For his senior project, Matthew Barney ’89 exhibited “FIELD DRESSING (orifill),” a video he filmed in Payne Whitney in which he restrained himself with a harness and smeared Vaseline on all the orifices of his naked body. There’s nothing nearly as shocking — or as riveting — in this year’s exhibition of work by graduating art majors, but the show contains several impressive pieces by artists in each of the program’s four principal tracks: painting/printmaking, sculpture, photography, and graphic design.
Like all of these student shows, this exhibition lacks the coherent vision that a curator might provide. While this helter-skelter organization lets individual artworks stand out, it deprives the viewer of material or thematic links. This is unfortunate, particularly for the paintings, the weakest of the disciplines on display. Several of the painters here use acrylics to create lifeless, flat images that seem to struggle with the contemporary crisis of confidence among realist painters who found their work done better in other media, especially photography.
There is, however, some exciting work from Clayton Deutsch ’03, the only abstract painter in the show. He practices what one might call process painting: the huge vertical brushstrokes and the imperfect grids emphasize the artist’s labor to thrilling effect. Done on untreated paper and stapled to the wall, Deutsch’s paintings might be the best work in the show.
Photography is something of a let-down; some of these would-be psychosexual images come across as merely mundane. A lot of the work seems like watered-down Nan Goldin: “Look at my pierced, sexualized friends hanging out and being in dark rooms,” it seems to say. An exception is Abigail Feinstein ’03, who presents some strong photographs of bourgeois leisure time. Images of a man showcasing a fish he caught or a child blowing out the candles on his birthday cake are interspersed with fields, seascapes and houses. Feinstein’s work, more effectively than any other artist exhibited, locates the pleasures and sorrows of American middle class life.
The graphic designers work in a surprising variety of methods. Emily Wright ’03, for example, has created a six-panel screen that juxtaposes two sets of grainy images: color film stills and posters face black-and-white photographs of young adults. Wright uses text to examine the power dialectics of these two groups, both through quotations and with captions: “Extraordinary / Ordinary,” for example. Another graphic designer, Leslie Kwok ’03, exhibits her abstracted typefaces on canvases and in a spiral-bound notebook. She presents a confrontation between writing’s aesthetics and its ability to communicate, in essence a question of form versus function. Kwok’s pieces, while legible with some effort, seem to exist in a state beyond text.
The sculpture, too, is compelling, particularly that of Alexander Israel ’03. 0ne piece balances four square plaster slabs against one another in a low-budget imitation of “One Ton Prop (House of Cards),” a steel sculpture by Richard Serra ART ’64. While this seems to be a one-liner, closer inspection reveals that the slabs have Beatles lyrics (reduced to Bruce Nauman-style phrases) written on them: “I get by,” “I get high,” “I’m gonna try,” “I’m gonna die.” Israel combines these two disparate influences into a witty yet melancholy whole.
An exhibit such as this defies generalization or summary. Nevertheless, the best works here have something in common: they not only require close examination, but actually inspire it.
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