The Department of Visual Arts is just getting started. Since formally becoming a department in 2006, DOVA has prepared for its upcoming move to the Logan Center, snagged internationally renowned sculptor Jessica Stockholder as its chair, and, this year, tripled the size of its incoming MFA class. Along the way, it added to its faculty some of the most distinguished young artists working today.

DOVA’s assistant professors include digital artist Jason Salavon, painter David Schutter, and multimedia/performance artist Catherine Sullivan. While their work looks very different on the surface, outgoing department chair Elizabeth Helsinger sees strong similarities in their practice. “Each of them has strong intellectual interests of one kind or another which feed their art,” Helsinger says. “Each is at the cutting edge, both in reconceptualizing the particular medium or media that they work in, and in producing works which are also visually very pleasing.”

It’s the rare artist who can find inspiration in everything from US Census Bureau data to James Cameron’s Titantic. But for digital artist Jason Salavon, thought-provoking art can grow from unlikely sources.

Salavon designs custom software that can manipulate raw data into striking prints and video installations. His topics range from the scholarly to the playful to the personal. For his work The Top Grossing Film of All Time, 1 x 1, Salavon took each frame of the movie Titanic and averaged it to a single color, then placed the frames side by side in a single print. He’s currently at work on a “data mural” for the US Census Bureau headquarters that’s based on population statistics.

Other pieces have provided an opportunity for self-examination: for Spigot (Oracle’s Reflection), Salavon designed a program that recreated his own Internet search history and rendered each search result as a color. The dynamic video installation that resulted offered a “deeply personal, voyeuristic view of my private search habits,” he wrote in 2009.

Regardless of his source material, Salavon hopes his work will offer new insight into objects or information that seem familiar. In the case of his Titanic print, “my opinion of the film changed a little in making the object,” Salavon explains. “There are things that come out of the print object — the pacing of color and things like that — that you wouldn’t really be aware of, watching it in real time.”

His art is full of such surprises, he says, “and that’s how it’s supposed to work.”

David Schutter has made a name for himself as a painter of paintings.

Schutter’s spare “afterpaintings,” based on his recollections of the work of the old masters, bear little resemblance to the works that inspired them. For Helsinger, that’s what makes them so remarkable. “David’s paintings are a kind of record of the memory process,” she says. “You feel as if you’re looking through layers of time within the mind of a painter who is thinking about how we use line and paint.”

Schutter is careful to point out that his works “are not homages to former paintings or painters, or a lament on lost forms.” Instead, he uses his paintings to explore the historical and critical legacy of his source material. “If anything, what I do is a form of inquiry, or a phenomenological investigation,” he explains.

Although he trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Schutter feels at home in a research university. His preparation for new projects is methodical and rigorous: he devotes large quantities of time to studying the works he plans to paint and talking to art historians, curators, and other artists.

He’s found his niche at DOVA, which is committed, he says, to both “critical thought and the still very important notion of ‘making’ things … We seem poised to produce not only thinkers but thinking artists.”

Multimedia artist Catherine Sullivan isn’t afraid of stepping outside her comfort zone.

“The kinds of subjects that have always interested me have been those that I have something and nothing in common with,” she told PBS’s Art21 in 2007.

“I think it’s okay, especially within the arena of art production, to make things you know a little something about and nothing about at all,” reflects Sullivan. “You might be wrong, but at least you expose the question.”

Sullivan’s genre-bending video installations and performance art have taken as their points of departure everything from the Chechen separatist movement to Neanderthal communication to Nigerian e-mail scams. The techniques she employs are no less eclectic: her works incorporate choreographed movement, vocal sounds, and reinterpretations of films and dramas. She is currently at work on scoring a new film, a reimagined version of Ronald Tavel’s play The Last Days of British Honduras.

As an acting student at the California Institute of Arts, Sullivan discovered a passion for creating her own work. “What would I like to see happen? What kinds of moments would I enjoy onstage?” she remembers thinking. She began to write plays and experiment with video, sparking a fascination with the medium.

Since moving to Chicago, Sullivan has found a community of willing actors and likeminded colleagues at DOVA. “I relate to their work in many ways,” she says of Salavon and Schutter. “Both of them work with incredible attention to detail, and in both cases there’s a fascination with minutiae and microtexture. They’re both building these really particular worlds.”

Installation artist installed as new DOVA chair

“Art is a particular way of thinking,” explains Jessica Stockholder, the new chair of the Department of Visual Arts (DOVA), and because the academy houses so many ways of thinking, “it’s a great place for artists to intersect.” The new chair sees DOVA poised to take advantage of all the intersections that Chicago can offer. She is effusive about the department’s “bubbling underground reputation.” If the department isn’t on the art world’s radar yet, she says, she aims to make it so soon.

Stockholder earned a BFA from the University of Victoria in Canada in 1982 and an MFA from Yale University in 1985. Although trained as a painter, she found herself rebelling against the isolation of paintings from their context and became a pioneer in site-specific installations — art in a “particular time and place,” a particular wall, a particular effect of light in a location. Today she defines herself as neither a painter nor a sculptor. “My work is very much about image making,” she explains, using paint and commonplace materials such as Styrofoam or Plexiglas to get viewers to reflect on the nature of painting and architecture.

She finds much to admire about the art community at Chicago, including “the nature of the conversation that exists here in DOVA, between departments, and within the University at large.” She ticks off the many places for art on campus, including the Renaissance Society, which exhibited one of her earliest installations, Skin Toned Garden Mapping, in 1991. She’s looking forward to the completion of the much-awaited Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts. “The Logan Center is evidence that the University values art,” she says; the University’s investment in the complex helped convince her to leave Yale for Chicago. Beyond the quads, she praises the city of Chicago’s lively artistic community.

Stockholder has a few goals for DOVA already. One is maintaining the department’s current quality; she wants it to remain a “vivid, vibrant place” for graduate and undergraduate students. One is to navigate the process of integrating DOVA’s activities with its new home in the Logan Center. Another goal is to keep creating her own art, including an outdoor permanent commission in Washington, DC, and a show opening in May 2012 at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Saint-Etienne, France. “I’ve been pretty serious about my own work,” she says, “and I will continue to be.” — Benjamin Recchie, AB’03

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