A life-size, maniacally-grinning, chainsaw-wielding man waited opposite the gallery entrance at the Yale School of Art’s Comprehensive Undergraduate Exhibition. His cheerful expression, drawn in charcoal across four wooden boards by Saybrook’s Perry Holmes ’17, invited his viewers to relax, take a deep breath, enjoy. This nonchalance added immediate levity to the exhibition, which featured work from every student from every fall semester art class. Perhaps the chainsaw wielder’s grin dictated the easy atmosphere within the gallery, as students and faculty wandered past the work of undergraduate artists in stolen minutes between squares on their iCals.
The Director of Undergraduate Studies for the art department, Lisa Kereszi, loosely curated the exhibition, grouping the work by courses. But none of the art on display was labeled with the course title, professor’s name, or artist’s name. At first, I found myself annoyed, craving more information. I am accustomed to a museum or a gallery where, at minimum, the name of the piece and the artist accompany the work itself. But as I reflected, I realized that this omission of labels proved fitting to showcase a vast variety of student work. Although born of necessity rather than a curatorial vision (she did not have the time to make labels), Kereszi’s label-less curation led the audience around the gallery and created the exhibition’s laid-back attitude. Student visitors to the show had often been members of the fall classes, and this format prohibited them from bee-lining to their own work. Without clear boundaries between classes, the exhibition asked us, the audience, to interact with all of Yale’s undergraduate artists as a collective.
And what this collective displays is a remarkable variety, in both the range of media explored and the personal style of the artists. Painting professor Sam Messer described the exhibition’s unifying thread, and the overarching teaching philosophy of Yale’s art department, as “visual thinking.” Motivated by the process of visual thought rather than the product, the art department and the Comprehensive Exhibition focus more on what the students have to say than the precision with which they say it.
With so many students having so many things to say, personal voice proved a refreshing continuity throughout the show. I found myself marveling at the diverse ways students interpreted a portrait assignment for a photography class. Although the assignment seemed rudimentary, the portraits ranged from a gestural photograph presumably captured using a long exposure, to a clean and arresting emotional image of a heavily made-up woman. Within one assignment, students created bold and emotional pieces, no two of which were alike.
Like these portraits, the typography portion of the exhibition stood out for the diversity of interpretation within one assignment. Students experimented with text from Italo Calvino, a modernist Italian writer, treating the very lettering as a malleable character to de- (and subsequently re-) construct. They interpreted his text in vastly different ways, bringing humor, subtlety, geography and full experimentation. In one of the works, Calvino’s text assumed a topographical landscape. In another, the words “Alive” and “Dead” vied for space in the middle of a stark, broken composition. Simply curated, the 24 works hung in an evenly-spaced grid. This construction avoided distraction, allowing the pieces to operate uninhibited.
Another example of the loose, expression-driven approach to understanding the visual thought process came in the small and dynamic compositions from Messer’s “Painting and Time” class, which he pointed out to me. Students had less than two hours to complete each in-class assignment in locations ranging from YSO practice to the Peabody Museum to the pool at Payne Whitney. I admit to having initially overlooked these small, haphazard works. I was too caught up in my own conceptions of what “deserves” to go in a show. After a lifetime of going to museums and galleries, I expected the work hanging on walls to be finished, finessed, something closer to an aesthetic ideal. But the paintings from Messer’s class explored the journey of creating art: linking mediums to subject matter, experimenting with changing light in a landscape, or rendering motion in a still image. As a result, the small paintings proved to be loose and energetic mood studies of location.
As I left the gallery, I turned for a once-over glance at the exhibition. Again, the chainsaw man’s grin confronted me, and I almost offered a little salute. Perhaps the real source of his humor was his direct contrast with the neutral still life compositions common to most introductory drawing classes. Even within one course or assignment, students used fundamental techniques as springboards to render moments of their own lives in image. The result? A visual kaleidoscope of diverse and delightful personal narratives and styles.