The You Inside of Me opens at Miller Gallery

MFA students present final theses, explore variety of themes and mediums in new exhibit

Angela Vertucci Mar 26, 2012

The Miller Gallery is currently featuring the work of seven Carnegie Mellon Master of Fine Arts students in the exhibition The You Inside of Me. After three years of study at the School of Art, the artists — Jonathan Armistead, Agnes Bolt, Sung Rok Choi, Jesse England, Riley Harmon, Oscar Peters, and Nina Sarnelle — are presenting their final theses in the exhibit, which opened last Friday.

The first floor of the gallery features work by Sarnelle, who “makes fantasies, miracles and lies ... [whose] performances explore the physicality of metaphysics and the malleability of belief,” as described in her artist’s statement. Sarnelle’s featured work tells the story of a social experiment in relationships that she conducted over the last year.

She mailed 400 letters to people living near her home. Each letter began, “Dear Soon to be Old Friend, I am interested in inventing the narrative of our relationship. This story may not have existed before but will most certainly exist from now on.” Sarnelle’s experiment resulted in the formation of friendships based on an improvised non-reality. “I really enjoy getting lost in something and not knowing what’s real anymore,” she explained.

Sarnelle’s art is different from what people visiting the gallery may initially expect, as her chosen medium for this particular project was not painting, drawing, or sculpture. Instead, she worked through people, building fictional relationships that have developed into real relationships that continue to flourish today. In this way, her work is among the most interesting of the exhibition.

Choi, Peters, and Bolt’s artwork is featured on the second floor of the gallery. Stepping out of the elevator, visitors are immediately struck by the enormousness of Peters’ work, which takes up the central area and includes a six-foot, 300-pound model of the moon that is situated on a circular wooden track. In the center of the track, a large green lion’s head sits atop a spar, and three red banshee heads, which appear to be silently screaming, hang from the ceiling. If the sheer size and aesthetics of Peters’ piece — which he described in his artist statement as “halfway between Sisyphus and Indiana Jones” — aren’t interesting enough, the piece is also mechanized so that the banshee heads move and the moon rolls around the track.

“I love Oscar’s piece. I like the physicality of it,” said Sarah Keeling, a sophomore art major. “It’s like a lot of his other work in that it’s really physical and you don’t know if it’s going to be dangerous or not.”

While Peters’ piece was certainly entertaining to observe, it lacked cohesion. For the art observer who tries to connect the dots between the swaying banshee heads, the lion, and the moon in order to derive meaning, the piece disappoints.

On the left side of the room is Choi’s project — a watercolor animation series titled “Operation Mole.” His animations show a capsule-shaped time machine and its driver tunneling into the earth amid images of human carnage, war, pop culture, and political events. The work is loosely based on events from Korean history, but also draws inspiration from comics, science fiction, and dark humor to create what Choi called “a kind of ridiculous, absurd landscape.” His work in this exhibit is aesthetically impressive and thought provoking.

Students who attended the opening expressed an appreciation of the balance that Choi and the others were able to strike between seriousness and fun.

“I like that everything I’ve seen so far is a little bit silly,” said Reese Adams-Romagnoli, a first-year art student. “I think that’s really the way to go. I was expecting something more serious, but I was pleasantly surprised. I can see that a lot of thought has been put into what these artists produce, and I appreciate the mental stretching that it took to create things that are both fun and valid at the same time.”

Bolt’s work occupies the right side of the second-floor space. Her piece “I’m Only Now” centers around what appears to be a stripper pole, which spectators can hold onto while a platform beneath their feet rotates around it.

Bolt explained that when spectators opt to take part, her project can be experienced in one of two ways. If the pole is perceived as a prop for a stripper, taking part will result in a “low experience.” Conversely, whirling around the pole can also be something very spiritual. “There is a suggestion of time being both present and kind of eternal,” she said. “The point [of the experience] is to use your body to see what you believe. You make it what you want it to be. You can get something more from the experience — this feeling that you’ll live forever.”

On the third floor of the gallery, England’s work includes custom-built gadgets, books, and cameras that are meant to engage viewers in the issues surrounding contemporary image consumption. “Technology has made it very easy for us to share media, but it is also very easy for us to lose that media,” England said. “I take impermanent things and make them permanent.”

England constructed a video-sharing mechanism, made from a wooden box and mounted on the gallery wall, as a parody of YouTube. The piece, complete with a view counter and pad of paper for viewer comments, is quite amusing, but it also raises a serious question about accessibility. Is ease of access more valuable than having media and information physically in our hands? England’s work feels very relevant to the issues our current generation faces.

Also on display is a camcorder that has been manipulated to function like its more primitive predecessors. Pieces of wood have been screwed to the camera’s frame to eliminate higher-tech features. Additionally, England has produced a physical back-up for his e-book copy of George Orwell’s 1984, as well as pamphlets that teach one how to mimic popular typefaces.

Armistead’s art — a large, pink, fountain-like structure made from office chairs, lotion bottles, and tissue boxes, all of which are held together by a metal frame — takes up the center space. White liquid flows from the lotion bottles into bowls that sit on the seats of the office chairs, while tissues fan out from the tops of the tissue boxes.

Armistead aims to “highlight an often dormant sexuality that exists within our everyday,” according to his artist’s statement. He said that his sculpture, titled “Reach Out and Touch No One,” reveals the importance of the office chair as a prop in people’s sexual lives.

“Every time I see an office chair in someone’s house, I think about how often they masturbate on it. I see an office chair, and I see sex,” Armistead said, pointing out that the majority of porn circulation takes place through the internet and that people in long-distance relationships can now engage in “Skype sex.”

“Also, these chairs represent the body because they are ergonomically designed to fit the body,” he continued. Armistead’s fountain of lotion and chairs is comical, disturbing, and effective. It successfully approaches a socially taboo topic without pushing viewers away, and simultaneously maintains the important element of visual appeal. “I really like the armchair piece,” said Katie O’Conner, a first-year art major. “I like that the aesthetics hide the technological parts of it — the pipes and tubes.”

To the right of Armistead’s work, Harmon presents a series of three videos. Though created separately, the videos share certain elements, including guns, performances, and the space inside of a vehicle. The videos coincide in a way that blurs the line between past and present, fantasy and reality.

Along with the three videos he created, Harmon also displays pictures of people imitating a popular scene from the movie I Am Legend that he found on the internet. The pictures all feature individuals curled up in their bathtubs with a gun and something else they value, most often a pet.
For the opening of the exhibition, Harmon also had a live musician who resembled Ryan Gosling playing guitar. This coincided with Harmon’s integration of scenes from the movie Drive, which features Gosling, into one of his three videos. The discreet way in which the pieces of Harmon’s piece come together sets it apart from the other projects.

Commenting on Harmon’s piece, Talia Levin, a first-year Bachelor of Humanities and Arts student in creative writing and drama, said, “I like it, because I feel like you can draw your own conclusions from it. It’s a lot to take in but not so much that it’s unreachable, or that I felt detached. The message isn’t shoved down your throat, but it’s also not so abstract that you can’t get it.”

Together, the seven artists have put together a memorable exhibit that explores a variety of topics — from masturbation to technology — through a variety of mediums.