Last Friday, students and faculty visited Gallery 479 for the closing reception of the first year Studio Art graduate students’ “First Year Review.” The show was up for two weeks, and while it was open to and enjoyed by the public, the purpose and consequences of the show were far-reaching for those involved. After installing and presenting the work and artist statements to ladder faculty, the first years find out whether they have advanced to MFA candidacy.
Thankfully, casual gallery visitors such as myself were able to enjoy the work without feeling any of the tension that may have burdened its creators during the installation and presentation; all we saw was the intense and effective work inspired by that tension.
While each student was pushed to bring his or her best, the amount and type of work displayed by each of the grad students varied greatly.
At one end of the front room in 479, Alison Ho displayed three prominent pieces. Directed is a series of boxes that alternately light up with the words “Smile,” “Focus” and “Nod.” Yellow Outside, White Inside was comprised of hundreds of Twinkies with plastic packaging adorned with vinyl cut letters that repeated the question “Is English your first language?” to an overwhelming degree. These two pieces dealt directly with text, an element Ho gravitates towards in much of her work for its multiple usages.
“On the surface level, text presents itself as being straight to the point but it is really a complicated web of innuendo, subtext, and double meanings,” Ho said in an interview via email. “No matter how much you reduce it, words always wind up saying more than one thing.”
Thoughts about the Future was made of a painted panel of wood, strings and eyelet screws. The piece had this coldness to it and yet beautifully expressed dimensionality, enhanced by the shadows that the screws and strings created. Up close, it reminded me of looking at a topographic map; maybe this is the minimalism with which the landscapes of the future will be made.
Though I did not immediately realize this piece was also by Ho, the artist argues that even seemingly unrelated pieces must work together in some way when presented in a gallery setting.
“In my mind, none of my pieces are meant to stand alone,” Ho said. “They’re all dealing with a common set of ideas, manifested in different forms … Part of the installation process considers how the pieces will work together … That in turn definitely influenced how my work was presented.”
Erik Sultzer took over almost the whole back room with his large sculptural pieces. Combining wood, cardboard, paintings, drawings and other materials, the pieces embodied both like the, not like plans for a work of art and the artwork itself. They worked together cohesively, dividing space in the room, as well as shadow and light, in a way I found very interesting and enjoyable to interact with. I would like to see what Sultzer might do with a larger space completely at his own disposal.
Several other pieces in the show, such as installations by Bog, Ryan Bulis and Chris Silva also incorporated space and challenged viewers to interact with the spaces they created.
Bog was perhaps the most prolific of the group, installing work both inside the gallery as well as in the surrounding hallways and in spaces in the primary art building, next to the lagoon.
At the Mezzanine, The Installation featured a sign declaring the contents of the room on the other side of a locked door. Bog explained that he hoped people would use the piece as an opportunity to imagine the objects in whatever arrangement they wanted. Despite my appreciation for the concept, I found myself more frustrated by my unsatisfied curiosity about the room than excited by the opportunity to imagine what it might be. In fact, I spent a great deal of time thinking about how I might be able to get into said room, but I suppose that is another type of creative exercise and still fits the artist’s prompt, so to speak.
Bog’s work also included Retreat — an REI tent adorned with a welcome sign, sand, crickets and a functional plastic clock on the inside — and The Hour Glass (or, Resolution: the end result of a conversation between Ryan and Bog), a collaboration with Ryan Bulis that turned a small, cold room in the Atrium into a literal hour glass with sand slowly falling through a hole in the ceiling and piling onto the floor.
Bulis described the piece as one of the hardest installations he’s ever done, though he enjoyed the process that brought it to fruition.
“The only hope I had about this piece was that Bog would have different priorities then I had,” Bulis said in an interview via email. “In that line of thought, I wanted those differing priorities to fight it out and lead us both to a final result that neither of us could have made on our own.”
Bog expressed similar feelings about The Hour Glass, but also explained that it very much fit into the overall goals and motifs of his art: mortality, and the time and space needed to digest its unavoidability.
“[Coming to terms with our own mortality] is a difficult process that requires time, space, and concentration,” Bog said in an interview via email. “My installations attempt to give the viewer that time and space. I try to prompt the viewer to think self-reflexively, but ultimately, it’s up to you to put in that effort, to think, to feel, to do some soul searching.”
There seemed to be an anxiety that surrounded Retreat especially — to go in, to not go in, the meaning of the clock, etc. — that Bog related back to that idea of reflection.
“It was a space to relax, to reflect and to become increasingly anxious … where you could think about and feel time passing,” Bog said. “[Reflecting like that] isn’t easy. But meaningful art is never easy.”
Chris Silva’s piece, Come In / Keep Out had an interactive component during Friday’s closing reception. Silva stood outside the door to the utility closet marked “KEEP OUT” in bold letters and acted as a bouncer, checking IDs and letting people into the closet after crossing them off a list. Inside the closet was a “club scene, flashing strobe lights, black light, loud techno music” along with Redbulls and water in a Vodka bottle “for the participant’s enjoyment.” Silva described this world as a continuation of his exploration of personal relationships and identity through installation and performance-oriented artworks.
One of the most strangely effective pieces was Ode to Vaclav Havel by Tristan Newcomb, a self-described “unofficial film student” who mostly works with video. In the work, a stuffed bear creature, representative of historically oppressed Eastern Europe, sits on a chair in view of a TV playing demented footage of the Muppets, televangelism and various material items popular in the West. The stuffed animal’s eyes are exposed, forced open under a bright lamp, reminiscent of interrogation or brainwashing.
“Puppets are such a distillation of the human face without being any particular face … and during such an interrogation, one would become only their face — they would feel themselves nothing but a face, I think — trying not to betray what they knew, or trying to maintain a look of genuinely not knowing, which would be equally as hard whether you did or didn’t,” Newcomb said in an interview via email. “ … The television, the corrupted broadcast signals, the bear, the exposed cords of the lamp and video — it all had to be apparent and non-Gallery friendly, in order to transpose the sheer physicality of the experience.”
Though the concepts that Newcomb explored reached into depths I did not realize just by viewing the work, his work successfully instilled a sinister, disturbed feeling in me.
Much of the work in the “First Year Review” was experimental and three-dimensional, but even the few two-dimensional pieces contained an interactive component, like the works of Sterling Crispin, which were part of an ongoing digital project with text and sound components.
Overall, the artists — some of which displayed their work to the campus for the first time last week — seemed to feel satisfied with their efforts and with the show as a whole.
“The work was successfully installed de-installed and I’ve advanced to candidacy,” Ho said. “That’s all I can really ask for.”
For those of us mere viewers who did not have anything at stake in the “First Year Review,” aside from our time, I would also say the work was successful, and my time was well-spent. Seeing this depth of work in such a range of mediums is a reminder to me that basically anything you want to express can be art, even if it does not fit neatly on a gallery wall. The fact that the Studio Art department here is open to that range of expression is a comforting thing indeed.