Nine graduates with discipline and vision

May. 01, 2014 @ 09:40 AM

“Parts of the Sum:  MFA 2014,”
Ackland Art Museum, UNC Chapel Hill, through June 1.

With shiny new MFA degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in hand, nine graduates have mounted their final exhibition.  The nine -- Ben Alper, Michael Bramwell, Isabel Cuenca, Minjin Kang, Cody Platt, Meg Stein, Lile Stephens, Antoine Williams and Connie Zamorano -- have each mastered one or more of the techniques of painting, sculpture, print making, photography or video and have chosen to use their medium of choice in innovative and unusual ways.  They were putting the finishing touches on their work when I visited the gallery.
There is experimentation, like Cuenca’s combining the techniques of cyanotype and watercolor to create free-form landscapes that she washed in Jordan Lake. Self-portraiture as a first step in art making is another path some have taken, but their examples are as different from the classical image of the artist before the easel as the computer is from the manual typewriter. 
Platt works three-dimensionally and he begins his examination of portraiture by presenting himself as a clownish rag doll, and while he laughs at himself, he questions his own self-image, and I suspect many in the audience see parts of themselves in his outlandish figure.   
Antoine Williams does not call his investigation of stereotypes of black men self-portraits but he is looking at them as an insider. His individual drawings and his large mural depict figures that are half man and half chicken. 
There is much of his hometown and himself in the mural; we see it in the tire that hangs from the flat surface (Kelly Springfield was the big employer in his small hometown of Red Springs) and a piece of sheet rock which sits on the floor at the edge of the mural. (As a high school kid he hung sheetrock to make money.) Williams questions his childhood and invites the viewers to think about their own backgrounds.
Alper moves in a different direction. He made a one-year commitment to take a daily walk and make one photograph per day, recording weather conditions and latitude and longitude. He writes he was attempting to make a picture of a place and adds it is probably impossible to catalog a memory. What the viewer takes away is not a picture of a place but of one man’s discipline and how that will be of key importance in his next steps in life.
Another lesson in discipline is Bramwell’s drawings of the hands of strangers he asked to imitate a letter in the signing alphabet. Bramwell approached people in a shopping mall to make a sign from a book of letters from American Sign Language. He photographed each hand, then reproduced the image in watercolor. We are told not every sign is absolutely accurate, but the point he is trying to make is that the signs of language have very little meaning out of context, without other signs and symbols.
Jasper Johns (b 1930) made paintings of the alphabet and numbers, putting them outside of context. Using the language of the deaf does seem to be different, however; they have to make connections sometimes out of whole cloth. I think Bramwell is on to something. 
If we are going to talk about discipline then Zamorano’s 84 drawings of the travels of one ant per one square of paper has to get the prize. Zamorano placed an ant on a piece of paper and traced its movements across the surface.  Some drawings are fairly simple and some seem like the work of a crazy thing. The more we inspect them, the more fascinating they are.
Stephens is into animation and installations. His video is fashioned after the 19th century political cartoonist Honoré Daumier. The original cartoon depicted the French King Louis Philippe I (1773-1850) as a monster with a huge tongue which lapped up the taxes of the French people. Stephens’ variation “Homo Sapien As Gargantua (after Daumier)” shows a fat animated figure gobbling up tractors as fast as they ride up the incline. His installation consists of new and obsolete hardware made into a machine of blinking lights. Here he is all about technology as medium and as hardware.
Stein is a sculptor and a videographer. Her installation consists of two balloon heads on pillows with sheets draped on the floor below. The heads have been blackened with charcoal powder. Just across the space is a Queen Anne table, scraped and carved with additional legs of soft material protruding underneath. In her video she uses all the techniques available so a lamp shade morphs into a strawberry, tongues protrude from chairs, the carpet comes alive and a snail moves a settee slowly across the picture frame. Clearly she has been influenced by the surrealists, but told me she is not saying anything about the viewer’s subconscious, just acknowledging that strange things can happen. 
Kang’s photographs are about rooms filled with objects from estate sales. She said selling things of a deceased person is totally opposite anything in her South Korean background.  In her culture, a person’s possessions would never go to strangers; they would be destroyed as a mark of respect to the one who owned them. As she became more involved in the sales, she felt she was learning about these unknown individuals. A telling image for me is the vacuum cleaner silhouetted against a double window in an empty room.
These students entered the program already armed with a good deal of artistic knowledge.  They came because they wanted a strong faculty who would give them advice and a chance to grow; they wanted the opportunity to create, invent, imagine and produce and they got it. These students may never again have the freedom to use their art in such imaginative ways, but they know they can do it; they also know they have the discipline to do tedious tasks. They will make art one way or the other. I am certain of it.

Blue Greenberg’s column appears each week in Entertainment and More. She can be reached at blueg@bellsouth.net or by writing her in c/o The Herald-Sun, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.