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Walking the halls of VCU's painting and printmaking department with its inventive and encouraging chairman, Richard Roth. 

Beyond Boundaries

Painting's just not what it used to be. Not since Richard Roth took the position as chair of Virginia Commonwealth University's painting and printmaking department.

Since 1997, after its sculpture program was ranked No. 5 in the country, VCU's school of the arts has enjoyed an elevated stature as an academic leader in the arts. This achievement is largely credited to the adventurous personality of its longtime uber-chair, Joe Seipel. Seipel and his faculty instituted the notion that Richmond was a mere skip away from New York City, a virtual intellectual — if not quite geographical — suburb of the Big Top art scene. Facilitating both experimental thinking and exhibition opportunities for students, they notched a path for the rise of the school. Roth seems prepared to do the same for his department.

"With Richard's amazing energy and taste for experimentation, the painting and printmaking department is poised to do great things," says Seipel, who is now an associate dean and director of graduate studies for the art school. "Their graduate work is now becoming nationally competitive."

Are the departments competitive? "Joe and I are more like two rival siblings," says Roth. "Actually, both art departments are really working jointly to provide the students with exposure to current developments in their field. ... introducing the names and ideas that are found in a world-class arena." Roth and Seipel, supported by Dean Richard Toscan, make a good team, but it is Roth who has most opened up his department in the direction of interdisciplinary freedom. This is a course Roth initiated in his previous position at Ohio State where he oversaw the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies.

Originally an abstract painter who collected modern memorabilia, Roth began substituting his odd accumulations of snipped American culture for display in galleries in lieu of his paintings. ("Grief," an exhibition of photo clippings from newspapers, now at the Virginia Museum, is an example.) Roth's own office offers an unofficial exhibit of another of his collections, used palettes lured away from past students and fellow artists. "Painting is not just painting anymore; we are abandoning the frame," he says. "Technology and new materials are changing the old precepts of art. In this environment we are not here to defend the ideas that we grew up with in art school. ... We are here to create a culture of openness."

A tour of the new painting and printmaking facilities is appropriately eye-opening. East of the administrative offices are huge sunlit studios. Works in progress on sturdy maple easels exude the intoxicating fragrance of fresh oil paint. The painting studios reveal that traditional art instruction is still advanced by the department along with its experimental emphasis. Nudes and landscapes congregate alongside abstract canvases.

In the printmaking area vast rooms with compound exhaust systems, massive worktables or state-of-the-art silk-screening equipment loom large. Barbara Tisserat, an associate professor of printmaking who has taught there the past 24 years, says of the changes in the department over the years: "I think there's always been experiment in printmaking, but it's really been accelerating as we've integrated digital imaging. One of the biggest issues in printmaking today is the incorporation of new technology into traditional methods. Balance is important. The students have the opportunity to explore and choose the methods that engage them. We've really benefited enormously from the new facilities and the encompassing attitude of the department."

Painting Department adjunct faculty member Sally Bowring's view of Roth's addition to the program is also enthusiastic. "Richard's brought an amazing level of newness to the department, organizing a sophisticated and innovative curriculum for the students, and rallying all of us into a real team with a fresh perspective ... and really raising Richmond's bar in general," she says.

West of the offices is the graduate student realm. This is where the categories and conditions generally associated with the terms "painting and printmaking" are getting particularly fuzzy; where the department is indeed creating a new definition of itself and a progressive professional future for its students.

Like a transept in a long hall of closed doors, two opposing rooms reveal the electronic interlopers into the department's two age-old disciplines. On one side the new Giclee archival printer churns away, digitally rolling out an abstract image initially fed into its circuitry from a computer. From left to right it incrementally threads vertical lines of predetermined pigment, while the art student who created the image watches, resisting the machine's invitation to slip into a hypnotic trance. Across the hall is the Macintosh computer lab where students are creating video art. Roth brought in Peter Baldes last year as an associate professor to introduce and oversee the new technology.

The other doors of the long hall have graduate students behind them, privately composing bodies of work based only loosely on everything they knew before they arrived at VCU.

Richard Roth knocks on several of these doors to check in on some of the students' progress. Each small studio is a revelation, an Advent calendar opening to unexpected spectacle. In Sandra Luckett's room bright beads, sequins, fruit netting and other colorful flotsam from the culture of the marketplace are mapped out in complex neon-hued constellations and attached to the wallboard. Luckett is painting with particles, perhaps like a modern pointillist except that no wet medium is involved. Her turning point came — along with the limitless possibilities of the walls of her studio — from the spontaneity encouraged by the program.

"Working in a rectangle started to seem limiting, as did paint itself," she explains. "After Sept. 11th, I became interested in ephemeral glamour. Paint did not express this as well as some of the craft materials I'd been collecting." Luckett has flourished through the department's philosophy of independence: "I knew I had the freedom to play and a safe environment for taking risks." The exploration is paying off for Luckett and for two fellow students, Kristin Beal and James Busbee. Their inventive work has recently been invited into the Corcoran Gallery's "Options 2002" exhibition of new talent.

Every Wednesday evening, as though it were kind of a full moon for ideas, the graduate students come out of their studios and critique each other's work. This gravitational pull is often facilitated by one of the visiting artists that Roth has been bringing down from New York or over from Los Angeles. This time it is Rob Pruitt, interviewed most recently in a New York Times article about his exhibit, "Pandas and Bamboo" at the Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati. Roth calls him an Andy Warhol for this generation.

Standing in her studio one Wednesday night Melanie Christian, who has just returned for her master's degree this year confides, "Tuesday night is a long one. Your hand can't keep up with your head because you are so stimulated and immersed."

The evening of reckoning is exciting to observe. The grad students carefully walk the line between protecting the art and artist in question, and honest query with occasional skepticism. Pruitt is demure and clever but also genuine, asking questions that release responses from the group; even asking bad questions like a hostess who spills her wine in order to take the pressure off an awkward guest. The mental dance between maker and seers is a gradual process, but everyone seems somehow expanded by the opportunity to verbalize. It shows up too in the students' work, the way they take each other's battles into their own studios for dissection and sometimes partial incorporation. That intersecting and shuffling of positions is what Roth and his faculty hope to see.

"I see painting more as a philosophy than a craft," Roth says. "The energy, the future of art comes from the merging of boundaries and
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