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Is the best art in the bathroom?

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A short review of the BFA show

About 45 minutes into the closing night of the BFA Show, I stumbled into an installation tucked inconspicuously into one of those corners on the third floor of Gallery 2. The tiles were the right kind of grimy white, the toilet paper was stacked just so on the rattling register, and the stall doors creaked eerily in the slight breeze. I was bowled over—never before at an undergraduate art exhibition had I seen such craft. It felt so real, so raw and powerful. My faith in art (and in an arts education) had been restored! As I scribbled furiously on my notepad, making sure to document every last wonderful detail, I turned in search for a name tag, for any kind of wall text to indicate which new grad I should not only laud but thank for such refreshing work. I was greeted by a hastily printed “Men’s Bathroom” sign taped to the glass of the open door.

I was thoroughly disappointed, and oddly disheartened, to learn that my fabulous installation was indeed a bathroom, and a men’s one at that. As I questioned my own abilities to distinguish between high, fine art and a low, even dirty, toilet room, I wondered, what does it say about the BFA Show when a viewer is more wowed by the bathroom than the art?

Don’t get me wrong—I did see some pretty fantastic art, even several good installations. But, exhibitions of this size are overwhelming. There was some bad art mixed in with mostly mediocre art which, in a show that encompasses three floors and roughly 300 artists, just doesn’t get written about. What I had time for that closing evening and the space to write about here is the really terrific, intriguing, professionally-presented art that, in one way or another, elicited my immediate response and stood out from the rest of the crowd.

I wandered aimlessly on the second floor until I encountered Dawn Roscoe’s small “Exquisite Suburbia” photographs. In each print, the mother causally interacts with her white, middle-class, suburban family in everyday situations—applying make-up before a mirror with her daughter, posing for a family photograph, enjoying a meal in the kitchen—while wearing a perfectly made-up, plastic mask. I felt at once oddly at home and quite put-off. How creepy! How truly “exquisite!”

Lindsey Evans’ “Predator” installation, one alcove over, was equally disturbing. Large animal heads mounted on the wall intruded into the otherwise quiet solitude of the small study, a room complete with flowered wallpaper, soft pink trim, a furry-upholstered wingback chair, and a short coffee table littered with framed black and white photographs of hunters with their kills. A waxy, pale-yellow life-size bear head, a delicately flowered bull head, and a blue and white iridescent rhinoceros head loomed into the space but were somehow just unsettling, not frightening or dreadful. Taxidermy birds and fox-like mammals, all decked out with small suits of animal armor, also dotted the walls. With the time and attention invested in these projects, Roscoe’s and Evans’ disquieting domestic installations overshadowed most nearby work.

It was nice to see some young artists who still paint, who still take painting seriously, and do it well. I spent quite a bit of time in front of Ben Cowan’s untitled oil on canvas; I would first stand far away from the painting of the dimly lit bedroom interior and gradually approach the work to better experience Cowan’s nuanced brushwork and muted color palette (I must have done this at least three times before I attracted glances from security). Robert Treece’s oil, acrylic, and collage on canvas titled “Ungrateful Meditations,” though not representational, was equally compelling. The organic swirls of paint across the gigantic canvas were soothing and hypnotic as well as, at times, agitated and forceful. I like to see work that is not only audacious and ambitious but successful.

At the other end of the size scale were Brandice Guerra’s oil on panels, “Allegory of Artistic Monkeyshines” and “Gluttony of the Other White Meat,” on the first floor of the exhibition. The works, which could have been no larger than 8 inches by 11 inches, were packed with detailed, fantastic imagery, such as dancing skeletons, anthropomorphic pigs, a naked king with a decadent cape, a lounging ogre and more. Like morbidly fascinating illustrations for children’s books, the paintings were tight and rich but meant for an imaginative adult audience.

I want to thank Elliot Layda for his unabashed self-promotion. I laughed aloud in front of his billboard—a blown-up image of the artist, shirtless and reclining on a couch, with an expression of mixed surprise and self-mockery (although I could have done without the unzipped pants). Simply labeled “Elliot Layda, BFA Exhibition, Spring 2006,” the billboard was welcome as an entertaining and lighthearted departure from recent shows of overly serious and pretentious art and artists.

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