2006 MFA Exhibiton & Graduate Program


The Physiology of Art at the U of I

This year’s small and eclectic class of MFA candidates exemplifies a truly open environment for artistic practice at the U of I with work ranging from small impasto paintings and large biomorphic sculptures to pseudo-scientific installations and design theory. Formally the works are completely varied, yet they are all characterized, in one way or another, by an engagement with the body.

Organizing and curating an MFA exhibition presents several challenges if one is seeking to find relationships between works and artists whose only commonality is that they are enrolled in the same MFA program. Yet inevitably threads and connections emerge, which is what happened as I spent more time in the exhibition: Aaron Dugger, Angie Waarala and Rashelle Roos comprised the “ooey-gooey” corner, as one of them phrased it; Gary Schott, Nisa Blackmon, Brian Collier and Rick Valentin’s work are related to an interest in mechanics and technology as a filter for our experiences. These works are presented in a style more related to conceptualism that often operates as institutional critique, while the other artists embrace the corporeal and chaotic messiness of their materials.

Despite their aesthetic differences, an engagement with the body—either their own or the viewers’ through physical, psychological, or other relationships—manifested itself as a thread running through the works.

The exhibition began with a set of hand-held toys by Gary Schott, which he calls “thought stimulators.” His interest in hand-cranked mechanics, such as those found in 19th century toys and tools, translates into finely crafted, brightly painted objects that the viewer is supposed to hold up to his or her face and operate while looking in a mirror. The objects sort of looked like small birdhouses with geometric shapes protruding from them on the end of a curved wire. When in motion, the interaction between the shapes on the wire and one’s face mimicked the cliché gestures one makes when thinking intently or pondering a question (i.e rubbing one’s chin or temple). Feeling quite silly and self-conscious (at least I did), viewers are made aware of the act of looking at art, but at the same time perhaps began to feel less intimidated about viewing art, which my experience at the MCA tells me that many people find uncomfortable and challenging, because they can actually play with the objects. A certain romanticism surrounds mechanical objects these days, in part because of complex mysteries like the internet and wireless technologies where information floats invisibly through the air, but also because there is something fascinating about the cause and effect of gears in machines.

Brian Collier’s photo, sound and video installation was based on a desire for his own physical experience with nature along Highway 74, where he commuted an hour each way from Normal to Champaign. Entitled The Highway Expedition, Collier walked the length of the entire commute in sections over the course of 27 days, learning about and documenting the plants and animals that miraculously survive in habitats along the highway. The act of getting out of the car to observe that which is invisible while in the car, opened up an entirely new world for him which he shares through the display of plant specimens and photographs. Without being pedantic, his work makes a strong point about taking time to notice the things that surround us everyday, and he even provides a packet of flower seeds for people to throw out their car windows while driving along the highway.

Nisa Blackmon’s ZooBotanical Speciman ExhibiStore also included the display of plant specimens, however, rather than natural specimens they were Blackmon’s own creations made with fake plastic flowers that she dissected and rejoined into splendidly fantastic mutations. Blackmon’s background in plant biology allowed her to convincingly simulate the various methods that plants are studied and collected. A light table with glass slides and Petri dishes show microscopic sections of the faux plants, while Riker mounts, and jars with alcohol hold others. All of this is for sale, as a comment upon the gift shops one finds in museums with “authentic replicas” of valuable “treasures” but also, according to the artist, how jewelry is omnipresent in these same gift shops. Blackmon’s interest in metals and jewelry-making collides with her interest in plant biology in this installation when she inserts delicate metal silhouettes of plant sections in the Riker mounts, acting as placeholders for the originals. Similarly, her plant slides double as earrings, necklaces and bracelets that can be worn by the viewer. I find the commodification of museum collections to be the strongest statement in this work as it questions the responsibility of the archive in the face of rampant commercialization and institutional need for funds to maintain and grow such collections.

Like Brian Collier, Rick Valentin went for a walk. In the lineage of Richard Long’s long walks or other process-based endurance pieces, Valentin walked around his block once an hour for 24 hours straight, videotaping the excursion from his viewpoint. An exercise in mapping himself—within his town, state, country, planet, and also through the time of an entire day—the repetition of the same action highlights the slight differences of his movements and the choices he makes, but also evokes a sort of Groundhog Day (the movie) effect that one might extrapolate to the routine of our daily lives. The videos of each hour were projected in sequence in a horizontal row on the top edge of a large cube, creating an endless loop of day and night; yet other people are conspicuously absent, creating a feeling of suburban isolation. Valentin’s other works also suggest an absence of the body. His Message for the Future 01-09, made of six squares of etched black granite, was inspired by the Rosetta Stone, but also resembles tombstones. Instead of memorializing someone who has passed, however, they are tombstones of today with eulogies hand written for cars, drugs, religion, food, money, computers, politics, sex, and weapons. Valentin’s other project uses a dot matrix printer connected to an RSS feed to list the top two news words per hour. The resulting print-out has the appearance of a concrete poetry piece, with a virtual author. The day I visited the top words were Baghdad and Gonzalez, which pretty much summed everything up.

Leaving Valentin’s technology-based work, I approached Rashelle Roos’s gilded parlor of overstuffed arm (and leg) chairs. Set up like a theatrical tableau, Roos stuffs pantyhose to create bulbous anthropomorphic furniture—a life-sized chandelier, coffee table, paintings, sofa—laced with wigs and hair pieces. The result is a spectacle that repels and attracts. Its materials and surfaces invite a lingering gaze yet its intestinal abjectness prompt one to question who inhabits this domestic interior. The sagging, imperfect qualities of the forms nod to the aging process and perhaps the domicile of fallen beauty.

The body is referenced in a much more oblique way in Aaron Dugger’s intimate abstract paintings that combine heavily gestured and tactile impasto paint with flat monochrome backgrounds in canvases that range from 5 x 7 inches to 36 x 48 inches. They seemingly play out a struggle between modernist and postmodernist positions about painting. Through metaphors, the titles such as The Potluck After the Funeral suggest a kind of celebration after the death of painting, where anything goes. But at the same time, both potlucks and funerals relate back to the body through consumption and death. Additionally, the viewer’s body must approach the works closely to see the details of the paint handling but the paint itself becomes animated in a physical way, with some parts recalling excrement while others look like edible sweet confections. Dugger has found an insightful way to contrast a geometric structure with entropy and gravity. In one small canvas, different colors of paint layers stacked five-inch thick covers and protrudes from the surface, barely holding on.

Angie Waarala’s video Purge depicts a woman’s sadomasochistic relationship with food. The notion of desire becomes sexualized as the protagonist, wearing a negligee, fondles and ravenously consumes cupcakes. In some scenes this relationship becomes violent and out of control, with the red frosting taking on the appearance of blood rubbed all over her voluptuous body. In another, the woman is cleansed with water poured on her head, surrounded by orchids, demonstrating the cycle of binging and purging that often accompanies such fixations with food. The upbeat 1940s honky-tonk soundtrack of “Playboy Chimes” by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys creates the feeling of a freak show attraction as the woman performs for the viewer with a mixture of pleasure and shame.

Two of the artists I visited were in the Industrial Design program, thereby distinguishing themselves from the other studio artists I met with, but who are working on interesting projects related to the visual arts from different angles. Combining a mid-century modern and Japanese aesthetic, Jennifer Astwood’s prototype for an indoor herb garden could very easily be produced for sale at Target, her former employer, whose trademark “Design for All” has truly created an awareness of the importance of how objects are designed and reaching new audiences.  Donna Murray-Tiegde researches the process of creativity, the genesis of all art-making, at its most basic level through a series of collaborative, multi-disciplinary projects that have resulted in her Tower of Creativity, a tool that fosters new approaches to resolving design problems.   

It’s hard to summarize in any comprehensive way what these artists are doing because they are so varied. In a general sense, I find that their use of the body stands in for positioning oneself within a larger context and finding relationships between people or people and artworks, both worthwhile explorations if you ask me.

Julie Rodrigues Widholm

(Julie Rodrigues Widholm is Assistant Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. She graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1997 with a B.A. in Art History and Political Science. She has a Masters in Modern Art History, Theory and Criticism from The School of the Art Institute, Chicago.)


The Social Implications of Art

Art and design are now allied inextricably with the economic, technical and social issues in our daily lives.  Gone is the longstanding 17th century Kantian dictum which segregated aesthetic experience from worldly concerns—art for art's sake.  Postmodern, digitized, global culture is distinguished by processes of circulation and connection, and social systems and practices integrate seamlessly into the context of art.  We recognize that the world of objects is also a political world, and that objects—made either for contemplation or for use—reflect communal norms.  Stories of exploration and resistance are written upon our objects, writes the art historian Laura Doyle.  This means that art and design are entwined in ethical decisions, and these practices can challenge and redress backward or oppressive modes of thinking and acting.

This is never more apparent than in the work of the artists and designers who are graduating with the Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign in 2007.  They are Jennifer Astwood, Nisa Blackmon, Brian Collier, Aaron Dugger, Trent Garner, Rashelle Roos, Gary Schott, Donna Murray-Tiedge, Rick Valentin, Angela Waarala and Matt Yapchaian.  Above all, the work of these artists and designers urges upon us the possibility of transformation and renewal as it addresses everyday, but nevertheless profoundly universal, social issues.  Three major themes emerge from their exhibition at the Krannert Art Museum: first is the use of critique as a way to analyze social institutions or customs; second is the practice of design as an impulse toward the social good, and third is the articulation of what it means to be human within the revolutionary paradigm now defining contemporary society—that is, the virtual world.

Employing Critique as a Humanitarian Tool

Much of the art work in the exhibition consists of barbed constructions designed to interrogate, and posit solutions for, social ills.  Its vehicle—the installation—stands as a quintessentially transgressive form.   Perhaps the installation is the most ancient of art forms, beginning with the caves of Lascaux, France, 17,000 years ago. However, its spatiality (requiring the viewer to move through an experiential space), its unsaleability (which challenges the commodity status of art objects within the gallery system) and its blurred categories (combining many art forms such as sound, architecture and the performance of the viewer in one work)—all challenge in a contemporary way the one-on-one art paradigm of observer and art object while opening the door to broader critical analysis of social issues and institutions.

Nisa Blackmon's ZBSS ExhibiStore (2007), for example, cleverly foregrounds the uneasy role of the gift shop—and the apparatus of selling—within the contemporary museum, a setting supposedly free of commercial influence.  Blackmon fashioned small, saleable objects based on artificial plant forms and set them up in a hybrid setting of displays labeled with price tags, seemingly as much at home in a department store as in a museum.  The work uncomfortably raises the question of marketplace "consumption" as a metaphor for cultural appreciation and scientific knowledge.

Gary Schott's thought stimulators (2007) are Rube Goldbergian handmade machines which can be carried from place to place as the viewer goes through his installation, cranking the contraption's mechanical arm which gently taps him or her on the head.  With Duchampian verve, Schott sets up an absurd, interactive, playful activity—looking and cranking—which extrapolates on eminently serious concerns, such as: what is the nature of the often disconcerting relationship between art and viewer, and what can be made of the disconnect between humans and their technological innovations?

Ecological issues were taken up repeatedly in this exhibition.  Brian Collier's The Highway Expedition (2007), a synthesis of video, sculpture, dioramas, maps and writings, converts a well-trodden art historical tradition—the representation of a landscape scene—into a poignant environmental analysis of a specific site, the 50-mile strip of land along Interstate Highway 74 between Bloomington, Illinois and Champaign/Urbana, which he traveled daily.  The work stands as a documentation and keen appreciation of a unique habitat, the artist has said, "under the barrage of traffic noise, squeezed between speeding traffic and large-scale agriculture.

"The work of two artists traversed the intersection of private identity and social mores with a vivid analysis of symbols and language which have peculiarly defined the role of gender for women.  Rashelle Roos' Louella (2007), an aggressive, claustrophobic "feminine" parlor filled with tuberous gold-painted furniture and drooping loops of artificial hair, slyly aligns domestic space with the accouterments of the female body.  It is an alarming, disruptive and sensuous space—all the better to dissect what constitutes "the female" implicit in cultural axioms.

Angela Waarala's devastating Purge (2007), a digital video installation, deconstructs the idea that eating is a gendered experience: "You look like a cupcake," says a voice to the woman in a white slip, who toys with a pastry on screen.  Purge navigates a wide spectrum of implications for women—that food implies life as well as starvation or death, that it has erotic associations or could be fearsomely addictive, and that it elicits primal memories of love, ever shadowed by an impulse toward self-hatred.

Envisioning an Ethical Environment

The impulse toward the social good in work that actually "does something" is a strong theme in the 2007 MFA exhibition at the Krannert Art Museum.  Artists such as Blackmon and Schott employ the metaphor of interactivity, or usefulness, to elicit a social critique in their work.  Others in the exhibition have explored the social role of design in line with William Morris's Arts and Crafts definition: that it should be engaged in investigating, for practical purposes, "How we live, and how we might live."  In contemporary terms, this speculation falls within the aegis of "design thinking," described by the designer David Burney as "a way of thinking that produces transformative innovation."  A Creativity Workshop in a Tower (2007) by Donna Murray-Tiedge, for example, exhibits this open-ended, integrative approach.

Ecological problems constitute an area where aesthetics and practicality have closely intertwined in contemporary art and design.  Like Collier's installation, many of these efforts develop processes and projects inspired by—or learning from—nature, not based on extracting resources from it.  Murray-Tiedge, for example, led one of six teams from various departments at the university who collaborated in designing a self-sustaining, 800-square-foot private home, one of twenty entries in the U.S Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon competition, planned for fall of 2007.  Her Solar Decathlon Scale Model (2007) displayed an airy, Modernist structure, to be built with renewable materials and powered by an integrated photovoltaic energy system.

Using the natural world as a model, with its ecological interconnectedness and circulating, renewable systems, Jennifer Astwood designed the public sculpture Prairie Fire (2006).  Prairie Fire's rows of rusted Core-Ten steel "flames" stand amidst the rocks and plantings of the university's new Red Oak Rain Garden, a project which captures and filters storm water in an area of campus damaged by poor water drainage.  The sculpture invokes Midwestern fires which periodically sweep through plains and prairies, depositing huge fertile swatches of black charcoal which revive new seedlings.

The design process requires keen empathy and what Tim Brown of the firm IDEO calls an anthropological approach, delving into the way people emotionally and physically navigate the world.  Trent Garner's An Assistive Journey (2007), created after Garner donned a pair of vision-obstructing glasses to understand disability, led to a series of packaging materials, email interfaces and cane designs for the impaired elderly.  Garner also produced Planting the Seeds of Self Sufficiency in India (2007) in collaboration with a team which investigated subsistence markets from the perspective of those at the bottom of the economic ladder, to help small scale entrepreneurs sell and raise mango seedlings in Asia.

Articulating the Human in Virtual Community

A defining aesthetic of life in the 21st-century can be found in its self-identification with the flow, impermanence and interconnection of digital processes and communications technology.  The current emphasis on dynamic systems—with attention on process and change rather than on the universal truths of a fundamental "reality"—has redefined core human experience.  The widely divergent work of three artists at the Krannert exhibition is most certainly germane to a contemporary quandary—how to reconcile the corporeal and communal self with a worldview that relies on cybernization to depict the material environment and human relationships.

  Mathew Yapchaian's works are digital video studies on the vagaries of communication: In Phonering (2007), a bewildered man declares that he's "lost" (for good?) after repeatedly answering his cell phone as he circles his dog through a field.  Breathdrawing (2007) follows a day by day account of people who show up at what looks like a glass bus stop, adding to each other's doodling by blowing onto the cold glass and tracing a series of designs.

Rick Valentin's striking digital video 24 Hour Walk: My Block – Equal Day and Night – March 17, 2007 (2007) is a mordant elegy—as is his other work—on evanescent memory, transience and the flow of time. Valentin shot the same scene as he walked around his neighborhood block every hour for 24 hours, the camera dancing with the movement of his body, then projected the hourly scenes onto a bright, narrow slice of light into a dark gallery.  The piece stands as an oddly constricted, deeply personal record of a singular consciousness within time.

Finally, Aaron Dugger's visceral, paint-encrusted wall works offer an alternative tangibility, a reawakening of the significance of the material world and the human body within the context of the virtual.  Dugger's Potluck After the Funeral series, an abstract riff on the psychic link between eating and mortality, evokes the same tactile sensibility and associations with the body projected by the installations of Roos and Waarala.

The 2007 Master of Fine Arts exhibition at the Krannert Art Museum is a model of interdisciplinarity.  Yet, this creative work reveals essential crossroads between seemingly divergent practices.  Artists and designers with the drive to "create something new" find their mission now intervenes in the political, social, technical and practical issues of the contemporary world.  The way to understanding this open-ended field of activity is to ask these artists and designers: what is your plan, what is your objective, and—most important--how will you get there?

Polly Ullrich

(Polly Ullrich is an art critic based in Chicago.)