2004 Brownlee O. Currey Student Art Exhibit
Through Dec. 10
Watkins College of Art and Design
Watkins has been through a storm lately surrounding a couple of works for its juried student show, most controversially one that used footage and audio of terrorists beheading American engineer Eugene Armstrong. After a few days of debate and media attention, the school decided not to display the work in question and moved another photograph with explicit sexual content to an office out of public sight. That leaves us with a student show that has a couple of gaps but plenty left to look at.
There are several reasons to pay attention to a student show. Certain levels of expression come more easily to young artists. Artists don't necessarily get better as they age; some say most of what they have to say early on, others deepen as they go, others go through phases. Young artists also tend to operate more as part of a scene, and milieu lends energy to their efforts. The students at Watkins have done a good job of building a community, and they represent a significant part of what's interesting here these days.
Many of the works in the show do betray origins in class projects. They play with an idea or technique and see what they can do with it, but the results don't necessarily have the sense of a fully realized work coming from the artist's own voice. However, several pieces have more confidence, and many others have points of real insight.
My favorite work in the show is "Rite of Passage," a sculpture and video installation by Derek Gibson. I had the chance to see it at a one-night exhibit last winter, and it stuck with me. A wooden frame holds dowels from which a set of iron plumb weights hang over black sand. The dowels turn by a rough hand crank, causing the weights to bang against each other and the sides of the frame. A video element intercuts several scenes: the wooden contraption itself in a dark room, the artist turning the dowel; a man standing in front of house siding, occasionally slapping himself; and someone standing outdoors in water, reading aloud. The banging sounds, slaps and some speaking are audible. The piece carries you into dark emotional territory: torture, difficult and frustrating efforts, and self-abuse, with the religious overtones of riverside baptism.
Abby Whisenant offers a subtly effective antiwar piece, a three-panel print named "Excerpts from my family album." On the left a swan with a woman's head holds a baby in its hand; the rightmost panel shows a man with an owl's head backed by a blurry landscape. Images of war fill the middle panel: several soldiers and a couple of jeeps in a barren landscape, missiles launching from a submarine; in the foreground, a figure with an attack dog's head holds out a cross aggressively or defensively. The dog is a German shepherd, like one from the Abu Ghraib photos. Whisenant's print condenses many qualities of war todaychaos, brutality, religious fervor and technological efficiencyand puts them amidst a portrait of ourselves. When Abu Ghraib came out, the president assured Arab media that the behavior of the guards did not represent American values, but I think many people would admit that it's not so easy to distance ourselves from that raw abuse of power. Call it human nature rather than the American character if that feels better.
Sometimes younger artists throw a lot of things into a piece, but you get the sense they are not entirely clear how it works together and not too worried about it. The sheer overabundance can be exhilarating, especially in larger works where you marvel at the energy required to put it all together. You expect older artists to offer more tightly constructed works in which each element cleanly connects and adds to the meaning. Amanda Dillingham is one artist here who impresses with her economy. "Pressing Flatulation" consists of an old ironing board covered with loose-fitting fabric stained from usea perfectly iconic object of female domesticity. Dillingham has embroidered (again, a staple of home economics) on its surface the outlines of a bikini-clad woman in a cheesecake head-back-over-the-shoulder pose. This men's magazine image is deflated by a balloon coming out her butt containing the word "poot." Like those Lipitor commercials showing glamorous people with high cholesterol, the graffiti-like word interrupts the fantasy, and it causes the pinup image to collide with a real woman who has basic body functions. The piece has the juvenile quality of any fart joke, but the composition is simple and elegant.
Many of the works reflect a psychological openness that has been embedded in the school's teaching approach. The resulting work can feel a bit like art as personal therapy, but the approach also lays the ground for extreme honesty and has unleashed distinctive voices. Some of the recent controversy surrounded Elvan Penny's "Untitled, from the Males in Ecstasy series," a too-close-to-pornography-for-comfort photo of a man lying on a bed holding his erect penis; the piece was removed from the gallery, and viewers must ask the Watkins administrators to see it. Other works in the show deal with sexually charged material somewhat more subtly.
Jason Driskill's painting "Tread Soft" shows a naked man standing legs spread and arms above his head, viewed from behind. On the floor below him, a mirror shows the bottom of his scrotum. The man seems ready to be violated or inspected. He faces a green wall decorated with a large orange floral pattern, covered with two thick vertical black and purple stripes that could be tire tracks. It is a stark image that requires viewers to decide whether they see themselves in the role of the figure or as somehow coming up on him.
"Pretty Long Hard Ride Ahead," by Debbie Kraski, is a brisk, finely detailed drawing of a girl riding a wooden rocking horse made from a phallic form. She sits on an elaborate saddle, her hair flies straight back, and she wears a necklace with both the male and female symbols slung over her shoulder. The form she rides has a distinct penis head shape, and streamers flow from it. The image works with familiar ideas about the incipient sexuality or premature sexualization of children, but the conjunction of the girl with such an explicitly phallic object could make viewers as uncomfortable as Penny's masturbating man.
Since this is a student show, viewers will likely look at a lot of the pieces and wonder where the artist will take it. Will Clendening, for instance, has a good feel for everyday materials rooted in a sensitive observation of the world. "7 Films" makes a columnar form out of videotape hung from the ceiling so that it coils up, shimmers and pours out onto the floor. "a tree falling in the forest" consists of the innards of a TV set laid on a silver reflective blanket. The set seems to be tuned to the basic tube signal, a set of horizontal white lines that shift occasionally and could be hiding some form behind them. The lines on the TV parallel the folds of the shiny blanket, and both elements emit and withhold light in different ways. Clendening's pieces achieve interesting design effects with minimal intervention by the artist, but seem to stay on a level of visual abstraction that does not engage as successfully some of the larger issues one may expect to come with these materials.
Mahlea Jones also shows a strong response to materials in "Comfort in Skin," in this case paper, ink and charcoal. The basic surface is a sheet of beige paper with torn edges. The central image is a standing nude woman whose arms and legs form long curving lines, done in ink on bright white sketch paper, the perforated edge of the spiral-bound sketchbook visible. Above and below are sketches on paper that looks like shop wipes or napkins. A piece of the beige paper has been torn in a way that matches the curve of one side of the woman's body, which makes a connection between the surface qualities, colors and shapes of the paper to the body itself: the materials serve as a stand-in, as well as the basis, for representing the body.
This show provides additional evidence of the creative energy at Watkins right now. The school pushes students from a conceptual standpoint, forcing them to deal with the central challenge of art todayto develop a distinctive voice in an environment where you can't just plug into a prevailing style or set of techniques.
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