Young artists flourish in local galleries

Rocket, Brad Phillips

I’ve been noticing a recent surge of short-lived art exhibitions by particularly young artists at a variety of venues around town. In rapid succession there were shows by Andrea Brough, Ethan Calabrese, and Meghan Brennan at the new exhibition space known as The Vault; Lyndsay Gallivan was at Gallery 464; Brielle Greenberg and Nicole Wurstner exhibited at Sugar City, and Big Orbit showed Jessica Ballard.

Continuing shows include Satoshi Tsuchiyama’s Dream of Forbidden Colors at CEPA until December 24; Brad Phillips’ Abolition of Man is at Artspace on December 12 and 13; and The Reality of Play featuring work by Alex Turchinsky and Jeannette Wiley closing December 11 at Kitchen Distribution at 20 Auburn Ave. From what I’ve seen so far the work has been strong—strikingly strong at times.

With so many exhibitions popping up and vanishing with whack-a-mole efficiency it took me a while to catch on. So who are new rapid fire recruits into Buffalo’s artistic workforce? What do they all have in common? It turns out they are all students of University of Buffalo Associate Professor of Visual Studies, Sylvie Bélanger. But you won’t hear them saying they’re students. “Right from the first [Photography Seminar of Art 448 class] I establish that the next time they walk back into the room I will treat them like young artists,” says Bélanger, “and they will have to behave as such. …they have to refer to themselves as artists and not students…”

Bélanger, who speaks in a heavy accent, describes herself as Québecquoise-Francophone. She has lived and worked in Buffalo and Toronto simultaneously for the past seven years. Her nomadic lifestyle dictates that she maintains at least two residences in different cities or countries at all times, including for a while Amsterdam. This is only the second time since she’s been at UB that Bélanger has taught this particular course, which despite its name doesn’t require that students work in photography. But it’s no cakewalk. “From the beginning I establish that the course will be very difficult, demanding, and intense. As artists, they are entirely responsible for determining the issues explored, the methods to achieve the work, the techniques, processes and materials, the form of presentation, the place where they will exhibit, the installation of their exhibition, and the promotion of their show.”Crimson #72, Satoshi Tsuchiyama

Crimsom #72, Satoshi Tsuchiyama

This approach benefits both the students and the Buffalo art community. By shoving them out of the nest into the real world, the fledgling artists must quickly learn to fly in the art world, as they are introduced to Buffalo’s art scene. Bélanger evaluates the students, “by the level of interaction and engagement with the community through their presence as artist and the quality of their artwork. An artist does not consider his or her artwork as an assignment,” and Bélanger’s students have no other task except to mount a solo exhibition outside the educational environment. Bélanger outlines the extensive demands she places on the students, which amount to pretty much everything a professional artists must do. This includes arranging a public lecture on their work in a rented space, this year Rust Belt Books. “At the beginning I am not sure that they understand completely what it means. The public lectures act as catalysts that project them into the other world outside of the classroom. This is empowerment.” Bélanger stresses that she does not act as a teacher so much as a resource for the budding artists. And the students figure out for themselves, “that competition does not exclude sharing and supporting each other, and believe me, I‘ve seen a lot communal support gestures during this semester.” All this stands in stark contrast to the usual art college practice, in which the students are taught how to make art, but seldom how to be artists. Bélanger agrees, but thinks the best way to “teach” how to be an artist is by being forced to be one.

The University of Buffalo has long had a reputation within the art community, and sometimes among the art students themselves, of not doing enough to encourage students to engage the local art scene. Though this belief is pervasive, Bélanger disagrees, citing numerous examples of student involvement outside the school to refute the claim. “Maybe the impression is a result of poor publicity and the distance between the North Campus and the downtown community?” Maybe so. Bélanger’s students have been aggressively publicizing their events through posters, Facebook announcements, emails, and cards.

As for Bélanger’s take on Buffalo’s art community itself, she says, “There is everything happening here: music, theater, dance, creative writing performance, and a serious presence of the visual arts…It is very vibrant and the diversity and quality of the work presented is of a high standard. Before I started to teach in Buffalo, I made many trips from Toronto to visit some of the exhibitions at CEPA, Hallwalls, Big Orbit, and the Albright Knox. Now I can see them without having to drive four hours.”

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