Enfants Magnifiques: Metropolitan Museum’s ‘P.S. 2012’ Showcases Public School Student Art
“Art is good for you,” reads the label comment accompanying kindergartener Olivia Turowski’s delightful cut and torn tissue-paper collage The Red Fox, one of 76 works in the P.S. 2012: Celebrating the Creative Spirit of New York City’s Kids exhibit at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. That the fox is actually bright green attests to the playful mind of the five-year-old artist as well as to the whimsicality of the work’s subject. There are lots of wise-beyond-the-years observations like Miss Turowski’s in this show, but more importantly, there is lots of just darned good art.
A collaboration of the New York City Department of Education, Studio in a School, the Fund for Public Schools, Bank of America, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, P.S. Art, an annual juried exhibition, marks its 10th anniversary of celebrating the creativity of some of the New York City public schools’ most talented young people from kindergarten through 12th grade and representing all five boroughs. In addition to collage, there are paintings, prints, sculptures, drawings, and mixed-media on display, each in its unique way a confirmation that New York City’s youngsters can do more with their hands other than send text messages.
The exhibition gives a big pat on the back to public school achievement in the arts and to the many art teachers throughout the city who submitted their students’ work for consideration. (786 entries were received, narrowed down to 327 semifinalists.) Ever mindful of the importance of demonstrating development toward standards outlined in the Department of Education’s Blueprint for Teaching and Learning in Visual Arts, art teachers devoted hours to introducing kids to particular kinds of art, supporting their creativity, and providing their experience to guide their charges to achieve desired results.
Like adult artists, young people are inspired by their experiences, memories, and ideas, all of which they bring to the canvas, paper or clay. But it is the dedicated teacher who shows young artists how to look closely at their work, how to use the making of art as a means to respond to the world (or worlds) they inhabit, and how to hone their skills.
The Zoo Zebra, a team effort by first-graders Samantha Andujar and Vernon Holness, is a bold interpretation of the striped beast who appears to have been quite at ease having his (or her) portrait done while contentedly munching on grass. The zebra’s form, which bisects the picture’s framework, displays uninhibited yet controlled use of media and brushstroke, and leaves no doubt that the artists, took a good look at their four-legged subject.
The terror and chaos fomented by one of nature’s most destructive forces is represented in first-grader Isabella Ruggieri’s Hurricane Irene. There is unalloyed truth in this work, the kind of truth children are known for, from the turned-down mouth of fear on the face of the work’s largest figure, to the pink, blue, black and beige streaks of rain that mercilessly pelt the fragile-looking house.
The Snowy Night, a twinkly riff on van Gogh’s celestial classic, is a dense and color-packed tempera on paper creation by fifth-grader Zusanna Grzybowska that fully captures the excitement and wonder of Rockefeller Center at Christmastime. It is not Rockefeller Center, and yet it is, portraying as it does the layered feel of the space with all things leading to the great tree.
The surreal horror of September 11 is the subject of Roger Cheng’s watercolor on paper Where My People Lived and Died. Again, veracity has the upper hand, where, in this work the figures on the left side are completely oblivious to the incredible mayhem — as depicted by an airplane crashing into one of the Twin Towers — playing out on the right side. The built-in irony of this scene underscores how so many of this show’s artists have insisted on presenting reality as they saw or experienced it.
As the show progresses to the work of older students, familiar adolescent themes such as the quest of self, social alienation, and even one’s relationship to food, make their way onto the compositions. Photography and computer-generated works are included in this age group, and there is greater experimentation with a wider variety of media.
The figurative possibilities of a vegetal object such as a mandrake root are explored in the eponymous work of 18-year-old Yi Ou Chen. The tendrils of the mandrake root, floating in an undefined, white space, produce creepy forms (among which is a skull), lending a hallucinatory quality to this unusual watercolor and colored pencil creation.
There is a pronounced in-your-face aspect to many of the pieces done by the older students, obviously taking its cues from youth culture’s exaggerations. Oversized portraits confront the viewer head-on, magnifying teenage blemishes, makeup, and facial hair. Such as the Caravaggio-inspired Who Do I Pray To? by high school senior Vince Maximin, who reveals that, like his Italian Renaissance hero, he primed his canvas in black paint. The left side of the subject’s face, partially hidden by deep black shadow, is dominated by the right eye which tilts up to challengingly meet the viewer’s gaze. Or South Korea-born Chairi Park’s outrageous Fast Food, the artist’s take on what New York City is really all about. Happy But Hurt, and Self-Portrait, done by 17-year-olds Ashlie Baptiste and Elvira Melamed, respectively, are polished works where both artists struggled with specific issues in the course of achieving that completeness, whether producing the color that comes closest to her skin tone (Ashlie Baptiste) or arriving at an expression that succeeds in conveying the inner life of the subject (Elvira Melamed). These are teenagers, yet the treatment of subject and attention to great and small pictorial elements (Ms. Melamed’s self-portrait would the lesser were it not for her left eyebrow pitching high over her horn-rimmed eyeglass frame) belie a maturity and steadiness more the purview of seasoned artists. These kids know what they want and what must be done to get it.
The Met’s Uris Center is one of the finest areas in the museum, offering a healthy range of educational programs. Families and educators are well served there. But it is unclear to this reviewer whether the public has been made adequately aware of this show. There is no advertising about it in the Museum’s Great Hall, which is unfortunate. At a time when New York City public schools have been subject to almost unrelenting criticism, it is all the more important that what is right in those schools get air time as well. Art is good for you, and this show is living proof of that.
“P.S. Art 2012: Celebrating the Creative Spirit of New York City Kids” is on view through August 11, 2012 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art located at 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10028. For more information on the exhibit and museum hours visit www.metmuseum.org or call 212-535-7710.