New Currents in Contemporary Art: UNC-Chapel Hill Master of Fine Arts Thesis Exhibition
Ackland Art Museum
Through May 11

This year’s masters of fine arts show at the Ackland offers a wildly diverse group of artists, all finishing their studies at UNC-Chapel Hill.

These artists have clearly been supported in exploring their own trajectories, with no overt evidence of academic or aesthetic agenda. However, in the act of discussing their own work, many seem to have been left hung out to dry by their advisors. Artist’s statements in general are never perfectedat best they serve as entryways into the work. But in this exhibition many of the statements do the oppositethey function in effect as barricades.

The artists in this exhibition are deserving of serious consideration, and this limitation hampers meaningful dialogue about their work. It is clear that within each of them is a powerful desire to communicate a fascinating range of aesthetic and practical concerns. If an art program wants to nurture work informed by conceptual and theoretical frameworks, shouldn’t it cultivate the critical capacity of its students? At the very least it can encourage them in the direction of clarity. In this one show, something fell through the cracks. (Click the artists’ names below to read their statements on the Ackland Web site.)

Taj Forer‘s statement for his ambitious project, “The Garden” (2007), stands alone in the group as singularly clarified. Forer tells us, “Through my photographs and the photographs produced by garden members … this series explores both tangible representations of [a] sense of ‘return’ as well as less definable and significantly broader notions of what community and agriculture mean at this moment in history,” and we are allowed access into a set of intentions.

“The Garden” is represented by five large-format C-prints mounted on aluminum, each of which documents activities and portraits from Anathoth Community Garden in Cedar Grove, N.C., which was created in the aftermath of a murder. Viewers can flip through a portfolio of photographs from a workshop at the garden. Additionally, we are encouraged to travel to the Health Department in downtown Hillsborough, where more of Forer’s work is on display, a conscious strategy employed by Forer to decentralize and expand definitions of art making, exhibiting and viewing.

I had to work to decipher Natalia Vega-Forero‘s text to tentatively determine that her project deals with issues of home, loss and cultural displacement. Vega-Forero’s project is simply weighted down by her cumbersome statement, the final sentence of which reads, “I am celebrating the personal so I can understand the universal.” Vega-Forero’s installation, “Topos-graphia” (2008), is built from raw wood planks and drywall and incorporates the key elements salt, coffee, lace and rusted nails. She also has alternately carved, drawn, torn, rebuilt, written on, and in numerous ways altered surfaces of the installation. In one section, “Topos-graphia” reveals a jagged line of coffee-stained lace that mimics a crack or fissure creeping along the museum wall. Large areas of the drywall’s surface have been layered with salt, which forms a reflective topography like sand or snow. Mapping, both literal and metaphoric, would seem to be the central impulse of this work.

Lori Esposito‘s statement is enticing if convoluted, fired with imaginative constructions, referencing pictorial passages of botanical imagery as “potions,” stating that “some of these are ‘active’ ingredients while others are likely placebo.” The result of reading Esposito’s exquisitely twisted text is to be mired in delicious mystery, precipitating an irresistible urge to read and re-read. In spite of themselves the words work strangely well with Esposito’s large-scale acrylic-on-wood tableaux. “Overwhelming Among the Gillis” (2008), one of three works on view, takes us into a murky brown swamp that gives way to putrid and sometimes oozing yellow-greens, dense green-blue foliage and an ominous blue-green depth of sky. Esposito’s work generates the feeling of a peculiar weather, dappled with phantom monsters or insects, which may have been just my imaginationor Esposito’s.

Cat Manolis‘ artwork itself is a brilliant articulation, and yet Manolis’ words come off as generalized, dispersed, a hazy afterthought. When Manolis indicates “These sculptures are made from film parts” in the middle of an otherwise obtuse statement about “reality,” she may actually be providing an essential piece of information about her work. But mired as it is in her truncated statement, it is still not clear that the materials used by Manolis are actually culled from film production technologya potentially gripping, salient fact (about which I am just guessing).

In the Ackland’s main lobby is Manolis’ “Mascot for Minema” (2007), a sculpture in the form of a dog, perhaps a Doberman, with bullet casings for teeth and a shiny black skin cut from chemical gloves. This fantastical mixed breed of aggression, humor and strangeness reads effectively as a real animala kind of futuristic fetish mutation or form of punk taxidermyabout to pounce. “Why Cinema Rules” (2008) is a light box with text superimposed on a distorted face that reads: “An Artform that Still Has an Audience.” Here’s a literal take on Manolis’ contradictory impulses toward the immediacy of movies and the intimacy and poetic capacity of artusing text, in this instance, to great effect.

An unexamined statement can be inadvertently revealing of the artist. For example, Brad Reagan includes the non-critical, unchecked phrase “shameful, hidden desires” as well as “nighttime’s psychological and biological desires” to discuss his exploration of the underbelly of a (presumably repressive) Southern rural upbringing. Terms like these suggest a lack of distance between Reagan and his demons/ muse.

“Octopus” (2008) is probably the most successful of Reagan’s three pieces on view. It works as a diagram or rendering in physical form of the metaphoric landscape of the artist’s psyche. What appears to be a lime-green brainthe size of a large watermelonis suspended in the center of a trellis-like structure, built from white globby “tentacles” asprout with bright orange metallic flowers. Sinewy pale green tubing dangles from the brain (in search, perhaps, of a nervous system?). “Octopus” is successfully strange and manages to blend the comic with the erotic, the monstrous with the cute.

If there’s any artist in this show who seems to take similar pleasure in producing art and words, it is Ellie Pierson. Pierson’s “Arctic Carpeting” (2008), an installation, at first feels chaotic and random, a radical jumble of detritus. Pierson manages a plethora of objects and materials: a hot pink wedding cake with one silver candle adrift in melted icing, a dead Christmas tree, a section of blue labeled “Blue,” piles of boards painted gold, rolls of white hole-punched printer paper, large clusters of spiny toothpick sculptures painted fuchsia. A silver wallet is displayed flipped open, its plastic picture holder accordions downward, cascading a sequence of photos that reiterate images of the installation itself. A loose wood structure houses this multiplicity, which is chock full of so much stuff that it would be impossible to list it all in this space. A video loop of hands chopping brilliant green broccoli is projected in the center of the installation, activating the piece with an infusion of color and kinesis (in this context the domestic imagery is nothing short of surreal). “Arctic Carpeting” seethes with a tension between randomness and intention and ultimately coalesces as a spatial painting, a kind of Cubism in 3D.

Pierson’s statement is a verbal free-for-allexuberant, at times incoherent, but somehow the perfect accompaniment to the worka part of it: “Luckily, ‘ART’ fits my style. It is just another invariant. Oops! I mean variant. Move the letters around and what do you get? RAT! TAR! What? A rodent? A despicable person? A solid residue of tobacco smoke? One experiment, a million variables? One variable, a million experiments? What with the time passing and all like it does, you have to ask yourself whether or not you want to conceptualize or celebrate. Is this really an unmanageable situation?”

The Ackland Art Museum is open Wednesdays through Saturdays 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sundays 1-5 p.m. On the second Friday of each month, including this Friday, May 9, the museum is open until 9 p.m.