Art stars and creative fugitives

It may have been the first gorgeous, sun-soaked Saturday afternoon of the year. However, a lot of serious art lovers—those who make it and others who just like to look at it—spent most of the afternoon inside at the John Natsoulas Center for the Arts in Davis. March 5 was the “One-day Manifestation” for the center’s premiere Western Biennale of Art exhibition. The show was curated by Edward Lucie-Smith, an internationally renowned British art critic. For this initial biennale (pronounced “be-an-awl-ee”), Lucie-Smith culled 31 figurative-based works by artists from around the globe, including locals like Julia Couzens and Gerald Heffernon.

However, the big draw at the standing-room-only manifestation on the center’s third floor was artist Judy Chicago, who touched generations with her famous 1979 “Dinner Party.” Attendees stretched to get a look at the petite artist in her hot-pink cowboy shirt with musical notes dancing across the yoke. A carefully coiffed, sweet little lady kept asking, “Is she—Judy—up there? I want to take her picture.” She waved a disposable camera.

Chicago and Lucie-Smith kicked off the first hour of the event by discussing how art has become whatever artists from many cultures deem it to be. This offers a set of challenges around evaluating art, especially for those unfamiliar with a piece’s particular culture of origin. Chicago noted that although art had changed dramatically since “Dinner Party,” female artists are still not getting full representation in the field—even with the globalization of art via the Internet.

The next seminar gathered artists from Russia, Britain, Australia and Jamaica, who continued the thread of how the Internet has created a new renaissance for artists. They also talked about government support of art. Did you know that artists in Ireland pay no income tax?

Too bad for those who cleared out after Lucie-Smith and Chicago—“the rock stars,” as Natsoulas called them. Those folks missed the day’s most riveting conversation—with Iranian artist Afshan Ketabchi, who ran the gauntlet to sit on that stool in a California gallery. In an emotionally charged, tear-filled revelation, Ketabchi described a grueling detention at the San Francisco International Airport and her worries that her sensual, digital visions of exotic harem women would be discovered as she left her country, where figurative work is not allowed. (Iranians are well-versed in abstract expressionism.)

Free of the concealing chador, Ketabchi revealed that she had been jailed numerous times for wearing makeup. She explained how she gathers models under the cloak of darkness to create her work. Even though the Internet allows her figurative art to come into people’s homes, Ketabchi explained that one can “never click on the feelings and emotions of a woman in my country.” Kudos to Natsoulas for offering this international dialogue between artists who all create under the same sun.