The annual MFA art exhibition at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Ackland Art Museum used to be a frustrating show. After two years of studio work, the graduates would have to choose just a piece or two from a substantial body of work and fit them into the galleries whether or not they worked alongside those of their fellow students.

However, since the program added a one-week solo show for each student in the Allcott Gallery throughout the spring, some of the pressure has been taken off the Ackland group show, turning it into more of a celebration of the graduating class. These solo shows certainly informed Lauren Turner’s smart curation of Parts of the Sum: MFA 2014, up through June 1. Turner saw the same tension between parts and the whole within much of the class’ work.

Several students have developed practices rooted in performance or ritual to produce their work. Isabel Cuenca’s five mottled, untitled cyanotypes appear to be abstract, but are actually made by floating treated paper on the surface of Jordan Lake. Over a roughly 20-minute span, the paper curls and soaks in the water, creating a fluid range of rich blues from nearly white to nearly black as the water affects the exposure. Cuenca learned how weather and time of day affected her exposures, organizing her days around her lake pilgrimages. Conceptually as representational as traditional landscapes, the cyanotypes unite sky, land and water in a chance-based visual compression.

Ben Alper’s pilgrimage was a daily walk, taken over the course of a year, during which he took exactly one photograph. An Index of Walking comprises images arranged in an intricate matrix on the gallery wall, organized not chronologically but environmentally. Images of the sky are placed high on the wall; objects in the landscape take the center of the matrix; shots of the ground are placed close to the gallery floor. A single line connects them chronologically, however, and captions locate the images precisely in space and time. Although there’s no consistent sense of what draws Alper’s eye or whether image composition matters within the project as a whole, the relationship between experience and memory supplants such formal concerns.

Connie Zamorano also portrays a walk, but she’s not the walker. For Hi, my name is… Zamorano removed all the ants from an anthill, placed them on a paper square, and followed behind them with a pencil, tracing their path for eight minutes. Eighty-four of these drawings are displayed in a large grid, turning the ants into individual actors. Many of the drawings are frantic tangles, expressing exploration or entrapment. The faint, hesitant lines of other drawings might raise worries about the ant. In total, Zamorano points out the arrogance of psychologically discounting the ant, as well as how patterned and thoughtless human behavior can be.

Michael Bramwell’s Unsayable echoes the grid and palette of Zamorano’s work. Bramwell, however, deals with a specific kind of behavior: language. Consisting of framed watercolor paintings of hands showing letters of the American Sign Language alphabet, the grid arrangement reads as a paragraph. But the paragraph is not readable as text unless you know ASL. No translation is provided, so it might not be a text at all. Legible yet opaque, the work can head in different directions. It could implicate the essential meaninglessness of signs. It could also present the open potential of an unfamiliar system of such signs. Or it could be mere semiotic mischief. For many visitors to this exhibition, this will be the work that most flatly stares back at them from the wall.

South Korean artist Minjin Kang’s photographic series Not Part of Sale also lacks affect, but it delivers a haunting, consumerist elegy. Kang visited estate sales to photograph their aftermath. She arranged tagged, unsold items in the empty rooms of the deceased’s home and took a single, crisp photograph. Drawing upon Korean animistic beliefs that even inanimate objects have souls, Kang mourns for the orphaned paintings, tableware and furniture. She adds a photogram of the torn-off tags of sold items. This references a tradition in which the members of a Korean family ceremonially burn a family member’s belongings a month after they’ve passed on. Stark portraits of absence, Kang’s images also recall spirit photography in their evocation of the departed.

Megan Stein conjures different bizarre essences from household objects in her two untitled sculptures and an animated video. One work seems like an end table’s dream or aspiration. The table’s surface suffers a large, black depression, almost like a bruise. Beneath the depression, however, a dense cluster of black legs emerges, almost touching the floor. It’s an unsolvable cipher—dark and somehow joyful. Stein’s animation also uses the living room as a point of departure into surreal activity. Animal jaws emerge from and retreat into antique bureaus. A forest of tongues emerges from the seat of a comfy chair. Steaks writhe mechanically beneath a table. Stein finds possibility in the familiar’s manifestation of the fantastic.

For his installation Adversaries, Lile Stephens channels a steampunk mystic, expressing fantastic potential through the metaphor of the machine. The work is an arrangement of video screens, sculptural elements and motorized wheels within a darkened alcove. Wires run between several stations, which make up a rough body overall, with video feet, whirring hands and a dim, icon-like face. Together, they describe a mythology that compresses time, connecting the ancient through the mechanical with the electronic and virtual.

More specific than the domestic surrealism of Stein’s sculptures and the techno-religion of Stephens’s shrine, Antoine Williams’s Gods of Dysfunction collages find a mythological source in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent acquittal of shooter George Zimmerman. Williams combines 19th-century zoological illustrations with drawings of black men to make hybrid monsters, forging a colonial link between racial difference and fear. A figure in a hoodie hunches over, his torso becoming that of a chicken. A pig merges into the shoulders of a figure in a sleeveless undershirt and jeans. These black animal bodies contort or flee. Williams also transfers some of these images to a gallery wall, where they succeed even more at a mural’s scale.

Cody Platt chooses his own body as his subject and, in a way, his medium. As a transgender man, Platt has had to deal with mismatches between his identity and his physical self. Self-portrait, one of his two sculptures in the show, is an eerily large, disproportionate doll made of thrift store objects and fabric remnants. Every part of it clashes, visually, with every other part, and its breasts and genitalia are uncomfortably formed. But sincerity comes across in its expression of inner contradiction and the doll becomes beautiful.

In a student exhibition, the standout pieces often show an artist pushing his or her medium. Some of these students entered the program working in different media than they’ve finished in. Cuenca, for instance, was a hard-edge painter before moving into environmental cyanotypes. But, largely forgoing aesthetic concerns, this group of artists is more remarkable for having things to say. Williams’ hybrid figures and Kang’s unpeopled photographs in particular show young artists stepping through a threshold.