The Ice Box and Gray Area at Crane Arts
1400 North American Street, Philadelphia PA 19122
April 30 – May 11, 2008
Hours: Wednesday – Sunday, noon – 6pm
Reception: Thursday May 8, 6-9pm
Essay written for the exhibition:
The MFA students at the Tyler School of Art represent a remarkably diverse group, both in terms of the conceptual underpinnings for their work, and the forms and media that they've chosen as their means of communicating their concerns. To jury their work and create a strong, cohesive exhibition therefore poses a fascinating challenge for the curator. The nature of pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree dictates that early-career artists should absorb knowledge and a conceptual framework within which to situate their practice, but more importantly that they find their own voices and learn to clearly express their singular visions. It is the curator's responsibility to allow each voice to be heard, while creating a sense of some of the underlying dialogues and commonalities inherent in the group. This daunting task is made easier by recourse to a prevalent model for international exhibitions, the biennial. Whether in Sydney or São Paulo, Venice or New York, these exhibitions claim to cull the best of the art of their present moments, leaving their organizers to create connections and find formal and theoretical parallels where none might at first be seen to exist. In considering the Tyler exhibition as a kind of mini-biennial, I have followed two primary models, that of Venice, where each nation often chooses just one artist to represent it, allowing that artist the space to create a unitary project. This may be seen in the room installation of the dioramas of Jenny Buffington or in the grouping of figurative sculpture by Louise Radochonski, both in the Gray Area. The other is that of the Whitney Museum, among others, where works are grouped loosely by theme, as may be seen in the smallest room in the Gray Area with work that deals with the social and physical structures that make up and impact the human body. There are strengths in each mode of presentation, and my purpose has been to create an exhibition of a number of sometimes complementary, sometimes contradictory, moments, to encourage among the students and visitors alike a critical approach not only to the art, which can stand on its own, but to exhibition strategies, whose purpose, polemic, and intent, is often less transparent.
When entering the exhibition through the Ice Box, one first encounters, on the left, the works of Jerry Kaba and Christopher Hall. Perhaps appearing to be an odd pairing at first, a quick examination of the forms they use and the titles of their pieces suggest a common engagement with, and critique of the overblown history of the art of the second half of the twentieth century. With Outmoded, the minimalist scatter piece in vivid red, Kaba installs a modular piece with an industrial appearance, reminiscent of the two main directions of minimalism – industrial production, as in the work of Donald Judd, and the seemingly formless installations of Robert Morris, among others. Each element has a scale that relates to the human body, leaving open the question of whether it is the minimalist form he uses that he sees as outmoded, or humanity in the face of the post-industrial wasteland it has created for itself. More lighthearted is the approach of Christopher Hall, whose combination of collage, gestural painting, and intentionally crude writing in his paintings might seem a mere pastiche, but his titles, like Modern Art and Seminal Sacrifice, let us in on the joke. He mocks the masturbatory arrogance of postwar painters, and the armchair-revolutionary political posturing of others from the sixties through the eighties, sending up the self-importance of the history of painting.
Across the room, Dylan Beck's work presents the viewer with a maze with no outlet in his Road to Nowhere. Working with some of the same minimal precedents as Kaba, in the repetition of forms and industrial-style molding process, it is exurban sprawl in the real world that is the scatter piece he organizes into a commentary on the uniformity, lack of individuality, and consumerist aimlessness of suburban life. Consumerism is inherent in the formal structure of the piece, as the forms for the houses are derived from molds taken from styrofoam product packaging. One of the things that make the work so compelling is its use of such familiar shapes, and common materials, like the plywood used to build the very houses he depicts. The result is a kind of Jungian common myth, where universally recognizable forms conjure a range of meanings in a non-alphanumeric language that crosses the barriers of the spoken word.
This semasiographic language of universal form is used to very different effect in the work of Daniel Ostrov. He, too, is concerned with human shelter and sanctuary, but the somehow familiar environment that he evokes is one of a lost, common past. This sense of shared memory, and our recourse to utopian visions of an imagined "simpler" time in human history is expressed using elemental materials like salt, glass, sinew, wood, and bones. For him, the shelter created in the gallery is more an emotional haven from the complexities of the modern world than an expression of a real, contemporary environment, but his reliance on common visual reference points evokes both collective memory and the warmth and safety evoked by nostalgia.
Invented reality and memory also figure prominently in the work of Daniel A. Bruce and Nick Barbee. Bruce's piece, Fabulation, emphasizes the invented nature of our own conceptions of power and value. The mysterious bit of gilded industrial detritus could be seen as a valorization of human endeavor, or of decay. Similarly, the fox is a beautifully preserved and undeniably noble expression of the power of the natural world, but is nonetheless dead as a doornail. We are left to invent our own stories about the objects he presents us with, to decide on how they relate to one another and what that means for us. Once more it is the formalist structure imposed by the repetitive framework of the corroded pipes, recalling a minimalist past, that cues the viewer to think of the two mysterious objects presented in a larger theoretical framework., and to invent a paradigm by which it might be explained.
Barbee is more critical of history, rejecting the seduction of nostalgia and the loveliness of formal elegance in his work. As is often the case, the lack of finesse in his paint application is a signal for the viewer to engage the work critically. In this case, the paintings take the form of public monuments on large pedestals, but the people and events memorialized are of questionable moral authority from some perspectives. In depicting "Gentleman Lee", General Robert E. Lee of the Confederate Army, he tells us through the inscription on the monument that, "It's Complicated." Such examinations of the meaning of collective history, and the way that our identity is constructed based on the side we take in viewing such monuments (honorable defender of home and tradition, or seditious slave-owner?). In all, memory and nostalgia play a significant role in the work of several students in this exhibition. Vincent Balistrieri, too, engages with symbols, often of his own invention. The surrealist juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated but clearly recognizable forms suggests an access to the psyche, as does the invention of intriguing but unidentifiable images. As with Bruce's work, we are left to come up with our own notions of the artist's intention.
Working in an entirely different mode, we find the participatory work of Jess Perlitz, whose sculpture, Another Planet, provides a literal platform for communication. She and Bruce, in his second work in the exhibition, Roundabout, play with sensory perception using sound and kinetic elements to toy with the senses. In both works, the viewer is invited to play, in a sense. In Perlitz's work, we can shout into the normally quiet gallery space, subversively violating the tacit rules of appropriate social behavior in an art viewing setting. Bruce's kinetic elements require touching, which is similarly subversive and participatory, even as the observer becomes lost in the hallucinatory effects of the giant spinning disc which comprises the main element of the piece.
David Kube and Zach Whitehurst share one of the far corners, and each deals with emotions and social insecurity in its own way. Whitehurst's dunce cap piece, self-portrait (for anyone) brings to mind elegantly and simply any time we have been punished for a social transgression. Embarrassment, self-examination, and the consequences of actions are eloquently summarized in this deceptively simple work. David Kube self-deprecatingly calls one of the two works he shows here, These Things Write Themselves, as though he played no role in his own work. As it appears to be a self-portrait, or perhaps a portrait of moments in the life of a friend, it's as though the artist did not really make his own work, or come up with his own ideas. Things They Said wittily pairs statements of relationship euphoria and disappointment with fast food and candy packaging crushed on the pavement, the image reinforcing the emotional impact of the words. Memory, implied narrative, and identity formation clearly play strong roles in the works of both of these artists.
Works that engage the body in various ways occupy two of the three rooms in the Gray Area. Alyssa Heidinger's Exoskeleton and other bracelets call to mind bodily structures without allowing the viewer to identify them easily or even at all. The delicacy of the forms reinforces the notion of the fragility of life even as it adorns the bodies it echoes. This reads as sculpture that necessarily takes the form of jewelry, and not as mere body decoration. A more direct engagement with the body can be seen in the work of C. Pazia Mannella, whose explorations of the messages sent by sartorial choices (should I wear zippers or snaps?) suggest the tension between our desire to enhance or form through clothing, and the consequent limiting, and even constricting messages we trap ourselves into when we choose a certain outfit. To dress as a businessperson or a club kid is to determine how one will be perceived, which is power, freedom, vulnerability and imprisonment all at once.
The tension between body and politics, the individual and society is also thematized in the work of Joan Dreyer, whose Flag and Anonymous stitch together x-ray fragments. In the former, the analogy is crystal clear, but in the latter, the tension between our private and public selves is at issue. When we talk about emotions, we talk about what's on the "inside", but here, only a specialist could recognize the subject from the photos. The further in we go, the less we seem to know. In this way the artist comments on our reliance on surface appearances to create and relate to our own and others' identities. Finally, the body is made monumental in the work of Louise Radochonski. Drawing on many of the themes addressed so far, the work explores materials, sculptural and body structures, psychological expression, and existential exploration. The metaphor of the broken body is not a new one, but receives generous care and attention in these large-scale works.
The built environment is addressed once more by Beck and Jenny Buffington. Buffington critiques the Disneyesque creation of artificial worlds in her small dioramas of places that profoundly thematize the clash between humanity and the forces of nature. Niagara Falls, one of the most remarkable natural wonders of North America, is revealed by garish lighting and a oddly dwarfed sense of scale to have been tamed by tacky tourism and trite honeymoons of the imagination. The Dubai Islands, on the other hand, reveal a phantasmagoric reality that has been constructed in absolute spite of nature, filling in the sea and resisting the harsh, water-scarce desert climate by the sheer power of will and money. Both sites act as amusement parks for adults, but at what price? The price for intervention and the dumbing down and homogenizing of the world through the creation of artificial environments and peculiarly antiseptic places is demonstrated in Beck's photo mural, Normal, IL – a place that he has distorted to demonstrate its remove from anything normal. With Beck we come full circle in our exploration of history, memory, human bodies and identity formation, and all of their relationship to the history of art.
It is my hope that this exhibition honors the hard-won confidence and strength of expression shown by this selection of fifteen Tyler MFA students.
Elizabeth M. Grady is a curator and critic, Project Coordinator for Andrea Rosen Gallery and Matthew Ritchie Studio (creating the structure for the Ritchie archive and organizing his forthcoming monograph), Adjunct Professor of Art History at the Fashion Institute of Technology (SUNY), and Special Assistant to the Estate of Diane Arbus. She has curated numerous exhibitions nationwide, most recently in the 2007-08 season, Displacement, the launch exhibition for a new green performance art nonprofit in Brooklyn, Host at the Soap Factory in Minneapolis and Promised Land at Morgan Lehman Gallery, New York. She has worked for various institutions in their curatorial departments, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Upcoming publications include "The Popular Opposition: Politicizing modern art in the National ! Gallery in Berlin," in Julie Codell, ed., The Political Economy of Art. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2008; and the as-yet untitled main essay in the forthcoming Matthew Ritchie monograph.