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Breaking the Mold

HOLIDAY SHOW AND SALE Student Art Exhibition Carpenter Center

Student art shows in the Carpenter Center used to feel like they had been organized by an egalitarian elementary school principal. Each class was allotted a few walls (big kids in the lobby, beginners upstairs), and each professor played the dutiful homeroom teacher, making sure that everyone had a piece in the show. As might be expected, this approach almost always produced a rambling, diluted exhibition, in which even the most competent work couldn't overcome the welter of timid figure drawings and self-conscious photographs of somebody's brooding roommate. Having spent hours in the studios of my friend and classmates, I always found these shows most disappointing because I knew the department could put on a better public face. This year it finally did.

The new "Holiday Show and Sale" sparkles with an energy and with that will surprise anyone familiar with VES exhibitions. In an effort to make students more involved in the exhibition process, professors asked them to submit works on paper priced for less than $100 (later, sculpture was also admitted). Then a Faculty jury pared down submissions, making the exhibition far less cluttered and more potent than usual. Even for diehard Carpenter Center voyeurs, the show comes almost as a revelation: yes, VES students are learning how to draw and sculpt, but more importantly, they have something to say.

The work's newfound confidence and sophistication probably owes most to the department's shift away from architecture and design towards a stronger studio program. Although I would hesitate to endorse the elimination of design, the redirection of energies has clearly benefited the other studio arts. In addition, VES Chair Chris Killip and Director of the Carpenter Center Ellen Phelan have cultivated an impressive roster of contemporary artists to serve as visiting professors and lecturers. Although these mostly New York imports have been a boon to students and enthusiasts of contemporary art, I had perhaps impatiently questioned whether their presence had made much of an impact on the work of VES students. But change takes time, and it seems that things have finally started sinking in.

After topics including landscape and the relationship between painting and photography, this year's studio theme, "The Body," emphasizes the contemporary art world's renewed interest in figuration since the late 1970s. This subject has clearly provided fodder for many of the works in the show, which range from earnest and literal to playful and abstract. Small paper mach'e sculptures by Jennifer E. Mergel '98 sprout lively appendages from their baseball or bagel-shaped body blobs. In one, two straining neuron-like beings wrestle or dance with the energetic whipping of their interconnected arms. Nearby, another languishes on its side, exhaling through some great orifice or wound--an opening of transparent paper skin at once feathery and crisp.

Across the lobby, a group of bricks on the floor shoot up tall waving poles crowned by ruby-red wax lips. Like Mergel's sculptures, "Bricks, Stalks, Lips" by Daniel O. Williams '98 toys with the distinction between the figurative and the abstract. Though economically constructed of the most mundane and inert parts, William's forest of rods refuse to be discussed in anything but the most animated and creaturely terms. Are they simply chatty bricks which grew tall necks for clandestine conversation above our heads? Or perhaps these poles sway precariously like some convention of bizarre supermodels--a mirage of impossibly thin bodies and paint-on red lips.

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Mergel's and Williams' sculptures along with silly-putty blobs (caught moving in hasty Polaroids) by Nick C. Malis '99, a tortuous Frankenstein prosthetic (Brendan K. Greaves '00) and Chris Cooper's redolent beeswax objects all demand anthropomorphic descriptions and at the same time frustrate our search for easy bodily correspondences. While these works may benefit from the exhibition's exclusion of more polished paintings on canvas, they characterize the most intelligent and competent group of student sculpture recently shown in the Carpenter Center.

The well-developed dialogue between so many strong and flashy sculptures often makes it difficult for drawings to get a word in edgewise. Yet despite tough odds, several works manage to distinguish themselves from the more academic studies in the show. Dave Steiner's two hilariously captivating oil drawings explore his psychological relationship with a grinning frog doll, possibly a cousin of Kermit. "Froggy with Orator" depicts a man sitting behind a table, one index finger raised in exclamation. But the orator's bulging-eyed companion doesn't seem to be listening as he charmingly mugs for us on the right side of the table. Another monochromatic oil drawing casts the orator as a distraught mourner poised over the prostrate body of his friend. The work's title "Lamentation" only underscores the tragic comedy of mourning a puppet whose misty yet animated rendering makes us strangely sympathetic.

Ellen H. Takata '98 creates equally beguiling ink drawings of young Japanese girls in and out of drag. "Actress (lkki Haruka)" features fluid renderings of two head shots taken from popular Japanese trading cards of an adolescent female theater troupe. At the top of the image, a short-haired boyish actress smiles seductively at the viewer. Below we see the same woman dressed in a tuxedo jacket and bow tie, her hair coifed in a pompadour which would have made the young Sinatra proud. Yet apart from her obvious male dress, she appears somehow more feminine, wearing eye-liner, mascara, and maybe even lip gloss as the white-paper highlights of her icy smile suggest. Garnished with a few Japanese characters, these pieces coyly play with different gender stereo-types and act as seductive yet slightly disarming mirrors of Eastern perceptions of the West.

Unlike these subtle and elegant works, many of the prints in the exhibition are excessively direct and literal. The etchings seem overburdened by too many images and too much information, waging tiny wars of attrition within themselves, rather than against their ostensibly political targets. Opposite in address, yet equally disappointing, most of the photographs are too obvious or formally preoccupied. However, two softly-colored photographs by Danielle J. King '00 prove notable exceptions. The archetypal house in one of her square photographs appears as stiff and plastic as the child's play house in another. In the tradition of Dan Graham and Thomas Struth, King's domestic subjects are so patently legible and ordinary they become somehow mysterious or surreal.

Despite the overwhelming prepon-derance of figurative work, abstraction prevails in the show's most lyrical and contemplative composition, a suite of untitled drawings by Flora F. Zhang '00. Three greenish pieces of found ledger paper provide fertile ground for the variety of Zhang's alternately delicate and aggressive charcoal and ink marks. Tiny red dots spiral in clusters from the tabulations of an anonymous accountant, while green spots mark the time of some alien music or growth patterns. Anemic writing whispers between the rectangles of the grid, and fragile bubbles wobble across the page. Reminiscent of John Cage's drawings, these miraculous works provide a hesitant moment of introspection in the VES department's most self-assured of recent shows

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