Arts & Culture

At Ackland, artists in search of the meaning of time

Blue Greenberg
Blue Greenberg

Seven MFA students, with the help of curator Jeff Bell, museum manager of 21c Museum Hotel, have created an exhibition which challenges the visitor to think about time, the use of materials, undercurrents of politics and art itself. Luke Firle, Wayne Marcelli, Joy Meyer, Vanessa Murray, Emily J. Smith, Louis Watts, and Lamar Whidbee are the graduates, and as a gift from the Art Department are part of a professionally curated show, which opened last week. After visiting each artist three times Bell found “Time” to be the unifying theme. They slow, stop, fold, or remove aspects of the passage of time in their art and make it a frame for their voices.

I spoke with Bell by phone and we talked about the students and the show. He said he looked at all their work; not just what they had done for their thesis. “Each will have a solo thesis show in Hanes; this is a totally different experience with an outside curator in an important venue like the Ackland.”

The exhibit covers the two main galleries and the small annex at the end and begins and ends with the work of Louis Watts (b. 1984) and Vanessa Murray (b. 1983). Watts uses charcoal, an ancient mark-making tool, to examine periods of art history. In “On Today,” he mimics Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup Cans, as they appear in repetition on a grocery shelf. His paintings in light boxes at the end of the show are in a small dark space and are a tribute to the Frenchman Marcel Ravidat who discovered the Lescaux cave paintings in 1940.

Murray works her images slowly and carefully through layer after layer of oil and polymer, as if she is uncovering crystalline tracts formed over eons. In the last gallery her drawings are a product of careful mark-making and covering, another process in the use of time as a continuous force of creation and destruction.

Lamar Whidbee (b. 1989) gathers found materials with both known and unknown histories; sometimes they act as a backdrop to personal memories and at other times the materials themselves shape the significance of the object. Centered in his space is a chair which belonged to his grandmother, with all their special recollections. In “Dear Son,” made of wood panels painted white, he adds faint writing and the word “Smile.” Here and there he attaches small boxes which hold baby bottles with a few broken pencils and empty gun shells inside. Found materials always evoke a past time while playing a part in the present and even the future.

Old plastic sheeting and air mattresses combined and pulled across rectangular stretchers are Wayne Marcelli’s (b. 1987) chosen materials. Angled at a corner they evoke ideas of a shelter or a fort. Again the found materials, layers of the past, are repurposed into something new and time becomes a key element.

Joy Meyer (b. 1977) is the artist in this show who makes the most use of digital technology. She considers Kate Chopin’s short story, “The Story of the Hour” with a multi-channel projection. She narrates the author’s poetry along with her own and edits the footage into different sequences and durations of time so the images never synchronize. In another series she repeatedly scans a Mardi Gras mask and manipulates the files with results so abstract the viewer is left to wonder what they are about.

What is the value of materials in an art object? asks Luke Firle (b. 1978) as he renders throw-away objects like paint cans out of expensive wood and sculptures of rock out of Styrofoam. He also investigates alternative ways of displaying artwork. In “Trap Ped” he shapes pedestals to become part of the objects that rest on them and therefore questions fundamental ideas about art and how it should be displayed. As he changes materials, replacing the real with plastic and the durable with Styrofoam, he wonders whether the longevity of a material has any correlation to luxury.

Emily Smith (b. 1990), is a sculptor, whose bulbous figures, stuffed in nylon stockings and hung on the wall, seem at once like human organs and at other times, like cartoon characters.

Smith’s titles define her work. One is “Demure,” another is “Don’t You Worry Your Pretty Little Heads.” Her soft and feminine materials are stuffed into strange shapes suggesting ideas about control and force. In her thesis show comments, Smith wrote she examined her role of woman in the South and how it contrasted with the ideals of the “Southern Lady.” She added, “I am interested in the tensions between sensuality and sexuality, beauty and disgust, façade and reality and relent and control.”

At first glance there is not a traditional piece of art in the exhibit, but the underlying base, whether found objects, foam squeezed into nylon stockings or videos that refuse to synchronize, is an understanding of traditional painting and sculpture. Bell said the students also brought skills with them to the program, which they are using. Smith came with a ceramic background, Firle brought woodworking skills, Whidbee is an extraordinary painter and Meyer has done traditional film making. While Meyer is the only student who uses technology extensively, Bell said if a student was interested in refining that technique, there were professors who would work with him or her. Two of the graduates, Whidbee and Watts, have already had several solo exhibitions in and around the Triangle.

“I was impressed with all these young men and women,” Bell said. “They are advanced and serious.” He added many have already taught and will probably become teachers while making their own work.

I applaud these students who have chosen a career in art, which is a field with minimal monetary rewards. It means they believe art is an important means of communication and will not be afraid to use it.

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Exhibit Details

“Time Will Tell: Selected Works by the MFA Class of 2017”

Ackland Art Museum, UNC-Chapel Hill through June 4.