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BFA Show Picks

by Caroline Ewing


 to view our audio slideshow covering the BFA Show, click here.


 On the upper floor of the exhibition, Christopher Strobe Connell’s three large untitled drawings depicting vertical snowy landscapes present symbolic questions of man versus nature, labor, and loneliness. With the most minimal of means and expression, wood, water, and animals do the talking, as each laboriously detailed drawing depicts evidence of equally obsessive collections amidst backdrops devoid of human presence. Connell posits scenes starkly contrasting a strangely American rugged necessity with a refined attention to detail, devoid of any sentimentality, while alluding to meaning of a higher order than a mere love of nature. Instead, the clichéd question of “If a tree falls in a forest…” comes to mind in relation to Connell’s work. In one drawing, an orderly, massive column of neatly stacked firewood is capped with a tidy layer of snow. Its density and size contrasts strongly among the stick-thin saplings which surround it. Too tall to be a “true” woodpile, we are left to our imagination as to what the purpose could be—is this intended as a ritual action or as a preparation for a future lack of firewood? The theme of plentitude and foresight is treated in a very different light in another drawing. An inverse of the first, perhaps, it depicts a cross-section view of a deep, narrow well made of stone dug into the earth. An empty wooden bucket hangs mournfully at the bottom of the dry well, expressive of absence, anticipation, and loss. Reminiscent of another artist’s work—Robyn O’Neil’s apocalyptic snow scenes­­—Connell’s skillful, delicate drawings invite the viewer to imagine how and why these scenarios came into being while maintaining a formal regularity that allows for a quietly meditative interpretation on the parallel between natural and man-made creations.

muellerOne of the most popular works during the ehxibition’s opening night was Robert Mueller’s Rodeo Wheelchair, which is, in addition to being aesthetically engaging, an elegantly simple statement on what we mean by the terms “ability” and “disability.” Consisting of a standard, hospital-issue wheelchair turned kinetic sculpture, at the push of a button the wheelchair, contained by three blue walls (the color evokes the “handicapped” hue prevalent in parking lots), begins to rotate, occasionaly bucking wildly forwards and backwards. The piece engages viewers not only by breaking the “do not touch” rule (I noticed several people tentatively approach the button, glancing furtively around the room), but it also asks you to conceptually “sit” in the chair that doesn’t actually let you sit still. The chair is propelled by a hydraulic system connected by a bright yellow cord suspended from the ceiling, which, intentionally or not, combined with the blue walls, connotes a poppy/institutional flavor to the installation. Mueller’s work, however, is more than a simple experiment with hydraulics and moving parts; although it is “fun” to look at, the wheelchair in itself takes on a deeper significance. His “logo” is a play on the universal sign for “handicapped”; in Mueller’s version, however, the generic person is tilted out of the chair, in mid-air, as he/she is separated from the former prosthesis (which, without its “person” is revealed to be nothing more than a segmented “C”) in a moment of liberation from his/her former attachment. As a physical incarnation of this logo, Rodeo Wheelchair, in one simple gesture, tweaks our perception of this everyday object and the imagery related to it. The wheelchair, normally propelled by the user’s own arms, comes to life. Dignity, agency, and control are all bound up in what parts of your body can move, and what inanimate objects mean when they are employed to help you move through the world. The most interesting thing about Rodeo Wheelchair is that, by incorporating an object so highly charged (literally, in charge of) with the body’s movement, the mere absence of the body challenges notions of “disabilities” which are tied up with how differences in movement and capability are perceived in society.

harris-d'workAnother work that references “disabilities” or differences in physical ability is Deanna Harris-Dwork’s Find Me So That I Will Exist. Among a plethora of cloth and craft-oriented works in the BFA exhibition, Harris-Dwork’s is singular in that it references fields outside of its materiality, namely science, optics, and even painting. A cotton and polyester quilted piece hung on the wall, Find Me is not only the title, but a command as to how to look at the work. Based on the Ishihara color blindness test, given to distinguish between people with Red-Green color blindness and those with “color-normal” vision. To this “normal” viewer, the quilt reveals the word “ME” at the center of the circle within numerous red, orange, and green quilted cloth circles. To a color-deficient person, the quilt would ostensibly reveal nothing but polka dots of varying shades of color. In this way, the title also addresses issues of subjectivity, idenitifcation, and naming. As the quilt’s maker, Harris-Dwork seems to be saying that not only is a part of her in the work, that you can, by “seeing” her, make her appear. The relative arbitrary result of who can “see” Harris-Dwork in the work says much about different types of visibility, both metaphorical or real.

youngThere were several curated sections in the BFA show this year, one of which, Here and Elsewhere includes the symbolically melancholy work of Harley David Young. Untitled consists of an oversized black skull covered to differing degrees with tar, moss, and goldleaf. Tongue-in-cheek and deadly serious at once, Young’s earthy, aged skull was one work among those by five other artists in the show (several using sound and video) dealing with issues of perception, landscape, time and historical awareness. Tilting forward from a pile of fertilizer-speckled soil, the skull is at once sculpture and a site for landscape imagery. Miniature trees, bones, and moss connote a mixture of Lilliputian myths, archaeological metaphors, and a Goonies-style sensibility. Untitled seems both alive and dead in the gallery; the eye sockets inlaid with gold leafing, the trees and hair-like moss imply the skull as a source of life while remaining a type of memento mori, or a portent of bad things to come or to resurface. Young’s statement explains that Untitled is “representing the remains and discoveries from a controlled excavation of the land and its structures.” The success of Young’s piece is that the depressingly grim statement inherent in presenting a giant skull is balanced with a glittering, fantastical, youthful attitude towards this very subject, allowing us to have our skull and love it too.

greenIt was difficult to overlook Peter Green’s installation, which included a tidy display of diverse objects such as hammers, tarot cards, hand-made axes, and a home-made wire sculpture perched on a table at center. The objects and the altar-like manner in which they are arranged are left to speak for themselves; paradoxically, Green signed the “corner” of his installation in a gesture which harkens back to modernist conceptions of the artist as creator of a singular vision. His project, however, aims directly at the gap between an artist and his/her materials. The viewer is left to deal with the objects alone, but the organizing concept is ultimately personal in nature. These are the tools, the finished and unfinished projects that Green himself has struggled with for four years. Says Green of the piece: “I wanted to have a variety of works I’ve made during my time at SAIC, as a self portrait of my development.” An email from a tool manufacturing company is pinned to the wall, a relic from Green’s “hammer project,” explaining that they cannot give him any more information on the topic he is interested in. What did Green want to know, and why? The question is left unanswered, but these vignettes of the contemporary artistic practice, when juxtaposed in the same space, offer a reflexive, and even sentimental take on the progression of an undergraduate student passing through the very unique environment-experience of art school.


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