Sincerely Yours: MFA 2013
Ackland Art Museum
Through May 26

Sincerity is a high-wire act but the payoff is big. An artist not only has to have something to say, he or she needs to know how to say it clearly.

In Sincerely Yours, UNC-Chapel Hill’s annual show at the Ackland Art Museum, eight MFA candidates examine themes like consumerism, memory and social value through a lens of conceptualism. But the lens isn’t ironic or cool, because these artists want to engage with you.

In past exhibitions, MFA candidates picked their best couple of pieces and hung them in the Ackland themselves. This year, however, Kim Bobier and Russell Gullette, both doctoral candidates in art history, have handled curation. Meanwhile, throughout the spring, each of the exhibiting students has hung a solo show in the small Alcott Gallery in the Hanes Art Center adjacent to the Ackland.

First and foremost among this year’s class is George Jenne, a mid-career artist who could just as easily be handing out degrees as receiving them. In sculpture and video work, Jenne probes the abject in the most deliciously uncomfortable ways. In the videos “Preamble” and “Spooky Understands,” his mastery of those two media combines with mastery of a third: narrative.

Jenne makes sculpture to be in his videos and makes videos in order to activate his sculpture. His attention to detail in camerawork, editing and the manufacture of props and sets pushes his monologues into the dark side of surrealism. Shadowed characters issue stories by murmuring or whispering their experiences to us. Jenne has fine-tuned the attraction/repulsion settings in these nonlinear stories to sometimes breathtaking effect.

Many artists address American hyper-consumption, but Ali Halperin works with fashion objects to push through the first layer of theory into the deep psyche of our collective consumerist fantasies. The television show Hoarders is one of her inspirations: specifically each episode’s standard sequence that begins with the hoarder on camera talking about her situation as her narration continues over a montage of heaped possessions.

“Tees,” Halperin’s tar-covered collage of many folded T-shirts, expresses the fear that forms the outer boundary of that fantasy. Both revolting in its monstrous blackness and beatific in its glossiness, the wall sculpture exudes a latent malice. In all four works in the show, Halperin takes core samples from this frightening place, where one becomes possessed by one’s possessions. Rather than threatening us, however, Halperin expresses concern.

Nicole Bauguss borrows Halperin’s monochromatic palette for her installation “GreyMatter: The Space Between.” Transformed into a conceptual space by an even coat of flat gray paint, a low platform holds a church pew and other architectural details scavenged from her life as a contractor, as well as familiar and altered everyday objects such as rope and a rolling pin threateningly studded with nails. A white cotton pig, life-size, dangling from its hind feet over the platform, completes the tableaux.

It’s a Southern gothic scene, all right. But Dinah Washington’s recording of “This Bitter Earth” comes from the pig’s body cavity, reclaiming the space from the makings of a crime scene to more of a domestic memory. Recontextualized by Washington’s firm, tender voice, Bauguss’ scene becomes more familiar than monstrous.

William Thomas exhibits a wonderful restlessness that more contemporary artists should have. He’s fascinated by the art world but uncertain about its social utilityand especially what and whom it excludes. Three of his large paintings are in the show, but it’s his three printed blankets that express this ambivalence best.

Thomas first made a free-associative series of small paintings. Then he had the photo lab at Walmart enlarge and print them onto fleece blankets. The blanket images are ambiguously personal: figures embracing and waving to one another, and a seemingly abstract image of a mole on his upper back. But by shifting the status of these works between artifact and household object, he transforms a precious personal expression into shared experience.

Lauren Salazar and Julia Gootzeit also make a kind of gift of their work. Salazar’s untitled fiber installation spans a gallery corner, beginning on one end as a colorful scarf but unraveling geometrically across space to produce an open, gentle canopysort of an Agnes Martin grid that you can walk under. Gootzeit’s coral reef-like paper sculptures seem abstract at first but become more familiar as you recognize body castings among the shapes. Both Gootzeit and Salazar reach out to viewers through the tactile nature of their works. You feel the making of them just by looking.

Damian Stamer deploys a different tactility in his landscape paintings of tobacco barns. In six almost exclusively gray-scale paintings, Stamer resolves photographic detailyou will find yourself leaning close, wondering if he’s used a photo transfer processwith abstract regions to create a geographic surface. His work with the palette knife is particularly impressive. It sums to an expression of how memory and place commingle to the point that they are the same thing.

Inhabiting a landscape similar to Stamer’s, Michael Lauch performs rituals of generosity in his two videos. The star field that opens “Cowboy” is revealed as something else when Iauch leans into the frame to belt out the Dixie Chicks’ “Cowboy Take Me Away.” Likewise, the shadow of Iauch’s camera lurches into view in “SHADOW RIVER” as he scoops a bucket of water, steps downstream and empties the bucket, helping the river along. In both videos, Iauch leaves these facetious, self-conscious edges on his performance, but his genuineness overcomes them.

Overall, Sincerely Yours stands more as an offering than an exhibition. It’s delightful to see young artists exploring their chosen media. It’s even more satisfying to see them putting that exploration at the service of engagement.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Listen and I will tell you.”