For the past two weeks, work by MFA students Alison Ho and Cathy Ellis has inhabited the “Red Barn” 479 gallery, with their collaborative art show “Your Prize is at the Bottom of the Pool.” Featuring paintings and installations, the work within the gallery space explores personal experience and narrative within the human condition.

Upon entering the gallery, my gaze focused on the small abstract paintings hanging along the walls, unmarked. From far away I could not quite figure out what I was looking at, but the organic painted forms shared a similar color palette.

“In these paintings idealism and disaster coexist with more everyday concerns like eating, sleeping, working and recreation,” Ellis said when describing her process.

She begins each painting with a landscape or architectural structure that captures her attention. The background then becomes a stage where she introduces a loose narrative based on common human experiences, both real and imagined. Ellis’s work makes me think of ruins and exploring their transformation in relation to human life. Everyday routines and habits are de-familiarized within their landscapes; the work explores romanticism and is, on another level, a social critique.

A large painting titled The Message Was Not There that hangs on the left side of the room was my favorite piece because of its larger dimensions in comparison to the rest of the paintings. I feel that this painting most successfully captured my attention as an architectural structure, and its colors evoke emotions within the viewer. In it, Ellis used both bright colors and darker tones that work together to move the viewer’s eye around the canvas.

Painted directly on the right wall of the gallery is a mural, Untitled 2013, of a hooded figure staring off in the distance, painted in grays and blues. The figure appears to be standing in the middle of what looks like a whale skeleton. I liked how she utilized the whole wall for this site-specific work, and it adds variety to her other paintings that are all oil on panel.

“I try to see my environment with fresh eyes: a place of utopian beauty and optimism, contrasted with uneasy undercuts created by the possibility of natural disaster, poverty and an aging infrastructure,” Ellis said.

I hear a video playing as I walk into the second room in the gallery, and a video of Alison Ho’s face spans the wall in the dimly lit room. Her digital video Ethnically Ambiguous Asian is a discussion of her cultural identity as a Chinese-American. In the video, she covers her face with a white paste as she speaks in a voiceover about her childhood experience of people asking her where she is from. She would tell people that she is from here, that she is American, although she knew that the question was directed to her cultural identity.

As she discusses her Chinese lineage, Alison covers over the white paste face with yellow paste. I felt that this was a deliberate way for her to convey her American identity getting lost behind her Chinese identity. People identify her by her outward Asian appearance, but as she explores in this work, people overlook her full identity as an American. As the narrative continues, so does the layering of yellow on white on yellow on white until Ho’s face is a thick mask. At the end of the video, she stares confrontationally at the viewer and is still for a long moment; then the video begins again.

On the opposing wall hung The Award Project, which consisted of 83 framed awards Ho had received from elementary schools, Chinese schools, sports competitions and various other activities, citing good grades, punctuality, participation, etc. All the awards are hung equidistant from one another and are in chronological order; their display was the most crucial aspect of the piece and definitely the most successful component of the work. The time taken to carefully prepare and place each of them gives a clue to Ho’s dedication, something the awards themselves ref lect.

All of the awards are real. When she was growing up, every time Ho would get an award she would place it in a plastic sleeve in a binder. As the show progressed in 479, she added a handwritten component to the installation based off a suggestion from professor Kip Fulbeck.

“I see 479 as an experimental gallery where I can change things even though it is during the middle of the exhibition,” Ho said.

At the very end of the rows of awards, in the bottom right corner, is another framed paper that stands out from the rest. It is a plainly printed letter, black text on white paper, addressed to the artist from her father. In it, he shares his and his wife’s worry that their daughter will have a hard life as an artist. The words toe a fine line: It is obvious that Ho’s parents only want the best for her, but that her decision to pursue art as opposed to a more practical career (one that might better utilize the skills listed in all of the neighboring frames) makes them uneasy. In a beautiful, perhaps unplanned moment, the viewer sees a reflection of Ho’s face, slowly covered up in layers of paste, on the glass top of the frame.

Ho’s current work is confessional and plays with the notion of public versus private space.

“I focus on narrative, language and identity, crafting pieces based on personal experience. It also examines the negotiations, experiences, and expectations of different, sometimes contradicting, cultural values and directions,” Ho said in an interview.

The exhibition will be up in the 479 gallery until Thursday, Feb. 17 at 5 p.m. and I recommend seeing it if you have a chance.

 A version of this article appeared on page 8 of January 17, 2013’s print edition of the Nexus.