MICA Art Walk and Commencement Exhibition, through May 18


Cathren Kull First off: To the entire 2009 graduating class of MICA, across all departments —animation, art education, art history, ceramics, drawing, environmental design, fiber, general fine arts, graphic design, illustration, interaction design and art, interdisciplinary sculpture, painting, photography, post-baccalaureate certificate in fine arts, printmaking, video and film—please note that four hours of standing on your feet next to your work while wearing a little yellow nametag as wave after wave of people come by to look, with interest or without, at what you've done with your education, and keep on moving by sounds like a form of cruel and unusual punishment. I'd rather eat glass than stand there while somebody read something I wrote and then wordlessly continue on. But this public endurance test is one necessary part of the education experience, one that definitely provides a little peek into what it's like having to sell yourself and your work to potential clients, employers, and whatnot.

Whatever the case, Thursday night's Art Walk preview of the campus-wide 2009 Commencement Show provides an overwhelming wealth of work to take in, and one visit isn't going to cut it. Over the two and half hours of continuous meandering around campus I had covered but 75 percent of the exhibitions spaces, and my brain was starting to turn to mush and I knew continuing to look wasn't fair to the work I had yet to encounter. By that point I had been overindulged with visual stimulation, and I felt that taking more in wouldn't be prudent, much in the same way you know that one more drink at 3 a.m. might bring the rest of the evening back up.

Which means that "reviewing" such a flood of works is out of the question, not to mention even more subjective that usual. After traversing all flour floors of the Brown Center and the Fox Building, the three floors of the Main Building, and the first floor Pinkard Gallery of the Bunting Center, I can't offer anything resembling a comprehensive overview of what I saw. So consider what follows more some general impressions and highlights that caught my eye.

Thought: MICA should start a student-run business-card service on the side to generate a revenue stream. No, really. Art Walk's preparation for the professional world is plainly obvious in the way each student presents a micro-portfolio of their work. Each students only has a fairly small amount of wall space to use, and almost each and every one of them offers postcard announcements for this three-day "exhibit"—the sort of glossy mailer sent out announcing shows—and business cards. And so many of these business cards are more visually inventive, eye-catching, and thoughtfully considered than the "professional" cards that have amassed on my desk over the years. It's amazing that in this era of PDAs and iPhones and BlackBerrys that the simple business card perseveres, but it does, and the young people here have a leg up in making simple, memorable, and, most importantly, informative cards that communicate the who, what, and contact information of the bearer. Bravo for simple effective simplicity.

The illustration (Fox Building, 3rd floor), graphic design (Brown Center, 3rd floor), environmental design (Fox, 4th floor), and interaction design and art (Brown, lower lobby and 1st and 2nd floors) are as strong as ever this year, and the breadth of ideas and products created is what's so impressive. From poster art to packaging ideas to hand letter-pressed stationary and paper products to inventive combinations of media and function, the works from these departments offer a glimpse of what future advertising and design might look like. And the freedom with which these young thinkers combine ideas is refreshing: Why not use plastic IV bags as a reservoir for paint? Why not create your own moveable dolls based on the imaginative characters you've created?

That creative range is in evidence throughout the campus, and it's worth popping in a few times over the weekend to take in different aspects of it. Jessica Swaysland's "The Real Thing" (Fox 2 gallery, pictured above) offers four mini-installations, each a screenprint on paper featuring a sound loop of audio cribbed from YouTube. The images are a grainy array of young men addressing a camera—what looks to be a monitor-mounted digicam of some sort—and the sound is a chopped-up monologue that you listen to on headphones. Each has a title like a screename—"Doctastrange777," "Jøames"—and the audio is often personal but banal, such as "I'm very happy I know you." Swaysland basically takes these very intimate and personal moments—the solitary young person at a computer in an empty room screams the various sorts of confessional diatribes that litter the web—intensifies the intimacy of the relationship by inviting viewers to don headphones to listen to the young men seen in the images, and then amplifies the abject isolation of the entire enterprise by focusing on the trite things they say. It's a work that skates than thin line separating the public and private in online communities, where what feels like interaction—posting something about yourself online—is really little more than dropping one coin among billions into a fountain that might as well be a void.

Sarah Grace Holcomb's "Women in Wigs" performance/installation (Decker Gallery, pictured above) is something that I imagine might be more powerful in a better environment, but which drew the brain in nonetheless. In this installation Holcomb presented three mannequins, draped in a sort of shabby/skeezy chic, with a projected slideshow above and behind them that offers a series of photos showing a woman in a wig (presumably Holcomb herself) in a series of various exaggerated quotidian acts. It feels a little subdued until you notice that you never seem to be able to see the woman's face, and a little something about the depicted action feels absurd. Holcomb feels to be going for a kind of performance essay, one that explores both the staged imagery and the social construction of gender (see also: Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons). Here's to looking forward to watching how Holcomb's ideas mature in her works.

The quality of the images that printmaker Benjamin Levy (Decker Gallery, pictured above) displays are undeniably arresting, even if the subject of the images themselves isn't as dynamic. But his prints—medium-sized panels of what I can only guess are labor-intensive, semi-photorealistic treatments of figures achieved in painstaking dots and amoebic, circular forms—are visually spectacular. He's working from the same idea of old newsprint photos that were created out of varying density of dots, but takes the process to a more obsessive and insistently imprecise level. His prints give off the impression that a shotgun blast of fine buckshot passed through parchment and left a cluster that suggest expressive human faces.

The almost snowflake delicate works of Na Kim (Fox, 3rd floor) feel fleeting at first, but they slowly accrue an inescapable force. In the mixed-media presentation "Relics," she offers a group of found objects with a short label inside a display case, and each item is a quiet fragment of ephemeral emotion. A receipt bears the caption "Breakfast and love," a broken stopwatch is paired with "We didn't make it." Kim's simple strategy recalls Raymond Pettibon's blunt economy—accessibly stark image, narrative fragment that implies an entire mood—albeit with a softer edge and less confrontational, but they both hurtle the emotions into considering trying to deal with a casually indifferent world. Her tiny nook of exhibition space becomes a small theater of internalized intensity. And her "business cards"? A series of white paper napkins on which she has hand written her name, phone number, e-mail address, and web site, each dotted with a trace of faint trace of human contact—a dab of lips to remove lipstick, the half crescent of a coffee cup—fanned out at a table as if at wedding or wake.But the young artist who tickled me most last evening was Danny R. W. Baskin in the Fox Building. No business cards or postcards here, just five incredibly impish pieces, including his umbrella vine—an inordinate assembly of cocktail umbrellas threaded into a rope and extending from floor to ceiling—with Baskin himself sitting right next to it, opening up these tiny umbrellas and tossing them into a pile. His absolutely insouciant works—a string of clear plastic pigs feet hanging on a line, a pile of mallets on a shelf, and "Suitcase of Guns," a small suitcase filled with images of firearms cut out of magazines—are disarmingly sophisticated. His "Portrait of Andy" is a large-scale rendering of Warhol, but you can barely make him out, as Baskin achieves the portrait in an array of small shapes, each labeled with a number, 1-5. From a distance you can make out the image, but up close it becomes array of numerical instructions, as if Baskin had created a portrait of the Pop Art as an unfinished paint-by-numbers project designed by Chuck Close. It's conceptually witty, visually playfully, and absolutely impractical, which only amplifies its fun. Go ahead, say it's not art—what else could it be?

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