This is the fourth in a multi-part series in which naive, college student Heidi (ie Heidi from 2012) attempts to understand modern art. Join us for a wild ride. Check out part 1, part 2, and part 3 here. In this installment, Heidi leaves the lab for the day and ventures into art school to try to understand what it means to be an artist.
My cousin, Cam, teaches at the Academy of Art University (AAU) in San Francisco and so I go to him in my moment of despair. He tells me I should come to San Francisco for the day and sit in on Roland’s class. “Roland is God,” he says, and sends me a link of him verbally abusing his students.
In the video, I see a small Asian man with leathery skin wearing a black beanie and black hipster glasses. From his tiny face comes a shout, “I want to be Jesus CHRIST, god damn it. I CAN’T. Now, I’m trying to be comfortable with just ROLAND YOUNG.” It’s critique day, and he’s tearing his students apart.
He points to a piece of work tacked to the wall and says in an accusatory tone, “Who did this!?” He makes the student explain what he was doing, and then tears him apart.
His critique ends with, “I’m gonna pull that fuckin’ plug out of the computer. Horrible.”
The berating continues for two more students until he holds up a poster with a black background and a simple white fork.
“THIS,” he shouts, “is BRILLIANT. Can you DEAL with it!?” He continues, “This is just one assignment. By the third one, you’ll be barfing in class. This is the war!” Through a google search of Roland Young, I learn that he is a “bad-ass Asian” Internet sensation, and that he got fired from his 30+ year appointment at Art Center in Orange County for mooning his students. After the mooning, he yelled at his students, “You guys are not human. You are robots that begat Orange County, and it keeps begetting crap. And you always do crap because you won’t allow yourself to do anything outrageous. It’s horrible what you guys do.” I am terrified.
I meet Cam for breakfast before class with Roland. We sit at a table by the window in Crossroads Café, a place that employs ex-convicts who also live at the adjacent halfway house. I have a bagel and egg sandwich. Cam has a BLT. Cam looks the part of a free spirit reluctantly entering middle age; he sports a full beard with a few streaks of grey, scruffy hair that falls past his ears, and an ironic t-shirt.
I tell him about my fascination with Clyfford Still and how it has led me on a quest to understand contemporary art. Cam crosses his legs, leans back in his chair and says, “We have this tendency to try to explain our experiences with art, and why it moved us. But sometimes our experiences with art are so powerful that we can’t find words for the emotions we’re feeling. In fact, that is the whole point of art. To reach beyond words.”
He tells me that it is that particular human experience that led him to abandon his ambition of becoming a surgeon more than halfway through a premedical undergraduate degree with a perfect GPA. He wanted a career that went beyond achievement and ambition—he wanted a career that would feed him emotionally.
After finishing up the first half of his BLT, he wipes his hands on his crumpled napkin and says, “Because you know, a lot of career tracks are basically just glorified trade school. Medicine, business, engineering. They are teaching you a skill set, but not how to think. Or how to create.” I’m too absorbed in what he’s saying to object.
“We are getting better and better at machinizing left-brain thinking”, he continues, “and we may see the day when that kind of skill set is irrelevant.” I don’t want to be rude and say that left-brain thinking is required to machinize left-brain thinking, so instead I let my eyes wander to his t-shirt. It’s Kelly green and says “Ceci n'est pas une pipe” (this is not a pipe) above a red polka dotted Piranha plant poking out of a pipe in Mario Land.
Cam recommends his favorite book, “Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees”, which is about the life and work of Robert Irwin. Cam has finished his sandwich and pushes the plate to the side. A strip of lettuce is stuck to the plate with mayo. “Try to look at an object, any object, and separate your expectations about what that object is or should be. Here,” he says, as he carefully sets his coffee cup between us. “Can you look at this without seeing a coffee cup? What do we really see, anyway?” I stare at it. I squint. I see a black lid that I know is plastic, made up of amorphous polymer strands that are thermally sensitive. I see a paper cup that I know is made up mostly of carbon, which also makes up most of my own body. For the first time, I feel like knowing these things puts me at a disadvantage.
We stand up as Cam chugs the rest of his coffee. It’s time to go meet Roland.
Cam escorts me into the sunny office with a view of the Bay Bridge at AAU where Roland is chatting it up with the department manager. He looks the same as he did on the video I saw, but this time his beanie is yellow. Cam introduces me, and Roland asks what I do.
“I’m a materials scientist and engineer,” I say.
“A WHAT!? Well, at least you’re not a designer.”
He asks me where I’m from and when I say Utah, he blurts, “UTAH!? Are you a Mormon?” Without waiting to hear my response, he continues, “Mormons and Amish make the best artists. It’s all that hard work ethic, you know? And the depression from not being able to use a phone. Or have sex.”
I read online to NEVER be late to one of Roland’s classes, so I hustle to the room down the hall and take a seat in the back even though Roland is still in the office. Thirty-five minutes later, he walks into class and slumps down on a chair in front. He sits so low he looks even tinier. Over the next three hours, students present the videos they’ve been working on. Roland rambles in response to the videos and talks about Mexican courting rituals (he struts around the room and gives us all virgin eyes), Stephen Hawking, and panda bears. By the end of class, not a single student is crying, no wrinkly asses have been revealed, and in fact, the only insult that was shouted was, “You need to get off your ass and DO something. Don’t wait for me to do it FOR you!” I am disappointed.
I stick around afterwards to thank Roland for letting me sit in. I ask him what his goal as an art instructor is. He takes of his thick-framed glasses to reveal a tired, wrinkled face. He rubs his eyes with his smoke-stained hands and says to me in a voice so soft I can barely hear, “To make sure each person maintains their voice and identity. If they don’t have one, I give them something that stimulates them to find it.”
Check out the next installment here.