Seaver College Professor of Art Joe Piasentin encourages students around the world to stay curious.
By Gareen Darakjian
Meandering through the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco as a young art student in the early seventies, Seaver College professor Joe Piasentin was struck by a particular painting by contemporary artist Frank Lobdell. Thoughts of the poignant work lingered after he returned home that evening. They followed him the next day, and the one after that. He couldn’t shake how the painting made him feel and, more importantly, how it made him see art differently.
“I found it disturbing when I first saw it, and yet I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” Piasentin recalls. “That was impactful, because it was then that I realized that experiencing art was a challenge.”
“It made me aware of the power of abstraction. Experiencing this type of art contradicts what the viewer already knows,” he continues, explaining that the incident also shifted his views of his own work. “As a result, the work becomes more about the inquiry. My own work is not so much a document, but more about that inquiry.”
Since 1979, Piasentin has been encouraging that exploratory process in students at Pepperdine and around the world based on his belief that better teachers are better artists, and vice versa.
“The professional activity of a person teaching in the arts is a great indicator of a course having more substance, and the influence of that artist as a teacher expands beyond just the information, attitude, and commitment to the work,” he says.
“I think as time has gone on, there has been more of a commitment to the craft of teaching,” Piasentin continues. “It brings more attention to the ability of somebody to communicate or to provide content in a course that goes beyond a personal or individual view based on that teacher’s own experience to an expanded sense of what is actually happening in the larger context.”
At Pepperdine, Piasentin explains that his curriculum encourages both the development of technical facility and a sense of self- motivation within a student.
“I don’t want my course to be so much of a ‘how-to’ as much as allowing students to investigate, to be able to build on the strengths of their painting and not so much worry about avoiding what is wrong, but building on what is right,” he explains.
Today, Piasentin’s passport is weathered and its pages are filled with stamps from Japan, Thailand, South Korea, Costa Rica, the Netherlands, and Italy. The professor of art has been involved with international exhibits and has visited schools not only across the nation, but also across the world, throughout his career. He explains that experiencing art from other parts of the world—as both a teacher and an artist—and seeing different approaches—both technical and in terms of content—ignite a greater sense of curiosity in an artist.
“Curiosity fuels exploration,” he says. “With exploration comes a sense of discovery, as well as the opportunity to discover. Visiting and having exhibitions in other parts of the world have directly impacted my own work.”
One of his earliest group exhibitions took place in 1987 in Seoul, at the Museum of Contemporary Art. He was struck by how his art had crossed cultural boundaries and how the sharing of his work through travel could influence his own work.
“I never actually met some of the artists who were there, but they responded to my work,” Piasentin says. “Touching artists from different parts of the world is invigorating, because creating art is all about pushing your own work further and further. That connection to a global perspective is one of the larger impacts that can be seen in current contemporary art.”
Throughout his travels, Piasentin often makes a point to visit universities or schools of art, a practice that he believes he benefits from most. In the last two years, he has traveled to Tokyo three times for exhibitions of his own work. In 2013 he presented his work at a group exhibition at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum, and was the subject of a one-person exhibition in the Sakuragi Gallery last year.
This past February, Piasentin participated in a group show at the Morrison Gallery and had the opportunity to visit the Tokyo University of the Arts and speak with students who were presenting their senior exhibitions.
“Visiting other universities as a teacher and seeing perspectives from other places, especially Asia, is an important part of my traveling and one thing that I think I have really benefited from,” he says.
“It’s fascinating how committed the Japanese are to contemporary art,” he continues. “Their use of a wide range of materials and their enthusiasm for experimentation pushes beyond the more traditional and more historical approaches of art in Tokyo. It is one of the largest impacts that can be seen in current contemporary art that might have some connection to a global perspective.”
Piasentin also explains that the ability to experience art not only from where one originates, but also other parts of the world reinforces the significance of where he is from. He identifies his work as indigenous to California.
“Growing up in California and being extremely in the arts has provided me with a way to communicate with things through my art belonging to this place,” he says.
He calls his 2,000 square foot studio in Ojai “home”—a dedicated space where he can challenge his perceptions of his own work. His unconventional process speaks to his experimental nature. When he first begins a painting, he does not have a picture of the final work in his mind. Instead, he begins by applying a material, staying committed to the possibility of what might develop.
“Sometimes, if I start to get too comfortable with the work, I will use materials that are difficult and challenging to paint on, such as bamboo, thereby allowing for greater opportunity to experience things unexpected,” Piasentin says.
“If there is a sense of pleasure, it’s the confrontation provided by the challenge of working with a surface or materials in ways that aren’t always the same,” he continues. “I’m almost waiting for the accident and recognizing and even cultivating it. For me, that’s what makes a painting.”