Many of the pieces in the MFA sculpture thesis exhibition, currently up at Green Gallery and the Edgewood Gallery, force us to question how materials affect our immediate and unconscious reactions to sculpture.

Lorraine Dauw’s ART ’11 sculptures in the first room of the exhibition look like they are composed of objects from a construction site. PVC piping, metal grating, thick black cables protruding from the walls and ceiling, and temporary wall-liner (perforated white wood slightly thinner than sheetrock) are the ingredients for the various structures arranged around the room. But — and this is easy to overlook — there is a tarantula (presumably alive) nested in the corner of a squat wood-and-metal-grate-box to the left of the door leading in. The box is covered by a clear encasement; this sculpture is a cage. And in the front left corner of the room, diagonally across from the cage, there hangs a bag of live crickets, bait for the spider.

Compared to Myeongsoo Kim’s ART ’11 room next door, Dauw’s looks haphazardly arranged. Kim’s room is all obsessive precision: small square tables made of plexiglass and other polished, synthetic materials are arranged around the space. These are beset with a carefully chosen array of objects that ranges from elegant brass paperweights and rose-colored crystals to a sparkling cheese grater, all placed in immaculate grid formation.

Initially, as a result of the angular materials and crisp placement, Kim’s room seems to have a purpose, a unity, that Dauw’s is lacking. But there’s no real justification for this feeling. By all criteria, neither is more unified than the other — both rooms are internally consistent.

But we much more readily assign a solid, fixed aesthetic to Kim’s sharp edges than we do to Dauw’s less-polished pieces. And it takes a very pointed decision on the artist’s part — a spider and a bag of crickets — to shock us out of the initial material judgment so that we can consider Dauw’s decisions even if they aren’t immediately apparent. The spider reminds us to investigate the work carefully and not to leave the room hastily and unexamined.

This is similarly important in Adam Gordon’s ART ’11 piece. Gordon has walled off the mezzanine of the gallery, leaving a central room with no light source and a single, narrow hall leading in. Walking toward the dark room, you quickly bump against a thin nylon wire at the end of the hall, almost like reinforced fishing line, which is blocking the entrance to the room.

Moving around the silent, impenetrable space behind the nylon barrier is a harrowing and even helpless experience; the disorientation is extreme. And the spatial arrangement, once one has experienced it, begs an important question: How is material affecting us here? It seems like the objects we imagine and project into the space are affecting us more than anything else. We are tense the entire time, waiting to be tripped or bumped by more nylon or something worse. And when, after trailing along the wall for a while, we do bump into something hard as we approach the exit again, all our projections seem justified. One mysterious object makes concrete all the objects we imagine into the space.

Issues of objecthood and materiality are also important in Nancy Lupo’s ART ’11 work in the basement of the gallery. The first sculpture is clearly a couch, replete with a divider in the middle and two banks on either side. But sitting on it, you quickly discover that it’s too low, that the glossy finish is hard and uncomfortable (though one side is slightly softer), that the benches have unnatural depth and that the back support isn’t quite right. It’s a couch, but it’s also highly problematic as a couch; the form invites use, but the material and design refute the user. And the fact that this sculpture looks like a couch, even if it doesn’t act like one, precipitates further ambiguities in other pieces.

The constant shift in the way we see this piece, which is informed by the friction between form and material, also forces us to assess how it straddles the line between art and plain-old object. The most promising interpretation might be something along these lines: Lupo is subtly forcing us to consider pieces of art, objects that are conspicuously crafted as art, as objects that might be functional and could, in fact, not even be art at all. Or, to push this slightly further, she is challenging the well-established convention that sculpture should be treated with distance, and asking whether this convention should have the same place in art today as it does in our careful interactions with art of the past. Maybe sculptures should be used.

Both possibilities are interesting. More generally, undermining our preconceptions about sculpture by revealing the force and limits of materials seems a powerful and promising approach.

The work of Peter Harkawik ART ’11 and Catherine Telford-Keough ART ’11 is also featured in the show.