By Nanditha Das – The University Gallery at the Staller Center for the Arts recently had their 19th MFA Thesis exhibit. It ran from Saturday, Mar. 17 to Saturday, Apr. 14. The exhibit featured the work of eight students in the Master of Fine Arts program offered by the Department of Arts here at Stony Brook University, including Alton Falcone, Angela Freiberger, Melanie Gerules, Karsten Grumstrup, Takafumi Ide, Athena LaTocha, Tim Murray and William Sherrod Tyson. The exhibit consisted of paintings, sketches, sculptures and electronic and mixed media components.
Having gone to the MFA Thesis exhibit last year and enjoyed it thoroughly, I was looking forward to viewing the creative and innovative handiwork of the MFA students this year. This year’s exhibit was different from last year’s, although still quite interesting and thought-provoking. Art changes with time, as do most aspects of life, so changes were expected. However, sometimes it seems as if the only tradition we keep is not to keep tradition. More and more of the exhibits that I have visited seem to employ more modernistic expressions of emotion and life in general. The word “modern” has both positive and negative connotations, but the negative undertones always seem to overpower the positive ones in my mind. And it is with this handicap that I approached the artwork of this exhibit.
The themes of these art pieces were very mature, inspiring and stimulating. Falcone’s artwork, for example, consisted of dilapidated cylindrical wood installations. In the accompanying catalogue he wrote, “The simple, monolithic, centripetal quality of the form is meant to contrast with the breaks and openings from torn wood edges and knot holes. This should give the viewer the sense of both solidity and openness.” He went on to write, “Worn wood, rusted iron and other such materials, corroded through the slow insistence in time of atmospheric elements and human abuse, offer a contrast to the purity of the geometrical form, a cylindrical dodecahedron.” From where I saw it, it was a successful attempt at portraying the ephemerality of life. I found great joy in knowing that I understood the work when I saw the artist’s following statement: “There is a beauty to endurance, a dignity to aging, and an existential quality of fragility in firmness to works of this nature.”
The death of innocence (Tyson), questioning the meanings of signs that are the result of societal concord (Grumstrup), open interpretation (Murray), the use of color and shape to generate dynamic objects and people (Gerules), using landscape unconventionally to portray strife, turbulence and disorder (LaTocha), juxtapositions of fragility with tranquility (Ide), and the examination of emotion and mood (Freiberger) are among the other themes that were explored in the exhibit.
While Falcone’s work was more encompassing, with its examination of impermanence, Freiberger’s presentation of mood and the contrast of viewer versus narrator was more personal and equally interesting. She stated in the accompanying catalogue, “By layering references to woman, body, and landscape, the installation merges feelings of desire, sensuality, and childhood memories to create an emotional experience. Through dual video projections, large-scale installations that envelop the viewer, my work aims to dissolve the conventional boundaries between artist and audience.”
Sound proves to play an important role in such media installations. Deep utterances in the video presentation that I thought were noteworthy include, “Place there is none. We go forward and backward and there is no place. Empty space that needs to be fulfilled. We are living in a placeless society.” Freiberger also commented on technology and how human accessibility has declined as a result.
While Freiberger’s piece involved mixed media and Falcone’s work was 3D, Gerules’ presentation included several self-portraits. But at the same time, dynamism was achieved through the use of color. Also, what struck me is the consistency of the self-portraits – each looked like the one preceding and the one following. As she stated in the catalogue, “My objective in painting is to create a believable world that comes alive through the play of color and form. I seek to show a certain drama with the objects of people.”
Two-dimensional pieces are quite capable of making a shattering impact, just as 3D sculptures are. LaTocha’s work depicted chaos and distress through landscapes. Landscapes usually employ a lot of color and show scenes of serenity. The most striking characteristic of LaTocha’s pieces were their lack of color. She stated in the catalogue, “My landscape imagery implies a state of unrest and a sense of discomfort through the struggle, as well as the tension, between representational and abstract imagery, the known and unknown, the other and the self. I am concerned with the ideas and sensations resulting from conflict, doubt, rejection and resistance. My work is process-based, dependent upon the manipulation of the paint surface and sense of movement and forms found inside the recurrent image.”
Grumstrup’s questioning of symbols and the meanings of signs that were collectively agreed upon by society can be paralleled with Murray’s work. Grumstrup said, “Comprised of symbols, the pictorial acts as an emblem, but as an emblem of what? How do we arrive at meaning? The proliferation of signs and their collectively agreed upon meanings obscures and important possibility; pointless mundane life has more to do with meaningful experience that it is given credit. My formal decisions are intended to lead the viewer into the picture, making the act of looking fun.” He further stated, “I want viewers to answer their own questions and come to their own conclusions.”
Murray, like Grumstrup, encourages the viewers to examine the work and make their own conclusions. “The work is a vehicle for the critique of what is perceived as (and subsequently presumed to be) a fundamental truth(s) and how these assumptions guide our finite existence in society.”
Ambiguity can be a plus point in art, because it allows the artwork to be interpreted from multiple perspectives. However, too much ambiguity makes the art lose its purpose. The piece that I enjoyed the most was by Ide, which I felt had the perfect combination of ambiguity, mixed with innovation and creativity. As Ide said, “I have controlled my installation by incorporating delicate objects, sound, video, and light. As a result, the viewer can feel the harmony and participate in my installation, rather than only see and feel the individualistic energy from only one. I hope the experience created by my work encourages audiences to reflect on important transitional moments in their own lives.”
Everything combined together created a unique sense of calmness. The sounds that were repeated over and over again included, “I love you. Don’t worry. Take care. I’ll see you soon. I’ll never forget you. Good luck. Thank you.” The repetition of these phrases created a beautiful spiritual experience. If you were looking for a moment of reflection and peace, this would have been the perfect place to be.
Each piece of artwork has something distinct to offer, and can arguably stand on its own. I found an interesting link between the artwork, but am unsure whether it is fabrication or fact. Tyson’s work, depicting the massacre of innocence, in some ways connected all the other pieces in the exhibit. By scattering everyday objects we associate with childhood, like crayons and drawings, he was easily able to convey his message.
Tyson’s work was a 3D representation, in color (like Gerules’ work), of LaTocha’s sketches that showed disorder and chaos. At the same time, it allowed the viewers to develop their own interpretations, like Murray and Grumstrup’s work. The death of innocence symbolizes the birth and growth of adulthood, which is also aging, like Falcone’s work. And finally, his work seems more relevant when compared with Ide’s depiction of calm.
At a time when we try very hard to be unique, so that we may leave a mark on the world, sometimes we forget that simplicity is invaluable. While complexity adds spice to art and life, it further complicates what can easily be accomplished in a much simpler manner. I feel as if some of the artwork was too much a tribute to the out of the ordinary. At the same time, I can understand the desire to be different, just to avoid monotony.
In the end, if the artist was able to successfully convey their messages they can be satisfied, even if their art was meant to be up for open-ended interpretation that is neither right nor wrong. I suppose, then, that Murray and Grumstrup were right. Although I was confused, I had approached their work with my own expectations and experiences. And they were able to allow me to discover the truth about myself-perhaps I am more conservative than I cared to admit or realized.