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Portrait Of An Art School In Ferment

May 04, 1986|ELIZABETH VENANT

"The hippie with the sandals is dead," says Kraig Cavanaugh, standing on a blue milk crate and painting an oversize cut-out of a fleshy woman. A student at Valencia's California Institute of the Arts, Cavanaugh works in a white art studio splashed with graffiti. Balloons from his 24th birthday party festoon the entrance; inside, cigarette butts speckle the floor and a leprous green sofa stands in a state of terminal dilapidation.

As he paints, he runs through the fashionable campus buzzwords-- Deconstruction, feminism, Marxist theory --and alternately pans and plugs television, suburbia, the Jaguar that he wrecked and his wardrobe of Neiman-Marcus clothes, bought with his mother's credit card. "I'm jaded, or try to seem that way," he says with a deliberately froggy smile. "I want to make myself seem less vulnerable."

To secure his future, he plans to get a master's degree so he can teach, and to make art-world contacts in graduate school. "I'd like to be able to live the way I grew up," he says. "But I know I won't." He variously hopes for a unified world government, supports nuclear energy and opposes killing baby seals. He reads newspapers only once a week. "There's so much to worry about. It's hard to keep up, so you ignore it," he says.

He works at painting from 8 in the morning to midnight, and his studio is a scramble of pieces--Minimalist, cartoonish, Expressionist--all of which he hopes will coalesce into a style. "I have high aspirations for art," he says. Where does he see himself in 10 years? "Who knows," he quips. "Maybe I'll be a used-car salesman."

If the artist as hippie is an antiquated species of the '60s, then Cavanaugh, in many ways, represents his successor. Middle-class, media-bred and art school trained, he is a child of the post-modern smorgasbord in which nothing is really clear--not an artistic style nor the role of the artist--and where money and trends move with the speed and bluff of a poker game.

"Young artists are functioning in a climate of expectation and confusion," says Robert Benedetti, who has been observing students for more than two decades, first at Yale and now on the CalArts theater faculty.

Reflecting society, the mood is conservative, with a new professionalism in the arts. The artist is emerging as an entrepreneur, and art schools are, in measure, replacing the old bohemian cafe society as milieus of camaraderie and intellectual ferment. Nevertheless, Benedetti, for one, forecasts: "It smells like there is really radical change in the air."

On a typical day at CalArts, dogs cavort across the polyurethaned expanse of the school lobby, a young man whizzes to class on a skateboard and a young woman shoots a video as she is pushed along in a Vons shopping cart.

Corridors are splattered with graffiti wars and a Mickey Mouse cartoon bears a "Slop! Danger!" warning.

An erotic art exhibit has been hung, a tai chi class is being conducted in the art gallery and musicians drum and toot on stairway landings, prized for their acoustics.

As always, art takes its irreverent swipes at bourgeois conventions. In an outdoor dance composition class a young woman disrobes, hangs her dress on a tree like a flag and marches unclothed toward suburbia. For the evaluation of a semester's project, an art student answers a panel's queries from the inside of a refrigerator, reversing the traditional roles of uneasiness.

Fashion, the artist's badge of different-ness, is kaleidoscopic, with a post-punk panoply of dress and a tumbling resurgence of '50s, '60s and even early '70s styles.

In the library, dance students Karl Anderson and Tracy Rhoades imitate the linear arabesques of Merce Cunningham dancers. On his wrist Anderson wears a red ribbon from which dangles a tampon fashioned into a bauble--a reverse Madonna-like scoff at sexual role-casting. Anderson used to dress for ballet class in a woman's one-piece bathing suit and fishnet hose, until he was stopped, and he's gone through the various fads of wearing clothes with holes and shaving his head.

Rhoades, who also has a penchant for drag, dresses for after-hours clubs in a flowing batik skirt, which he hangs like an artwork over his dorm-room bed. "It's whatever style turns you on," he says, though both students are skeptical about the commercialization of their life styles. "The shops on Haight Street are making a mint on second-hand '60s clothes," says Anderson, a San Francisco native. "But it's just a visual '60s. I don't feel like there is any social or political movement anymore."

Comparing '80s conservatism with the freedom and turbulence of the '60s is inevitable in artistic circles, and nostalgia for the past is frequent among the school's Old Guard.

"Oh, I'm delighted to talk about the early days," says Richard Jenney, the school's chief psychologist, sitting at a desk that is swept clean except for a box of Kleenex. Jenney, 58, wears a cowboy vest and boots and hangs out in the halls to be available to students.

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