Finding art on campus

Sarah Mogin Apr 16, 2007

With a gallery crawl coming up next Friday, exhibits rolling in and out of the Carnegie Museums every couple of weeks, and the Summer of Glass less than two months away, it’s easy to want to hop on a bus and head downtown in search of local art. But if you think that’s local, think again. Last week, the Carnegie Mellon campus offered student art in three of its galleries — all within walking distance of the Cut.

Findings

What do latex balloons, gold-leafed paper plates, and a remake of “Push It” by Salt-n-Pepa have in common? They’re all art, and they’re all part of Findings, the School of Art’s 2007 MFA Thesis Exhibition, which opened Friday evening. Occupying all three floors of the Regina Gouger Miller Gallery in Purnell, Findings is home to the work of six creative, experimental, and otherwise quirky artists. “It’s really a lot to do with the fact that we’re all kind of investigating,” said David W. Halsell, one of the MFA students.

“It’s really tough because we all do our own work,” added Lauren Frances Adams, another of the artists. Combining six different installations into a cohesive exhibit is a difficult task, especially without a curator’s guidance. According to Adams, Findings is atypical of most gallery shows, which would have a curator offering suggestions to the artists (where to hang their paintings, for example). Though the art in Findings is the result of several months’ worth of work, the six artists had only one week for installation. “There are some things that have been in the works for a year,” said Adams.

Jan Descartes: Utilizing the entirety of the Miller Gallery’s ground level, Descartes’s installation was a study in facades. “Everything’s fake, basically,” Descartes said. Fake stuffed animals stick halfway into fake trees, next to a fake log cabin adorned with fake wood grain. The result is something Descartes calls an “adolescent aesthetic,” an innocent, experimental style of decor. In addition to covering facades, Descartes’s installation addresses the role of the media, particularly that of television. “It’s kind of inspired by my upbringing,” she said. Growing up in the country, Descartes got her earliest ideas of social norms from watching TV. “I think it’s a really relevant issue.”

David W. Halsell: Halsell’s installation combines video and sculpture to explore the world’s most subtle sounds. Part of his installation mimics a record player, but not the kind that could play your grandmother’s 45s. A metal rod with piezoelectric film tabs attached to its end rotates against a wall, effectively playing the minute vibrations and inconsistencies in the plaster. Visitors are invited to take a listen via headset. “Generally, what all artwork is about is a relationship with the environment around us,” Halsell said. Also in Halsell’s installation is “Extra-Sensory Wave Device,” a video of two circles projected on a wall. The effect looks something like binoculars, and the projected images change in reaction to pulses of sound, traveling through both the air and floor. “This is all below our hearing range,” Halsell explained.

David Tinapple: Tinapple gives the phrase “awkward silence” a whole new meaning. Also on the second floor, Tinapple’s installation features two video projections, one of which contains footage of the 2004 presidential debates, edited to only include shots of the candidates breathing. The other projection focuses on the silences in television programs, showing a black screen whenever the original included sound. Tinapple made his own software to automatically edit TV footage for this purpose. Sometimes, he said, he watches television that way at home — observing only the silence. “The videos are playing on the silent pauses of television,” he said. Tinapple’s installation also includes an interactive portion: Visitors sit in a chair while pressing a button at the end of a metal rod. After five seconds, the rod releases a mild electric pulse, which hits the visitor just as he or she is watching the previous visitor’s reaction on a television monitor. “They’re really funny,” Tinapple joked.

Gunnhildur Johndottir: Johndottir also created a video installation, a work in three parts. “It’s questioning into memory,” she said. The installation demonstrates the blurry line between fiction and memory, how true stories can acquire a mythical presence. The videos tell stories from the artist’s experiences in Iceland, her native country: The first is a still shot of a computer drawing; the second is an animation; and the third is a video, a close-up of a stream in the Icelandic glaciers. Combined with her own narration, each video is reminiscent of a campfire tale.

Ian Ingram: Pop! Within 10 minutes of Findings’ official opening, a 3-foot-wide latex balloon lay depleted on the hardwood floor of Miller Gallery’s third level. Electronic birds’ feet writhed underneath the rubbery remains, part of Ingram’s “Birds Leap to Fly.” “I’m going to let it die,” said Ingram, who’d expected his floating creation to last at least 30 minutes. Sharing the third level of Miller Gallery, Ingram combined balloons, feathers, eggshells, infrasonic sensors, and a handful of other unexpected materials to create his installation. Visitors could step on foot-shaped pads to control the electronic legs — the ones attached to the un-popped balloon, anyway. Ingram found his inspiration in nature: Some birds, like albatrosses, have to speed up to fly, and others need to climb before spreading their wings — but there’s a third category. “Certain birds just take off,” he explained, appreciative of the metaphor.

Lauren Frances Adams: Adams’s installation, called “Pushing Sisyphus,” integrates Greek mythology, political propaganda, and Playboy. Serving a punishment from the gods, Sisyphus was fated to push a giant boulder up a hill for all eternity; the rock continually slipped downwards, preventing Sisyphus from ever reaching his goal. Adams’s installation includes an outline of a mountain on the wall, in addition to a painted border, “Labor Procession,” created in the style of black-figure pottery (another reference to Greek culture). “Pushing Sisyphus” also contains a gourd-turned-speaker, which plays a recording of a former phone-sex operator reading transcripts of Rush Limbaugh. Additionally, Adams’s exhibit includes a form called agit-porcelain, where plates meet politics. Using glass paints, Adams decorated paper plates in appropriated Target designs. Interested in creating opposition, Adams adorned the back of each plate with a golf-leafed political slogan; one of them says, “Proletarians of all countries unite.”

Monomania

Friday night around 7:30 p.m., while the opening reception for Findings was winding down, that for Monomania was just getting started. The latest exhibit to hit The Frame, Monomania is the collaborative effort of seniors Lisa Huyett, Jen Mills, and Juliet Pusateri. The three have been living together since their sophomore year, all the while feeding off of each other’s support, inspiration, and talent. “We all connect so well — just as people,” said Mills, an art major. “My favorite works of theirs are the works that I can see them in.”

Like the name might suggest, Monomania deals with obsession — what Mills called the artists’ “obsession with life.” While planning for their exhibit at The Frame, Huyett, Mills, and Pusateri realized that their work typically revolved around a few central themes. “A lot of the work that I produce now is based on certain longings that I have currently,” Mills said. “It becomes a lot more metaphorical.”

One of Mills’ most memorable pieces is a portrait of Juliet Pusateri, Monomania’s third artist. “It’s so weird to see pictures of yourself on the wall,” said Pusateri, a BHA student in art and creative writing. Pusateri had one particularly striking painting, an abstract work in deep shades of red. Quite unexpectedly, as the painting hung from the wall, its upper half succumbed to gravity, dripping down toward the floor. The result was close to serendipity; it looked like an intended artist effect, not a mistake. Also capturing hues of red and maroons were three of Huyett’s stacked clay sculptures. “Lisa works so well with this organic form,” Pusateri said.

In addition to paintings, pottery, floral prints, and glass work, Monomania contained one sculpture that utilized a rather unexpected medium: pipe cleaners. Huyett’s “S.E.M. Rose” (which stands for Scanning Electron Microscope Rose) involves tens of thousands of pipe cleaners. The piece depicts a rose petal magnified hundreds of times — capturing the bulb-shaped structures that line the petal’s velvety surface. Originally on display at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, “S.E.M. Rose” now occupies The Frame’s annex, the space of which required Huyett to alter the shape of her art; “The original installation was more of a plane,” she said, her hands cut from manipulating pipe cleaners.

A major difficulty in arranging an exhibit in The Frame is the necessary constraint on time. The three artists were unable to begin arranging their work until Thursday evening, only 24 hours before the show would open. “We really discussed each and every piece that went up on the wall,” explained Huyett, also an art major. “It’s actually really well dispersed.” Each wall in the main gallery contains at least one work of art from Huyett, Mills, and Pusateri.

Free paintings by Ali Spagnola

Turtles, bunnies, robots, and toilets — you want it, Ali Spagnola will paint it. A senior in the School of Art, Spagnola is taking requests for 12" by 12" acrylic paintings — free of charge. The philosophy? Art is priceless. Plus, Spagnola hopes to gain experience in painting by fielding as many requests as possible. “I’m a sculpture major, so we don’t usually do paintings,” she said. “I’m getting faster at it.”

Spagnola started giving away her art after taking a trip to Italy; she had to leave a collection of sculptures behind because she couldn’t take them back on the plane. Giving away artwork isn’t bad, Spagnola explained, as long as you don’t get too attached.

Spagnola is willing to recreate one of the paintings she’s already made (available at her online gallery, alispagnola.com), in addition to starting something new. “Some [requests] are more frustrating than others,” she said. Done on canvas, Spagnola’s paintings all reflect a pop art influence (bright colors, cheerfulness), and depict, for the most part, a mix between cute animals and inanimate objects.

As for public interest, Spagnola’s endeavor has proven a success. She’s been doing well with donations, which she accepts both online and in person. About half of her requests are from art fans outside of Carnegie Mellon, the farthest yet coming from Washington state. And good for them — Spagnola pays for shipping costs as well. Spagnola is preparing to take down her exhibit in the UC Gallery, but it looks like other people have done most of the work for her. With Spagnola’s permission, visitors have taken free paintings directly off the wall — someone even took the sign that said “free paintings.” Spagnola continues to take requests, but keep one thing in mind: She probably won’t get to it until after Carnival.