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The Agency of Art

12 April - 17 May, 2018
Gallery Hours: Tuesday - Thursday, 11 a.m. - 4 p.m.

Opening Reception: Thursday, 12 April, 5:30 - 7:30 p.m.

University Art Gallery, Mandeville Center, UC San Diego

In the Spring, Visual Arts @ 50, our two-year long series of exhibitions marking the 50th Anniversary of the founding of the Visual Arts Department, turns its focus from the past to the future. The Agency of Art highlights the role of Visual Arts alumni from the past two decades who are shaping the way art engages with social practice, the environment, science and technology. British social anthropologist Alfred Gell held that “visual art objects are not a part of language ... nor do they constitute an alternative language” and thus should not be treated simply as illustrations or visual texts. Instead he argued that they are tangible indices of social interactions that act as social agents. To conclude the Anniversary series of exhibitions, The Agency of Art spotlights how the Visual Arts Department is committed to using art to reshape the world in which we live.

The idea that art can change the world for the better not just by enriching the life and spirit of those for love it, but by proposing new solutions for problems uncovered by science, engineering, and social critique was a major theme of the work of Visual Arts faculty Helen Mayer Harrison (b. 1927-2018) and Newton Harrison (b. 1932). Their award-winning collaboration began at UC San Diego in 1969 -70, when Newton Harrison was an assistant professor and founding member of the Visual Arts Department and Helen Mayer Harrison was the Director of Educational Programs at UC Extension. It was then and here that they made the historic decision to form an artistic partnership, including sharing a professorial appointment, and adopted the principle that they would do no work that did not benefit ecosystems. To this end, they began to collaborate not just with each other but also with UC faculty experts in a wide range of disciplines: biology, ecology, engineering, history, architecture, urban planning, social activism, and art. The Harrisons’ commitment to collaboration, to making the world better through art, and to engaging with science, social policy, and the environment is foundational for much art today, and it might also be considered a precursor to the emerging artistic fields of socially engaged practice, Environmental Art, and Speculative Design.

The Agency of Art places representative works by eighteen alumni in juxtaposition with five panels from a major work by the Harrisons, Peninsula Europe, which has not previously been exhibited in San Diego. Peninsula Europe is an in-depth analysis of the fresh water system of Europe, which proposes transforming the highlands stretching from Portugal and Spain, over the Pyrenees, across the Central Massíf, to the Carpathians and beyond into a vast forest which would serve as a buffer against drought and global warming. This visionary project from the 2000-17 will serve as an introduction to the work of the younger artists who graduated from our program in the last twentyfive years or so, whose work in painting, sculpture, architecture, photography, performance, video, and new media proposes new ways to reframe and re-imagine the critical problems of the environment and society today and so to improve the world and our interactions with it and one another.

Taking the Harrisons’ work as a point of departure, The Agency of Art explores how recent leading alumni variously contributed to the growing field of Conceptual Art and Speculative Design. Defining visual art as complex objects, UC San Diego artists have broadened tremendously our understanding of traditional art practices while insisting that visual art can fascinate, compel, and entrap the spectator. Katie Herzog, Jean Lowe, Heather Gwen Martin, and Jesse Mockrin, have challenged the expectations of painting in numerous ways by employing the traditions of figurative and abstract painting to reflect on the politics of identity, power structures, and knowledge economies through clever appropriation, humor, subversion of historic styles, and a unique synthesis of fashion past and present.

Exploiting the paradigm that art objects can be effective as social agents, the works of Sadie Barnette, Igor Vamos, and Ruth Wallen address root causes of epic-in-scale social and environmental issues and urge younger generations to work proactively towards solving emergent problems related to the issues of human rights and social justice. Artists such as Rob Duarte, Nina Karavasiles, Virginia Maksymowicz, Roy McMakin, Roman de Salvo, and Allison Wiese have also employed design, installation, sculpture, and language to reveal and challenge social hierarchies, hidden political ideologies, and technological determinism.

Others like Owen Mundy, Tim Nohe, Tim Schwartz, and Nina Waisman have furthered the concept of art made with technical expertise and imagination of a high order, art that exploits the intrinsic mechanisms of visual cognition with subtle psychological insight. These artists have engaged traditional and electronic media in response to the Internet, videogaming, daily life and public places, and research into intelligence and subjectivity. In all, their work has dramatically expanded the arsenal of tools used to enlarge and reinvent the field of Speculative Design, initiated by Helen Mayer and Newton Harrison principally in the field of eco-art.

The Agency of Art also refers to art’s ability to act in particular ways when more than one course of action is possible. One ceases to be an agent when only a single path is practically available – when one can no longer make a difference, in other words. Acknowledging that art objects cannot be agents in themselves but act merely as extensions of their maker's or their user's agency, this exhibition further highlights the public aspect and activism of UC San Diego artists. Continuing the Harrisons’ pioneering public art projects, Sheryl Oring has been recognized for creating valuable arts-intervention initiatives with social impact. The main interest of the artist lies in establishing deep relationships between people and ideas, in the value of free expression guaranteed under our Constitution, and in proposition, not in protest.

Featuring several emerging and mid-career grads alongside established peers, The Agency of Art showcases the unique history of UC San Diego as a destination for artists working with expanded media art practices, innovative new media, speculative design practices, and public policy. Previous exhibitions in the Visual Arts @ 50 series have not explored in depth the theme of New Technologies and Design; this latest show will underscore the important role of the department in opening up such artistic strands regionally and nationally. The exhibition will be accompanied by events highlighting the contributions of art to interdisciplinary research on equity, diversity and inclusion, as well as the environment and the promises and challenges of new technology.


Professor Emeritus Helen Mayer and Newton Harrison

Visual Arts Alumni: Sadie Barnette, Roman de Salvo, Rob Duarte, Katie Herzog, Nina Karavasiles, Jean Lowe, Virginia Maksymowicz, Heather Gwen Martin, Roy McMakin, Jesse Mockrin, Owen Mundy, Tim Nohe, Sheryl Oring, Tim Schwartz, Igor Vamos, Nina Waisman, Ruth Wallen, and Allison Wiese

Curated by Tatiana Sizonenko, Ph.D., '13


The Department of Visual Arts sincerely thanks participating artists, alumni, and lending institutions for their generous support and loans of works.

We would particularly like to recognize L.A. Louver Gallery and Night Gallery in Los Angeles, and Quint Gallery in San Diego.

We are also grateful to Muir College and Jacobs School of Engineering for supporting The Agency of Art.

This program is supported through the Department of Visual Arts and School of Arts and Humanities at UC San Diego.


From its foundation in 1967, the Visual Arts Department has been at the forefront of expanding the boundaries of art. Art into Life is a two-year program of exhibitions and events celebrating the contributions of department faculty, alumni, and students to making art the exciting and diverse field it is today. The programming in 2016-17 looked at the role of the department in developing new forms of politically and socially-engaged photography, in pioneering artificial intelligence as aesthetic production, in presenting the border as a site of collaboration and creativity, and in helping define post-formalist and neo-formalist painting. The 2017-18 series will further explore the department's contribution to culturally-conscious art as well as innovative new media and design practices.

Exploring theoretical movements in art from the early days of the department until now, Art into Life: Visual Arts @ 50 emphasizes the department's historic achievements through works created by the artists connected to it. Developed by a select committee of faculty, emeriti, and alumni, the series is designed to open a dialogue on the future of the department by presenting new synergies between political and social activism, art, and science, with environmental concerns playing a key role. Students and faculty from various departments across campus will collaborate in this program and showcase the interdisciplinary nature of the Visual Arts at UC San Diego.

Image Credit: Allison Wiese, "Bicker / Banter," 2014. Courtesy of the artist.