New Currents in Contemporary Art
Ackland Art Museum
Through May 10

From the back it looks like a temporary storage unit, an institutional gray metal box, installed on university property.

Examine the front and you discover it’s a freestanding cab from a 1982 International big rig, set off from the sidewalk. A set of stairs takes you up and into the cab’s interior. But for those of us who don’t immediately know it’s an art piece, it takes a degree of initiative to walk up those steps. And even after reading the bit of signage that clarifies that this is, indeed, a work of art, the act of straying off the sidewalk and entering this structure is a bit of a transgression. If you encountered this work during the past month and actually entered, you might have the makings of what one might call a “loner type.”

And that’s what this piece, Dave Sinkiewicz‘s “Watchtower” (2009), is all aboutone of the great loner types in the history homegrown American incendiaries, the “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski. The work is the smashing opener to this year’s UNC Fine Arts MFA exhibition, New Currents in Contemporary Art at the Ackland Museum in downtown Chapel Hill.

The cab’s interior is handmade primitive, a survivalist’s fantasy in cheap wood paneling, punctuated with the sparest of utilitarian flourishes, most of which are non-functional. Indeed, the interior space of “Watchtower” reads more like a cheap theatrical set than an attempt at realism, and it’s just this non-literal quality that elevates the work beyond the obvious, producing an alternate, internal reality, an impressionistic experience.

The centerpiece of “Watchtower” is a video monitor mounted on the windshield. The video is a continuous loop tracking the truck’s forward motion along Chapel Hill streets. Stay with the video long enough and you’ll be startled by subtle interspersed cross-fades to war zone imagerysame truck, same windshield. Suddenly you’re somewhere that feels like downtown Fallujah when the shit’s hitting the fan, your peaceful ride peppered with the occasional firebomb or sniper attack.

“Watchtower” constitutes a visceral introduction to thinking about a loner like Kaczynski, while sustaining an open-ended set of questions that work their way across boundaries and multiple themes.

Sinkiewicz’s tour de force sets a very high standard before you even enter the museum. Safe within the confines of the Ackland’s gallery space, the show continues. Gretchen Huffman‘s series of projects in various media depict woodland creatures in whimsical settings in works that feel primed for high-end children’s books. Her largest work, “Hide-and-Seek” (2009), is a detailed relief carving, done primarily in black and whitea night scene in which an owner searches for a lost dog.

Edie Shimel‘s Courses (2008) is a series of large-format black and white photographic prints in response to Thomas Cole’s 1834-36 painting series entitled The Course of Empire. Shimel’s photographs adamantly contrast Cole’s lush romantic idealism with a stark desolation.

Natural form is also incorporated by Angela Grisales in “Coppice” (2009), a black felt sculpture that resembles a fantastical overgrowth with forms that suggest seed pods, vines, brambles and other wild things. The monochrome black of this work generates a feeling of uniformity within a diversity of form, reminiscent of Louise Nevelson’s all-black sculptures. “Coppice” echoes Petah Coyne’s elaborate accumulations in black and covers territory pioneered by Joseph Beuys’ conceptual works in felt.

Erin Paroubek‘s paintings circulate around dream-like visions of flight, vertiginous skyward views, several of which depict flying geese and one that features a perilously close jet airliner. Another shows a bird’s nest suspended in an unhealthy green sky, aglow with an otherworldly light source. Also on view is a collection of small unframed works on paper, studies of birds in flight, nests, bare feet, a watchtower. These works are by turns stained, careful, whimsical, poeticverging on precious but somehow retaining aesthetic weight.

John Hill follows in the footsteps of R. Crumbreveling in a free-form stream-of-consciousness hallucinatory cartoon chaos. “Proactive Teamwork,” the title of one of Hill’s works, manages to squeeze massive amounts of irony into a small space, incorporating not one but two clichés one might find in an over-eager résumé. The title also riffs on Hill’s imagery itself, which clearly shares DNA with the idle doodling one might do while supposedly hard at work.

Nestor Armando Gil‘s “Incidents” (2008-ongoing) is a scroll of paper filled from floor to ceiling with handwritten text, hundreds of inscriptions by the artist that appear to consist solely of wartime death tolls. Gil harnesses several taut contradictions in this work. The project has the Zen earmarks of a meditative practice, and yet there is nothing remotely peaceful about the horrific content of the text. The work’s title, “Incidents,” speaks to the way wartime information is filtered to us through various news mediastories of death and loss flow past us continually, and yet these casualties are anything but casual, these so-called incidents anything but incidental. While Gil’s ritualized attempt, as he puts it, to “slow down” or clarify this kind of information may have done so for him personally, I’m not sure the work communicates, slows down or elucidates the statistics enumerated. It conveys an overwhelming onslaught of virtually undigestible information, but perhaps that’s Gil’s point.

I only experienced a few seconds of Sinkiewicz and Gil’s “Homeland Theatre” (2009), a small curtained-off section of the gallery space with a doorway into a narrow chamber in which rests a single red recliner in upright position. Upon entering the space and seating oneself a door slides shut and the recliner slides back. At this point you are basically on your back, trapped in a very tight space looking upward at a small video screen. I made it through a few sardonic introductory moments that involved bright Lynchian flowers, syrupy music and some kind of official narrative about homeland security. That was enough for memy claustrophobia took over and I asked to be let out. If you’ve ever had a brain scan, this experience is not dissimilar.

I conducted a few informal interviews with fellow museum-goers and learned that what follows is an impromptu interrogation of sorts in which text appears onscreen that in some way mirrors or comments on the interview. In many cases participants are accused of lying by their unseen interrogators. Some viewers thought it was funny. Others found it scary.

The piece is surely provocative, but it’s easy to put someone into a dark tight space, close a door and mess with them for a few minutes. Sinkiewicz and Gil deserve credit for creating a theatrical experience that strives, even fleetingly, to simulate the chilling experience of living in a police state. This is vital, potentially affecting territory. But the artists might want to take their cue from basic semanticswhen people want to be bowled over, knocked out or hit in the gut by a work of art, most of us don’t mean it literally.