Clockwise from far left, faculty members Jeanne Dunning, Ed Paschke, Judy Ledgerwood, James Valerio, James Yood and William Conger

Drawing Out the Artist Within

These Department of Art Theory and Practice faculty members curated the "Artists/Alumni" exhibition.

William Conger is an abstract painter whose work hangs in Chicago's Art Institute and Museum of Contemporary Art. As departmental chair from 1985 to 1999, he was instrumental in developing a new curriculum for the graduate program that includes such offerings as Contemporary Art Theory and Professional Practices, the latter course teaching students how to develop careers as artists. An interdepartmental course was also created that brings together faculty who teach other art forms such as theater and music. During Conger's tenure as chair the department also became involved in the University's Center for Art and Technology and the Center for Interdisciplinary Research in the Arts. His essay in the exhibition's catalog discusses the growing importance of theory and language in contemporary art and their impact on the traditional visual emphasis in art curricula. "Although most of the work in the show reflects the department when it focused on painting," says Conger, "the trajectory is now toward diversification and the use of new media, because that reflects what is going on in the art world as a whole."

Jeanne Dunning, a photographer and video artist, joined the department as an associate professor in 1997 and became chair three years later. Her artwork deals with people's relationship to and their discomfort with their bodies. In her teaching Dunning emphasizes content to her students over formal or technical concerns: "I want their work to be interesting and relevant to people today and make people think about what is important to them." She points out that there is always a push-pull tension for artists between teaching and time in the studio. "On the one hand teaching takes a lot of time and energy if you do it well, but on the other hand it is positive to deal with young artists because it helps you keep in touch with their interests and keep current," Dunning says. "Students today tend to use whatever medium they think is best for what they want to do."

Judy Ledgerwood likes to use pastel colors and pearlescent shades, traditionally associated with the decorative arts, in her abstract paintings. "I try to use painting to empower myself as a female painter in the way that women have traditionally empowered themselves through fashion or home decoration or all the other creative visual outlets before they came to fine art," she explains. That mind-set is reflected in one of Ledgerwood's paintings entitled Cold Days, which is in the Art Institute of Chicago. The work presents a view of silvery sunlight reflected off brilliant white snow-covered ground. While the painting at first appears to be white, it also has tones of cool blue and warm yellow. "I associate the white with purity and new beginnings, like dresses for first communion," says Ledgerwood, who came to Northwestern as a visiting artist in 1995 and stayed on as an assistant professor. "When you teach, you have to be articulate about all the issues you know implicitly," she says. Ledgerwood points out that female graduate students continue to deal with the role of women in art in their work.

Ed Paschke has a Guggenheim Fellowship this year, so he has more time to work in his studio. The grant also allowed him to go to Paris' Louvre Museum last fall to participate in an exhibition that illustrated the links between past and contemporary artists. The show included Paschke's version of the Venus de Milo. "Patternistic tattoo-like elements were overlaid on the surface of the face, and floating over them were a series of electronically charged lines that cast their shadows," explains Paschke, "so it was sediments of information referring to different time periods. ...It was a heady experience to walk into the Louvre and see your work displayed there, because normally it's for dead artists." But Paschke points out that teaching also offers its share of excitement: "There is nothing as uniquely gratifying as the experience of planting a seed in someone's brain and seeing a flicker of recognition pass across their face."

James Valerio, who has been on the faculty since 1985, is reluctant to define himself. "I guess I'm not an artist as much as a painter," he concedes. Is he a realist painter? "To a certain extent, yes, but it's a catchy word, so it depends on what kind of realist. ... In fact, my work is a stance against defining myself." For a long time his dealer asked him to do some drawings, but Valerio resisted focusing solely on that medium. A recent sabbatical, however, coincided with an occasion when his studio underwent repairs, forcing Valerio to do only drawings, which were exhibited this winter in New York. To those who ask if the shift will affect his painting, Valerio answers, "That remains to be seen although I know it's going to affect it somehow, but I'd hate to predict."

James Yood, assistant chair of the department, is not an artist but an art critic. His courses in contemporary criticism and theory are a crucial part of the curriculum. "We've always argued at Northwestern that art has to be rooted in a set of ideas and that artists have to be able to verbalize what they do and put it in a larger context," says Yood. Yood writes criticism and essays on contemporary art, focusing in particular on Chicago artists, for a number of magazines, including Artforum, teme celeste and GLASS. He has also authored or co-authored a number of books, including Hollis Sigler: The Breast Cancer Journal (Hudson Hills Press, 1999). "She was a Chicago artist who used both images and texts on her paintings to inform and educate the public about breast cancer," explains Yood. "She brought the subject to the forefront of the American consciousness." A broad public can take advantage of Yood's expertise because he is a consultant in modern and contemporary art for Encyclopaedia Britannica.