"P.S. 2 one" at Shockoe Bottom Arts Center explores the struggles of young student artists. 

Going Pro

"P.S. 2 one"
Shockoe Bottom Arts Center
Tobacco Gallery
Through Sept. 13

One night earlier this year, Chris Hines and Will Towles were "jumped" on North Moore Street. Hines convinced the muggers that he only had four dollars, when he was actually carrying his entire rent in cash.

"I got the crap kicked out of me," Hines recalls with a chuckle. Being artists, the two friends dealt with the trauma by hurling themselves at a canvas.

The resulting painting is frenzied and sketchy, as if the physical violence of the night had stripped away the details in the artists' memory, leaving behind only emotional residue. The work is entitled, appropriately enough, "I Only Have Four Dollars." It hangs at the Tobacco Gallery at Shockoe Bottom Arts Center, along with the work of fellow artists Emily Harris, Peter Justice and Justin Rymer, who have formed a sort of alliance of young people who share a similar artistic vision. All, with the exception of Justice, are VCU art students.

Though the paintings, prints and photographs by these artists may appear superficially different, an underlying aesthetic is at work. Both photographs and canvasses address hardness and softness, contrasts and confinement. Much of their collective iconography has to do with issues of being different or outcast. Some artists in the group have at various times been labeled by educators as learning disabled, while others have wrestled with "outsider" status. Schooling, and the notion of being "educated," is a favorite theme as evidenced by the exhibition's title, "P.S. 2 one," a play on both a traditional school name and the artists' average age.

Hines's "Katie Nose" uses old report cards and teacher evaluations, not so much as elements of collage but as pigments, utterly looted of their original meanings — a gentle sort of revenge exacted on discouraging educators. One of Hines' early evaluators had informed the young boy that he would probably never graduate from secondary school.

Rather than rail against past perceived injustices, he prefers to talk about his canvases. He worries about whether or not they will hold up over time. Though he is officially still an art student, Hines has a long view of his art, a fundamental belief in its lasting value.

As would be expected of young artists, the struggle with poverty figures importantly in the work of this foursome. Hines observes that when you choose to be an artist, you are choosing poverty. Their focus is not on acquisition of skills that will make them readily employable by Dreamworks SKG or Lucasfilms. However, even the most dreamy-eyed visionary must eat, and so earlier this year, Hines and Rymer investigated the likelihood of subsisting entirely off of painting. The resulting pastels did afford them enough to live on, but barely. "We were literally starving artists," Rymer says, adding that they became great fans of Ramen noodles.

When asked if they consider the works that were produced solely for money as "lesser" art, Hines protests that the contrary is the case. The challenge the two young men set before themselves was not so much to peddle product but to test the parameters of the still-life genre. The moody and turbulent still lifes they produced are not merely decorative, but demand intellectual engagement of the viewer. And they sold.

So the niggling question goes unanswered: What collection of academic degrees, or accomplishments, or sales, constitute the dividing line between the student artist and the professional? Rymer remarks, "What I'm learning about art, I'm not learning from VCU." Hines speaks about moving to New York or Chicago, about taking on the world. There is a sense of Richmond being too confining, too conservative, they say. The city that will grant them their degrees in art might be unable to absorb them as

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