Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Neon Dreams: Robbie Schoen and the Felix Kulpa Gallery

Robbie Schoen is a true American artist, for better and for worse.  How many people are there in this country that have devoted their vital energies as entirely to art as the guy who’s responsible for keeping the Kulpa alive?  That’s the thing: not only is Schoen an artist, but he’s also the Creative Director for one of the coolest galleries in Santa Cruz, if not in all of California.  Part Marcel Duchamp, part Alfred Stieglitz--Robbie Schoen has been a critical piece of the thriving art scene, here in Santa Cruz, for most of the last decade.

He deserves some credit for having achieved and for maintaining this dynamic dichotomy.  Those things don’t go easily together.  Duchamp’s indifference gave him an edge that he used to challenge assumed notions about art.  Along with the technique of using found objects, Schoen carries this Duchampian spirit close to his core.  Never quite nihilist, his indifference is Schoen’s response to the public’s reluctance to support difficult art.  While this might help the artist to weather rough conditions, it’s not the most useful trait for someone operating a gallery.

For that task, Schoen has to have qualities more aligned with Alfred Stieglitz, who ran one of the most important modern art galleries in New York during the first couple decades of the 20th century.  Stieglitz also managed two other important galleries that started the career of many a famous artist, including Georgia O’Keefe.  Here in Santa Cruz, Robbie Schoen performs a similar task but in a place with scanter resources for art.  Santa Cruz may be one of the best places in our country to make art, but it’s not an easy place to run a gallery.  It requires Stieglitz-like stoicism to stick with it when there’s so little promise of reward.  It’s because he believes in the work, his own and others, that Robbie perseveres.

This combination (Duchamp and Stieglitz) is already very rare, but there’s still another important dimension to Schoen that shows up in both his personal work and in the shows that he exhibits at the gallery.  Schoen has a pop-art sensibility that makes his work accessible along the lines of Andy Warhol but with a witty sense of humor that celebrates absurdity like some of our best stand-up comics.  Duchamp presented a signed urinal as a work of art and this act introduced the ready-made (later morphing into found-object) as a technique, but while it expanded the discourse of art, it also alienated large portions of the public.  Schoen’s work, like the phone-booth fountain, builds off of the tradition initiated by Duchamp, but also gives the audience something fun to think about and to look at, like the sculptures of Claes Oldenberg.

Next at the Felix Kulpa, Robbie Schoen is showin’ one of his favorite artists and one of his favorite media: Brian Colmeman’s neon art.  This is the gallery’s third annual neon show, and Schoen is excited.  When I talked to him about the work he said it was fuhfreakin’nominal.  So, if you want to see for yourself what this dynamic dude is up to, then you should check out the new show, opening the day after Thanksgiving.

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