Imaging and Digital Arts MFA Thesis Exhibition
Through Feb. 18 at UMBC’s Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture
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A thesis exhibition may not sound like a thrilling way to spend an afternoon. Such shows can feel scattered, with a sampling of disparate work by fledgling artists. But this year, UMBC’s Imaging and Digital Arts MFA Thesis exhibition is a cut above. The exhibition showcases the work of four MFA candidates: 2011 Baker Artist Award winner Gary Kachadourian (“Creative Differences,” Art, Sept. 14, 2011), accomplished choreographer and visual artist Meghan Flanigan (“The Corporeal World,” Dance, Aug. 26, 2009), photographer Ali Seley, and kinetic sculptor/mad scientist Timothy Noble. The exhibition is interactive, challenging, and—who’d have guessed?—fun.
Anyone who experienced Kachadourian’s recent installation at the Baker Artist Awards exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art will recognize his distinctive approach here. For this show, Kachadourian has created a simulacrum of reality. The exterior of an apartment complex looms overhead and a three-dimensional office complete with drop ceilings, wood paneling, and an air conditioning unit invites visitors in. The effect is achieved entirely through detailed pencil drawings, which Kachadourian blows up and copies on a Xerox machine. Pasted alongside one another, they create a gray, nearly perfect, and perfectly mundane world—note the carefully rendered oil spill in the parking lot—where the viewer is the one who seems colorful and cartoonish.
Kachadourian says it all began with a drawing of a commonplace object. “I did the cinder-block drawing and blew it up to life-size,” he says. When he hung it on his wall at home, he noticed that people walked past it, looking for artwork that more closely aligned with their expectations. Success! he decided. “The trigger is if you see a cinder block, ignore it,” he says. “It did exactly what a cinder block does.”
Kachadourian has since created a line of posters—available at garykachadourian.com—that painstakingly depict banal objects like bank machines, dumpsters, and, yes, cinder-block walls. His Book of Cut and Fold Objects includes what may be the world’s first miniature cut-and-fold jersey barrier, as well as a couch with removable cushions and a portable toilet, among other objects. The book and posters are on display on a real-life desk inside the paper-paneled office.
Flanigan has also created a parallel world of sorts for her piece “I Will Disappear to You.” Visitors remove their shoes and enter a small, windowless room with a mirrored floor. Should you attend a live performance, Flanigan will tailor it for you. You are given a small video camera to strap on your head—Flanigan wears one as well—and together the two of you enter the room. (The video each person captures is later projected for visitors to watch when Flanigan isn’t performing. But attending a performance is highly recommended.) Flanigan will then begin to dance and you are free to join her. She’ll talk with you, or sit quietly next to you, or otherwise respond to the situation you purposefully or inadvertently create. You can leave the room at will. “The point of this for me was finding a way of dancing that would be much more fluid,” Flanigan says.
What results is both intimate and, at least initially, stilted. The mirrors heighten the awkwardness; you can’t avoid a gaze. “I’m interested in discomfort, because I think it creates interesting situations when it’s resolved,” Flanigan says. She suggests I choose a small mirror from a row on the wall and hang it on a hook that descends from the ceiling, as previous participants have done. Each mirror is inscribed with a verb: “To Rest,” “To Discover,” “To Listen.” Flanigan remembers visitors by the verbs they’ve chosen, and often shapes her performance around their choice. Pregnant with my first child, I choose “To Create,” and explain why. Flanigan stands behind me, where I can’t see her, and begins, I sense, to move. Eventually her hand comes to rest on the small of my back (“Is this OK?” she asks) and we stand for a time. I feel her hand (elbow? forearm?) intermittently along my back—much like the cryptic movements of the baby kicking within—and other sensations, a tactile dance I strain to visualize. It is a powerful experience, the sort one doesn’t often have with a stranger.
Seley’s work doesn’t function on as many levels, but it is intimate in its own way. Her “Pulchritude” series is “a reflection on ways that I have altered myself to attract and keep a man,” as her artist statement puts it. Six large-format photographs of the artist, a pretty blonde, stare at one another from opposing walls. In each, Seley has taken a common beauty practice and exaggerated it. In one, dozens of fake eyelashes descend from her eyes to her chest and up onto her forehead; in another her lips are swollen and red from lip plumper. In yet another her skin glows a hideous orange from excessive tanning lotion and spray. (It took weeks to wear off, she says.) Her facial expression differs in each case—angry, flirty, sad, happy; Seley says she wanted the photos to communicate with and judge one another. The series was inspired by her childhood in the South, where she was raised by her old-fashioned grandmother. “When I was 6 years old, she started telling me things like, ‘You should never leave the house without mascara,’” Seley says. “The repetition of these things becomes absurd.” “Pulchritude” feels a bit one-note in the company of the other work in the show, but Seley’s physical commitment to her premise lends it some heft.
Just before the opening, Noble was scrambling to fine-tune his pieces, none of which were fully operational yet. “I’m in technical hell,” he said. And no wonder. Noble’s work is technically complex, much of it based on open-source circuitry and/or programming that he has modified for his own purposes. For instance, Noble modified a telephone booth into a homier, antiquated internet analog that retrieves information from the CIA’s World Factbook. Masses of colored wires are visible through the clear panels of the booth. The user enters the booth and manually plugs a cord into a jack next to the country of his or her choice, from a list of hundreds, as if into an old-fashioned switchboard. He or she then pushes a button like that on a pinball machine to choose the parameter—population, gross domestic product, etc.—and the corresponding number appears at eye level on charming Cold War-era neon number tubes.
Behind all of Noble’s projects is a strong desire to support open-source culture, which he draws from in his work. He plans to publish all the specs for the pieces he’s created online, for free. He is particularly fascinated by the possibilities of 3D printing technology, which both of his other two pieces employ. “If I had a machine and you had a machine, I could e-mail you an object and you could print it,” he says. The implications, he points out, are staggering, from the notion of printing weapons to the idea that overseas shipping could become obsolete.
Another of Noble’s pieces operates via a modification of this sophisticated technology, though it has the same nuts-and-bolts appeal as the phone booth. A large blocky arm moves back and forth along a giant chalkboard rescued from an old Pennsylvania schoolhouse. Noble inputs a two-dimensional object file, instructing the machine what to draw. The piece is in part a comment on what Noble sees as a widespread move toward “mechanizing what’s really a human activity.” In this case, some of the technical difficulties he has encountered seem to support his point. The human hand makes subtle adjustments when a piece of chalk wears down, for instance, in order to maintain an even line. It has proven difficult to program the machine to do likewise, and it remains a bit glitchy.
A third gallery-size piece also employs do-it-yourself 3D-printing technology. This machine “prints” in light, creating a three-dimensional image layer by layer. (The image isn’t visible in real time, but can be viewed on video after the fact.) A viewer will see an LED light attached to a timing belt as it moves slowly through space, creating an after-effect much like one sees with a sparkler. The belt is on a plane that moves back and forth through space via molded plastic carriages (which Noble also created on a 3D printer) that fly along rails. Noble inputs an object file into the apparatus, and it draws what he requests.
Bravo, class of 2012. This is a show not to be missed.
Gary Kachadourian will speak on Feb. 11 at 10:15 A.M. Meghan Flanigan will perform on Feb. 8, 10, 11, 15, and 17. For times and other information, visit umbc.edu/cadvc.