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A Master of Arts

UCI Administrator Stephen Barker's Efforts Focus on Cultural Side of Science-Dominated Campus


Barker realizes his timing could be better. The School of the Arts is holding out its hat for $16 million to upgrade performance and exhibition venues and to support scholarships, research and artist residencies. Some local arts philanthropists already have told Barker they'll be putting all their eggs in another basket: the concert hall and museum to be built on a site adjacent to the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

Still, Barker said, UCI's arts departments are determined to make themselves more visible to the community at large. Two years ago, as acting dean of the School of the Arts, he appointed Brad Spence the art gallery director as part of this new push toward public accessibility.

Barker, who no longer oversees the gallery, says he was "a bit surprised" when Spence was recently replaced by Jean-Edith Weiffenbach, former director of the San Francisco Art Institute Gallery.

"I hope and expect she'll be able to live up to what I consider to be a really interesting standard of thoughtful and quirky shows that Brad put together," Barker said. "They haven't been hermetically sealed in some right thematic or theoretical bubble."

Barker was referring to the radical political emphasis of exhibitions organized during the directorship of art faculty member Catherine Lord--who happens to be his cousin. ("We live in separate worlds, even though we're in the same department.")

Broadening Students' Exposure to Art

Among Barker's bids to make the UCI arts program more visible even on its own campus is a new course called Art Core, meant to broaden science students' exposure to subjects outside their primary interests. Recently, a student ran up to him with a reproduction of Mark Rothko's "Four Darks on Red."

"I saw this over the break! I saw it for real!" the young man breathlessly told Barker, who had lectured on the painting in the fall. "And it was so amazing, so different from the slide! The texture of it and how the colors work together and the magnitude of it!"

Barker was surprised and pleased. "I thought, 'This guy was listening,' " he said.

Although he enjoys teaching college-age students, Barker said he found himself keen to "start talking to some people who aren't 18, who actually have some rich, dense life experience."

So last fall, he taught the first full 10-week credit course offered by UCI Extension in collaboration with the Orange County Museum of Art. (Lectures also are available on a drop-in basis, for a $35 fee.)

"Boy, it was wonderful," he said. "There were dentists and psychiatrists and a retired CPA, people from every conceivable walk of life."

Accustomed to lecturing to dutiful young note-takers, he found his new audience was liable to ask how the statement he just made reconciled with something he said 10 minutes ago.

The fall course ("Why Art?") dealt with the relevance and function of art as an aesthetic and social phenomenon. As is Barker's wont--his publications have such titles as "Autoaesthetics: Strategies of the Self After Nietzsche"--he worked in a few thoughts on postmodernism.

"Everybody in the class said, 'Well, that's not enough. We need to hear more about this thing that nobody understands,' " Barker said. "So I decided to play a joke on them. In the winter [term], the course is called, 'Understanding Postmodern Art.'

"At the first class, I let them know it was a joke. There's no such thing as understanding postmodern art. That's not the point. The point is to be around it and understand you don't understand it. It's saying the unsayable."

Among the artists, composers and performers to be discussed are Marcel Duchamp, John Cage and Laurie Anderson.

"What we try to do as academics is to be good surfers, to ride these cultural waves, which to a certain extent we can articulate and maybe have some impact on," Barker said. "But in my view, it's really the creative people, the artists, who are responsible for leading the way.

"All the things we're talking about in literary theory were foreshadowed in the art of the previous generation. There's nothing new going on in structuralism or deconstruction that wasn't happening in Dada and Surrealism at the beginning of the century. It just wasn't conceptualized [by the artists]. So the thinkers are catching up."

The spring term course, "Art and Light," will cover such subjects as photography, cinema and the use of photography by artists, including the Impressionists.

"We'll actually spend the first two weeks talking about physics and optics and the way light works to produce the conditions in which art happens," Barker said.

Then, relying on Leonard Shlain's recent book, "The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image" (Viking), Barker will discuss a controversial notion of how the science of physics stems from "notions of power and gender."

Barker obviously is thrilled to be the stimulus of controversial ideas.

"The ideal thing would be, 10 years after teaching a class, to have someone bang on my door and say, 'You know when you said X? Well, you were completely wrong, and here's the answer to that.' "

* "Understanding Postmodern Art," a 10-week course offered in conjunction with UC Irvine Extension, at the Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach. Remaining lectures, all from 7-10 p.m.: tonight , Jan. 26, Feb. 2, 9, 16, 23; March 2 and 9. Ticket price per lecture: $35. (949) 824-5414.

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