By James Cockroft – The 2007 MFA Thesis Exhibition includes works by eight artists representing a range of styles, themes, and approaches to art-making: painting, drawing, sculpture, ceramics, printmaking, video, and installation art all make appearances. Given the breadth of content in the exhibition, viewers might find themselves confused about what ties these works together other than their having been produced by graduating MFA candidates at Stony Brook. However, careful examination of the works may reveal certain thematic relationships.
Alton Frabetti presents a series of sculptures entitled Variations I-X, which consists of ten circular forms, constructed from stained, weathered, and rusted wood and iron. Frabetti’s work addresses the formal qualities of rust and decay, reminding viewers that change and decay are necessary parts of life. The Variations’ seem like cages or prisons, though whatever they originally held appears to have escaped, perhaps because time and change altered the imprisoning forces. Is this a reading of the changes produced by age and educational changes that tend to break down and reinforce certain ideological constructs? Perhaps, though viewers are likely more interested in the formal properties of the works on display, rather than some other force.
Angela Freiberger’video installation presents us with two views of a child swinging to and fro. The accompanying soundtrack plays bird song, the creak of the chains as the child swings, and a narrative about life processes and change. On the wall, we are presented with a back view of the child as she swings. An apartment complex, some trees, and the occasional bird are the only other elements in the scene. On the ceiling, we find a view from the child’s chin: The sky, trees, and the top of the swing-set move back and forth, slightly disorienting viewers. As we watch, it almost feels as if we are the ones swinging. (I even found myself rocking slightly as I a gazed up at the projection.) We might view this work as a commentary on situations we often find ourselves in, where we appear to be moving rapidly, but later we realize that we have gone nowhere.
Melanie Gerules presents seven self-portraits painted from 2004-2006. Other than changes in clothing and hairstyle, there is very little to distinguish the 2004 Melanie from the 2006 Melanie, perhaps presenting a reading of the changing same. We know she must have changed in the course of the two years we find hung on the wall, yet there is no visual evidence for such change. She is unsmiling, expressionless, acting both as viewed and as viewer, though with little or no emotional connection between subject and object. These are matter-of-fact portraits. There is no sense of judgment in the works, they are just Melanie: here she is, take it or leave it; she doesn’t really care either way.
Two very large books by Karsten Grumstrup present a western version of the Japanese landscape scroll. They are beautifully bound, and the pages unfold like an accordion, producing a visual narrative. One, laid out on a table, presents an endless mountain range; the other, hung on the wall, presents an open landscape containing friendly-looking rocks and shrubs. The larger of the two, the mountain range, presents a chaotic, frustrating, and dangerous scene: we imagine finding ourselves lost in a wilderness with no beginning and no end. The other is peaceful, serene, and comfortable: it’s a sunny spring day and we are in the park, looking for a spot to spread out a picnic blanket and enjoy the day.
Takafumi Idea’s light and sound installation chronicles the emotions we feel at the end of a long project, when we are forced to say goodbye to coworkers and friends before moving on to something new. Voices emerge from the darkness, lauding the end of one era and the beginning of another: I Miss you, I will never forget you, Thank you, Good luck, Take care of yourself, I love you. The accompanying soundtrack is reminiscent of the theme from the Godfather films, adding a sense of foreboding and uncertainty to the future.
Athena LaTocha presents eleven views of a landscape, hastily but carefully executed in ink wash, charcoal, and crayon on paper. Uncertainty and desolation play a large role in the works. There are no traces of human intervention in the landscapes, suggesting a solitary journey, though the shift in perspective between works suggests a view from a speeding car, or the impressions of a landscape by fellow travelers. The windswept valley surrounded by mountains is a recurring theme in LaTocha’s work, perhaps referencing the path we follow as we move through life, though such a reading would tend to imply a deterministic view of choice and lifestyle.
Tim Murray’s book pages on paper, ripped from their source and presented as individual vignettes, tell stories of family life, schoolyard brawls, and death. Images are repeated multiple times, though interpretation of the action is frustrated by text that accompanies each image, reminding viewers that interpretation is a subjective activity that changes according to circumstance. Similarly, a collection of porcelain book pages, some of which are broken, reinforces the mutability of narrative: The text is illegible, yet the pages are beautiful, glossy structures that appear extremely fragile.
Works by William Sherrod Tyson also play on the idea of changing perspectives. His installation, Massacre of the Innocence, appears to be a large childhood drawing composed of crayon scribbles, broken and lying on a pile of art history and theory books in a messy bedroom. High above, a large nail supports the broken corner of the drawing, as if its destruction happened very recently, leaving no time to clean up the mess before leaving for school. Nearby, we find a small piece of duct tape, gold leafed and presented on a pedestal. These works appear to be a commentary on the function of art in society. Art History has destroyed the innocence of childhood, while converting everyday utilitarian items into precious objects of contemplation.
All the works in the show address, in one way or another, the changes taking place in the artist’s lives. They all must leave the safety and comfort of the Stony Brook MFA program and enter the wild and uncertain art world. Additionally, the works deal, in some sense, with series or sequences. Alton Frabetti’s variations, Melanie Gerules’s self-portraits, Karsten Grumstrup’s books, Athena LaTocha’s landscapes, and Tim Murray’s book pages, are clearly series of sorts, and works by Angela Freiberger, Takafumi Ide, and William Sherrod Tyson may also be seen as employing seriality to various ends. A child swings back and forth, to and fro; a childhood drawing, composed of crayon marks that move back and forth across the surface; repeated whispers of consolation and good will: These are all series, repetitions. Ultimately, the MFA Thesis Exhibition of 2007 serves as a treatise, of sorts, on the value of the series for conveying change, emotion, and idea as the artists move into more uncertain realms beyond academia.
The MFA Thesis Exhibition is on display at the University Art Gallery from March 17 to April 14.