May 17, 2007
Cleveland Free Times writer Douglas Max Utter writes about the 2007 Bachelor of Fine Arts Exhibit at The Cleveland Institute of Art!
Volume 15, Issue 2
Published May 16th, 2007
Babes In the Woods
Art Students Enjoy Their Last Fling At the Cleveland Institute of Art
Douglas Max Utter
Walking in a Cleveland-area park last week I came across a careful little tableau of stones and birch bark, a miniature fantasy village probably made by kids. Having spent much of the day looking at graduate installations at the Cleveland Institute of Art, I naturally murmured, "Look at that - a BFA!"
I was only half kidding. I overheard one weary educator at CIA's Joseph McCullough Center for the Visual Arts remark, "BFAs aren't what they used to be." If he was remembering earnest bodies of work that wore their formal concerns on their metaphorical sleeves - well, times have a-changed, and probably more than once since that was true. But there's no denying that informal or eccentric materials (a lot of recyclables, from plastic to newsprint, are among the basic materials used by some of CIA's current crop of students) and resoundingly low-brow pop- culture themes make for many of this year's most memorable installations.
To clarify: a bachelor of fine arts degree is awarded at the end of CIA's five-year undergraduate program. At that time a mini-show of each candidate's work is presented for critique and review during a week-long marathon. The class of 2007 event included more than 100 artists from the school's 16 departments, ranging from Biomedical Art through Industrial Design and Interior Design, to Glass, Metals, Painting, Drawing, and the school's much-touted interdepartmental TIME program (Technology and Integrated Media Environment). The boundaries between mediums are fluid these days, however, with printmakers like the very promising Katie Loesel showing mainly watercolor sketches, and painters like Nathan Margoni coming up with anything from video projections to soft sculpture.
Margoni's ""No Fear' Monster Park" was located outside behind a fence. Luckily the sun shone throughout BFA week; in more typical Cleveland weather, Margoni's fabric and crumpled-newspaper constructions would have melted, mildewed and begun to stink by Friday. Even in dry conditions they looked pretty sodden. One of Margoni's two large sculptures might have been the aftermath of a Muppet genocide, or maybe an explosion in a clown factory. Bulbous stuffed faces, hands, claws and other body parts were melded into an eight-foot ball of mayhem, mounted on a contraption which visitors were encouraged to spin around. You cranked the handle, and the stuffing began to fly; for those of us who are a bit warped, it was pretty funny. Another very grotesque, long (10 or 12 feet) figure was stretched on the ground nearby. Among the pale, heavy-lidded eyeballs on its forehead a sticker read, "Shot Drinker." A rope was attached to it that ran up and through a widget on top of the nearby fence. Pulled hard from the other side, the whole thing suddenly stood up in a funky moment of 'toonish resurrection.
Despite chewing on some serious issues, TIME BFA candidate Ashley Gerst clearly had just as much fun as anybody when she made her video adaptation of the fairy tale Snow White and Rose Red. In Gerst's feminist version, Snow White is lured away from her sister by the corporate (male) minions of an evil fashion magazine. Subsequently enslaved by means of a decorative hair pin shoved into her brain, she nevertheless manages to escape this mind control and sends her sister a plea for help. After her rescue she goes on to greater heights in the communications industry while Rose Red continues to fight for the "enchantedly oppressed" and is last seen raising the consciousness of some seriously cute stuffed animals. I personally think the story was more nuanced with an evil queen calling the shots, but hey, I'm a guy (and I somehow survived the 1970s once already).
Not so much fun as totally creepy (in a good way, I guess) was an installation mounted by Sculpture Department candidate Noah Hrbek. A small brown valise full of black shoes on the floor outside served as introduction, while beyond a dark corridor made of draped black plastic sheeting led into a chamber constructed entirely of cast paper, plastic and general debris. A demented, obsessive monologue ("but I'm not a monster!") echoed in this private hell, furnished with a double bed, refrigerator, table, stove, all made of cardboard or paper glinting in the near-total darkness. He also mounted numerous video and TV screens showing nervous drawings, including one or two in the bottom of the refrigerator. Apertures pierced in one grotto-like stalactite wall revealed suitably crazy pencil depictions, evidently representing either the nutcase in residence or his loathed family. Like the unholy spawn of a for-profit Halloween haunted house "installation" and Jean DuBuffet's famous grotto-like black-and-white striped environments, Hrbek's vision strokes upstream in a stagnant, horror-flick-genre gene pool.
On another wavelength entirely was the severely elegant and inventive interactive display by painter Samantha Schartman. Visitors walked on both sides of a curving screen, which projected infrared video images derived from the heat and motion of their bodies. Displayed against a black background, the lozenge-shaped images spread and coagulated like an electrical incarnation of abstract painting - say something from the 1960s by Larry Poons. From a more theoretical standpoint, the x and y coordinates used by Schartman's software to produce these fluent marks are quick stages in a cold digital rendition of the warmth of human bodies, accumulating the elements of a scientifically derived visual formalism. Titled "Mission Control," Schartman's project is a canny account of strategies of substitution and control.
Though they were outnumbered, there were also a few straight-ahead painters at the McCullough Center, bravely struggling with brush and pigment on canvas. Among these, my own pick for overall dynamic strength and thematic interest was Janet Bruhn who, like CIA's Dana Schutz before her, manages to find an original voice in colorful, semi-abstract works that scud and twist along a formal horizon, dividing pure mark-making from an idiosyncratic, fictional sort of depiction.
That basic post-modern equation, a dividend of information overload and the changeless facts - the tedium, terror and beauty - of human life, was inscribed everywhere at CIA's 2007 BFA exhibits. A few of the grads on view will go on to become famous in their various fields, others will end up running with some more stable day job, perhaps burying their artistic efforts in a shallow grave next to their adolescence. But judging from the creativity, inventiveness and sheer thrill of encounter evident in so many of the works, it seems that so far, art and school in the first years of this new century have been quite a ride for just about every one of them.
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