MFA Thesis Exhibit at Miller Gallery dazzles

According to John Carson, the Head of the School of Art, “the unpredictability of the MFA program at CMU is one of its strengths and joys.” This was certainly true of “Self-Driving Car,” the CMU 2016 MFA Thesis Exhibition. As the culmination of three years of study and experimentation, “Self-Driving Car” simultaneously shows us a snapshot of the artists’ long, arduous process while giving us a glimpse of their future trajectory. The diversity of themes tackled by these seven MFA seniors was superseded only by the diversity in the materials used to convey their ideas. From immigrant displacement to the history of technology, from french fries to bondage props, “Self-Driving Car” explores the entire gamut of the human experience.

The most visually engaging piece in the show was an installation by Tucker Marder, a graduate art major. Occupying the largest space in the gallery, Shark Shapes, a mixed media installation using foam shark toys, Bloodstream Top Predator Chum, nylon dock line, and fish food was a treat for the eyes (but not so much for the nose) with its striking colors and quirky shapes. The piece consisted of many brightly colored and exuberantly shaped shark toys balanced on various platforms or pedestals, or in one case hung from the ceiling using a vivid red rope. There was one important detail. Each of the foam toys had been chewed by a shark, as evidenced by the teeth marks. On the wall were hung photos of the sharks mauling the toys, the frames covered in fish food.

Shark Shapes continues Tucker Marder’s exploration of "a more symbiotic relationship between humans and the planet," through an "environmental ethic that promotes optimism and engagement rather than depression and paralysis," in the words of the artist. The juxtaposition of these whimsical colors and shapes with an animal commonly used in pop culture as a symbol of mass terror brings out the inherent humor in our natural environment. Also, balancing the chewed up foam toys on buckets of shark bait, or in one case a giant globe of chum (hence the smell), brought home the delicate balance between human control over our environment and nature’s inherent responses. But ultimately, the appeal of this piece was the visual magnetism it exuded. The balance and precision with which the colors and shapes were positioned and lighted gave it a sweeping grace, a presence large enough to fill the entire space despite the relatively small size of its individual components.

Almost as striking was graduate art major Zhiwan Cheung’s sculptural and video installation The Impossibility of Home. As the name suggests, this piece, in the words of the artist, probes the idea of an "odyssey towards a home that does not exist, a rite of passage with no destination." To represent this search with no end he chose banana trees and Chinatown orange. The former is a species whose history of dispersion and domestication is so complex that its origins are shrouded in a veil of mystery, while the latter is the name of a specific hue of orange that has no recorded root in history. Chinatown orange doesn’t in fact have any root in the cultural landscape of chinatowns. Both of these combine to convey the artist’s search for a lost origin, an absent explanation.

The Impossibility of Home was a mini plantation of bright orange colored banana trees, Chinatown orange to be exact. No, there was nothing subtle in the execution of the concept. However, the orange trees and the dramatic lighting combined to form and immersive environment that was very enjoyable to experience. Also, the ridiculous, over the top aesthetic of the piece highlighted the ridiculousness of our mental associations of unrelated constructs as well as our inherent drive for answers and explanations that don’t exist. The piece sounds great, right? It was, until the videos started playing. The videos showed us clips of banana plantations and forests. Some had the fake orange banana trees in them juxtaposed with the natural surroundings. Some clips even had the artist wandering around a plantation in an orange onesie. The entire time, there was a narrator’s voice giving us the history of the banana as well as Chinatown orange in a tone obviously meant to evoke nostalgia, despite only succeeding in evoking memories of Discovery channel documentaries. This overt explanation of the “message” of the art removed all the nuance from the piece, making it seem like a parody of itself.

Right beside Zhiwan’s piece, the viewer is confronted by a barrage of color. In his Love Letters to Wendy, graduate art major Dan Allende explores the absolute depths of our food chain: junk food. Using the male belly, the essential characteristic of the ‘dad bod,’ as his muse, he made plaster casts of his own belly, transforming them into vibrant masks. He then made six giant collages of all sorts of colorful household debris, play-doh, pipe cleaners, flower petals, and orange peel. In the center, fenced off by ropes of Cheetos strung together, were placed three contraptions of various heights, each dangling a french fry suspended by string, each spinning at a different rate. The massive collages, the multitudinous masks, and the spinning french fries all combined to form a time travel device, shooting us back into those distant reaches of our childhood when indulgence wasn’t a sin punishable by contempt and our body wasn’t an item in a silent auction.

Probably the most traditional exhibit in the show are graduate art major Ada-Scarlett Hopper’s pieces Movement | Flow :: Bound | Free and Pas de Deux, dependency. Primarily a sculptor, Ada uses the medium of photography to convey the idea of the body as sculpture. In Pas de Deux, dependency, using her experience as both a ballet dancer and a dominatrix, Ada explores the idea of systems of control that can exist between two people, and the flow of control from one to the other. Designed in a symmetrical manner, this piece is a stunning series of sixteen self portraits, eight with her ballet partner, eight with her BDSM partner. The photos all convey the sense of action and motion that is normally associated with these activities. By freezing them, we free ourselves from the notion of gesture, a concept inherent to the time dimension, and are able to consider the bodies as merely three dimensional sculptural objects.

The self portraits are arranged in a line and halfway down the line we switch, almost imperceptibly, from one set of self portraits to the other. On all the photos, she has overlaid white tape to capture lines in the physical forms of their bodies, in particular lines that directly influence her freedom of movement. By doing so, Ada has materialized the invisible matrix of control that surrounds and influences her, a matrix that she is, however, also able to influence.

“I like rules,” Ada said on Thursday night at the open critique of her work, held in the gallery. That is something clearly visible in her work: sixteen self portraits on a black background, mounted on white, framed in black with white tape, all the same size, hung in a row, lit by a row of purple spotlights. We see an obsession with structure, boundaries, formal systems, control. “If we view BDSM from a wide angle lens, it’s just bodies in space,” Ada said. And this was very much the focus of the exhibit, the similarities between the seemingly disparate disciplines of ballet and BDSM, the same exchange in control, the same trust and the same juxtaposition between pleasure and pain, maybe even pleasure through pain. After all, “pointe shoes are foot bondage.”

Her self portrait triptych Movement | Flow :: Bound | Free, explores similar ideas of motion and control, this time using the “spotting technique” that helps a ballet dancer pirouette, without getting dizzy. This technique requires the dancer to keep their head and neck stabilized in space, gazing at a particular spot in the audience before spinning, and turning their head at the last second. For the piece, Ada tied a bondage collar around her neck, attaching the collar to opposing walls of the ballet studio. She then proceeded to pirouette as far as she could with her neck physically held in place, taking photos of herself in the process. In her own words, this was the “invisible bondage of dancers made visible.” Her work may be traditional in form, but it is inventive in content. Daring, yet not attention seeking. It is an unlikely but insightful fusion of a sculptor’s aesthetic with a photographer’s process.

These were just four of the seven installations at the Miller Gallery. The exhibit will continue to be on display until April 10. A particularly good night to visit the gallery will be Thursday, March 31 when, starting at 6:30 p.m., the works of Dan Allende, Tucker Marder, and Jesse Kauppila will undergo a critique open to the public. Eric Shiner, Executive Director of the Andy Warhol Museum, will be the guest critic. Other dates to mark in your calendars are March 31 and April 7 at noon when Dan Allende will be conducting a workshop on mask making and belly dancing.