a performer. Unfortunately, many of Harvard's student artists don't experience that kind of interaction.
It took some hard-working students, banded into the Carpenter Center Students' Association last Fall, to organize the display of student art appearing in the center this week. Maybe some notion of the worth these students attach to the art they create as well as to the art they study will prick their faculty and administrators in the department of Visual and Environmental Studies; perhaps more than two teachers will lend active support to the next show.
A large number of undergraduates have pooled their work at a time when other students are apt to spare a moment to see it. Traditionally, exhibits hang for the first week of February--a pretty hectic juncture--or during May and June, when students sit in front of exams while alumnae walk the galleries. Professors assemble these shows from pieces assigned in classes, which explains both the scheduling and the monotonous bent to their subject matter. Once in a while, you stumble on collections by seniors, but these usually feature a single artist, for lack of space. Gathering the work of several artists into one room helps fill a void the department seems to ignore: it offers V E S students themselves a chance to interact if not by talking over their work directly, then by borrowing from the range of ideas expressed visually and reinterpreting them.
Many of the pieces in this exhibit were made at the artists' whim, outside of class, and the collection is lively and multiform. Occasionally someone seems to balk at imagination, although nobody is short on skill, and these pieces smack of exercises. A deftly penciled sketch in one corner, for example, depicts a male nude from the rear, familiarly postured with one hand on his hip and his body's weight shifted to one foot. A canvas in variegated blue with purplish undertones, of a bedroom swathed in yellow light, reflects the dappled brush-work and impressionistic style of Monet.
One of the most striking elements in the show is the delicate lithography. There are two views of clumped, tangled grasses or mosses by Walter Bender. And Keith Courtway's abstract arrangement of almost imperceptible floating lines amid exploding flurries of black line unsettles you with its elusive resemblance to something organic. A squatting woman printed in black ink on white by Ruth Hayes provides the focus for a tiny yet solid composition.
Quite a few photographs span the walls, while one set, by Bob Beusman, zig-zags across a table; Beusman calls it "Thirty-three Kodak Cuties Say Buy Me!", but there are only twenty-four. Bob Ely's pictures, in tempered grays, are slices from a Midwestern wasteland. He has fixed an eerie view of a technological desert: an empty drive-in-movie parking lot with a massive, mottled white screen leaning over it sprouts speakers on poles at gawky angles in the dust, and a jet plane hovers, hawk-like, in one corner.
Three rectangular swatches of fabric dangle from the ceiling. On one pair, Alex Griswold has silkscreened the Puerto Rican rain forest, El Yunque, in green and earthy brown. His elegant, intricate design is abstract, but you can't mistake the jungle foilage.
Many of the remaining pieces make ingenious use of clay, transparent plastics or just plain pencil; only a few, like some cluttered and drab collages, are disappointing. As though filling in for an absent receptionist, an old woman of papier mache sits at her door-side table. The woman stares catatonically out of pale blue eyeballs and you can sidle right up and stare back without feeling embarrassed. Her card says simply that "she was taken to Boston Commons," a scrap of information of dubious significance, but you can think on it while you look. A shrewd glance reveals the wrinkles pleated into a brown paper sack which might have given harried passersby the chance to mutter "the old bag" as they bustled through the park.
The Carpenter Center Students' Association has brought together an intriguing cluster of work; with any uck, it should provide the impetus for more frequent glimpses of their art in the future.