USC Roski:

by Pedro Vélez
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Splendorous though Los Angeles may be, it is unfortunately cut through by the ugly vestiges of car culture. Don’t get me wrong -- the sublime is always present. But you sure can miss a great deal of it while stuck in traffic.

Good thing my pal, the artist Joseph Hardesty, was doing all the driving the other day, skillfully dodging craters on the surface of the historic Arroyo Seco Parkway -- also known as the Pasadena Freeway -- as he navigated our way to the Roski School of Fine Arts open studios at the University of Southern California.

Only 16 lucky hopefuls are accepted each year into the MFA program, which provides its students with luxuriously spacious studios. According to its website, the program “provides a highly individualized experience, and its interdisciplinary nature encourages wide-ranging experimental and intellectual exploration.” Progressive heaven for a hefty price. And its faculty includes art world luminaries like Sharon Lockhart, Frances Stark and Andrea Zittel.

So it was after a beautiful ride through the Hollywood Hills that we arrived at the studios -- and found them, to my surprise, in the most unappealing of places: deep within the bowels of a hideous building flanked by a parking lot, surrounded by fast food chains and car dealerships and overlooking a dirty stretch of highway.

The first face I saw belonged to none other than that Chicago expatriate and former director of Kavi Gupta Gallery, the painter Kristen VanDeventer. “Lately I have been thinking about delicious ways of dying,” she told me, straight-faced. I chuckled. VanDeventer’s sense of humor can be brilliantly deceiving -- this time, it turns out, she was serious. “I have been obsessing over this,” she said, showing me Consider the Oyster, a book written by Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher (1908-1992) in 1941 and containing recipes and descriptions of the lifecycle of the mollusk that many consider a masterpiece of amateur philosophy.

Casts of oysters and oyster carcasses lay in heaping mounds on the floor of VanDeventer’s studio. The walls were hung with abstract paintings, puzzle-like modular constructions, and one large white canvas with cryptic text scrawled over it that read, “We’re not copying it, we’re lonely.”

One of my favorite works was a modular, greenish black canvas whose rectangular openings had been patched, apparently with more hope than skill. Her process is like laying tile without grout, wishing paper spacers in between tiles can do the trick. The construction is uneven, fragile and obviously hollow, and it was apparent to me that VanDeventer has been seeking ways to fill the void with emotional content, and not material.

A few steps down the hallway, Karen Adelman, a first year grad from New York who originally trained as a singer, told me that she has been developing a fictional character who is an anxious basement-dweller. I didn’t have time to take in the entire video, in which said character figures. I blamed traffic. Feeling a bit guilty, I asked Adelman if it would be possible to see her video online. She said no, and went on, “I don’t feel comfortable having it online. I’m interested in the live performance, in the moment.” My loss.

I did get to hear her sing though, and I must say she is really good. What I liked about Adelman is that she has that serious self-assuredness and the contained energy that all great performers must share.

In Patrick Walsh’s messy studio I encountered the face of one of my heroes -- “Master of Horror” Stephen King -- via a small pictures affixed to an slim aluminum tube that had been bent into a perfect circle and hung on the wall, like a round picture frame. The image of King was actuall the back cover of one of his paperback books. Piled on the floor was a bunch of “junk” -- pieces of plywood and foam rubber, a magazine, and a wheel rim covered in multicolored layers of candle wax and eye glasses -- a witty and ironic juxtaposition, given that King almost died when a distracted driver in a minivan ran into him in ’99.

I thought so, at least. Patrick soon informed me that the rims actually had nothing to do with Stephen King, but rather were part of a performance in which he used hypersensitive microphones to see what noises they made when placed in a sound chamber. He waxed poetic on how artists unfairly frown upon King, claiming that he was greatly influenced by the man’s writing when he was young.

I agree with Patrick 100 percent. My favorite Stephen King book, Pet Sematary, contains what is, to my mind, the greatest line ever: Oz the Gweat and Tewwible." Now that is easily a better play on words than anything by Ed Ruscha or Kay Rosen. I can’t wait for Walsh to finish the Stephen King series.

PEDRO VÈLEZ is an artist and critic living in Chicago.