By Cole Bubenik
Friday March 6th, the Visual Arts Center at The University of Texas at Austin was transformed into a bustling powerhouse for a diverse range of fledgling artists, as UT put on its annual Senior Showcase “UP & UP.” The event featured 39 graduating, or recently graduated, students from the Art and Art History departments at UT Austin.
Full disclosure before I dig deeper into the show: I’ve got a bit of a bias for the Studio Art department at UT Austin. In fact many of my friends, including my brother, were in the show that night, and going out to see it was, for me, equal parts support, social, and pure fun. However, that’s not to say that the work wasn’t good. My personal attachments aside, what the 2015 “UP & UP” exhibit showed was that there’s some serious talent graduating from the Studio Art Department this year.
Housed in the Visual Arts Center in the Fine Arts Building on campus, the “UP & UP” exhibit can, at first glance, seem innocuous and somewhat bland. With a hodgepodge of artists each demonstrating their unique voices, the show can seem disjointed at times, as non-collective, and perhaps even clashing. This is expected given the nature of things: collecting 39 artists in a room together is never an easy task, let alone getting them to all concentrate on one specific theme. However, The “UP & UP” show is all about the disjointed and the clashing. At the heart of the exhibit is the raw talent radiating from each artist; the differing wings, disjointed pieces, and perhaps amorphous flow to the whole show resonates with the viewer, reminding them of their academic and creative days while simultaneously submerging them in the diverse and multifaceted environment of UT’s Art departments.
The pieces were equally as diverse: photographs, paintings, instillations, video art, lithographs, relief prints, and even a performance were all present at the opening. Shiner beer was served in lieu of wine, a ploy at connecting with the more down-to-earth, less high-art personalities of student artists (or just a way of saving money), and a live band performed outside in the courtyard. The night started off slow as people trickled in at six, but by seven the gallery was packed and roaring with noise from artists, friends, and casual spectators alike.
There were the staple, more experimental pieces. Artist Tza (Fiona) Kam’s work: a series of small paintings of varying sizes and shapes, which jump between flat, faded, and textured colors, cascaded itself up a wall in an alluring and oddly provocative way. It starts off simple: a few calming blues, a touch of red or pink, but as the piece climbs the walls the colors explode. The gentle pinks were set against harsh, but calming blacks and blues, the textured bits inviting you in, teasing you in an intimate dance and then, harshly stepping away into globs of paint which were too intricately placed to be repulsive. The whole piece loomed over you and, lit from below, gave off an eerie but enjoyable presence.
In Whitney Hill’s work, featured before on the blog, a series of printed leafs or stars hang in a quilt like pattern from the ceiling. Nestled in the corner of the room the piece flows down towards you, swaying in the slight breeze, but staying together as a solid and concise unit. From behind and below, the viewer is smothered by a patchwork of black printed designs. The piece seems frail and delicate, teetering between craft and art, and forcing its viewer to take it in. Perhaps touching on domesticity and the arts, the piece seems concerned with its own construction, a common theme throughout all the pieces of the night. It raises ambiguous questions on domesticity and craft culture within the arts, while simultaneously serving as a staple piece of the show: an instillation, a piece of art daring to be high despite its craft legacy.
Upstairs, on the forth floor patio, connecting the undergraduate studios to the graduate studios, artist Amaya Alejandra and Brantley Robertson put on a performance entitled “Safety First.” In a squishy, Technicolor, and glittered invested gathering, people stood around the deck, sipping Shiner as the pair popped black balloons of paint and water wearing clinging white shirts and sliding on bubble wrap, backlit by a purple light—technological and hypnotic. To be fair to the piece, I didn’t catch the whole show, running into it about ten minutes or so after it started, but what I saw was interesting. The pair rolled around in their own creation, destroying it with their hands and bodies, creating popping and squishing sounds, and staining themselves with the discarded remains of their once pristine work. It reminded me of creation, both biological and artistic, and the messy deconstructive process that follows. As time progresses, the piece becomes withered and changed: the artists ripping the piece apart as onlookers stare casually into the process of decay. That’s not to say this is all negative either. While elements of negativity, decay, disillusionment, angst, and anger all seemed to come alive in “Safety First,” equally as entertaining was the process of new creation: the idea that through disaster something new and oddly beautiful can be formed was refreshing.
Of course there were the more grounded (both figuratively and literally) pieces, which while not abstract in their construction, still burst out into abstraction, tackling questions of intimacy, politics, technology, and the nature of art itself.
A series of photos by artist Alina Alviar Sisserson positioned naked models against a stark black background, each one in alluring, stretched out poses, their nudity concealed only by a thin translucent sheet of white. Sisserson’s work seemed to capitalize on the idea of the erotic as art, combining sexuality with both performance and art, stripping the models of their heavy backgrounds and allowing the viewer to enter into an almost magical world in which bodies float effortlessly. The piece, to me at least, seems to grabble with isolationism and desperation: the white sheets concealing nudity, cling to the naked bodies, constricting the models from their true form, keeping their movement stone-like, sub-human, rigid like rigor mortis.
Artist Shannon Mercado’s work, a delicately rendered lithograph of two leopards fused and formed into one, hung on the wall. The delicate shading and intricate form seemed sensual and playful, reminding the viewer of an optical illusion: an impossible shape made possible through the power of art. A seeming grappling with sexuality and conformity, the two creatures exist as one, despite their supposed struggle to exist as separate beings. They don’t however seem phased by this. Each creature looks out into the distance, preoccupied not by their own disfigured design, but instead by something else, more tangible, more abstract—each one seems distinct, individual.
Artist Cody Bubenik’s work, titled “Print Machine,” a lithograph with pieces of industrial tape and elements of painting hung near an exit door. Bubenik’s piece, while small in stature, packs a wallop on its viewer. A 3D printer, drawn, constructed, and then painstakingly printed using the lithographic process, toyed with the notion of technological progress, subverting our expectations in a snide, almost playful way. Bubenik’s piece seemed to sneer at the notion of work about work: a literal work about a piece of machinery that produces work, Bubenik questions the notion of artistic progress while also weaving lingering traces of capitalist critique into his work. Through the introduction of non-lithographic mediums into a lithographic space, Bubenik tosses away the conventional notions of labeling, creating a piece which is, in all manners of speaking, a hybrid.
In one of my favorite pieces of the night, artist Rachel Miller’s (full disclosure, also a good friend of mine) work hung stoically in the entry space as one of the first pieces viewers entering from the main doors were graced with. A pair of paintings hanging side by side, Miller’s piece is a deeply intimate display of color, style, and form. The pieces jump from dark golds to solid whites: a faint and ghostly cloud starts near the bottom left of the first painting and lingers its way up, through the break in space, and into the second painting where it meets at the middle and flows towards the top, resting finally in a nexus of dark browns and golds.
Miller’s piece reminds me of a faded memory or a lingering emotion. A burst of golden colors rests at the center, and then, replicating time itself, this memory or emotion fades into an obscure and pale white. At its start the memory is solid: the left painting patient and resigned despite its ghostly presence on the canvas. However, as it trickles towards the edge of the painting the shape becomes more vague, the landscape more disillusioned. As it leaps to the second painting, the piece’s form shifts: dark lines of gold, black, and brown bisect the pieces into two equal areas of ominous off-white which, while gentle, seem void-like–enveloped in a calming sorrow.
If anything this piece is an emotional landscape: an intimate invitation by the artist to take an active role in the process of viewing art. The viewer, confronted with the rich colors, watches as their beauty fades into a disheartening paleness. But this isn’t to say the faded colors are less beautiful, rather they’re enriched by the viewer’s previous memory of the bright gold and solid black. Placed side by side they strike an intimate cord with me, as if the viewer and the artists are communicating one-on-one: placed in a crowded atmosphere but still somehow having a uniquely personal conversation. What’s present on the canvas is pure catharsis. And it’s entirely possible that I’m affixing my own narrative and problems to the canvas, hyperbolizing them and missing the point entirely. But still, there’s something special about Miller’s work and I found myself coming back to it throughout the night, marveling at the paint and wondering what it all really meant.
Other pieces were scattered throughout the show, including a curving, snake like sculpture seemingly suspended in air by artist Cameron Coffman, a gorgeous wood-cut print by Brittany Bernstorm, a seemingly celestial and meticulous drawing by Eunji Jeong, startling photos and photo series by artists, Amber Scanio, Mehregan Pezeshki (who also had an interesting video on display), Hector Miranda, and Vanessa Ayala, as well as a a few others not mentioned here.
Overall the show was nice, a true testament to the hard work and dedication present within the Art and Art History departments at UT. A preoccupation with the construction and process of art did seem to emerge as a dominate theme within all of the pieces, and left me wondering if this was a true showcase of the student’s interests as fledgling artists, or a constructed narrative by the higher-ups in charge of selecting each piece. While most pieces were wonderful, showcasing solid dedication, pure catharsis, and excellent attention to craft and detail, overall something seemed missing. The works seemed to stay safe, with a few blurring the boundaries of modern and traditional art. Politics seemed entirely absent from the show, an odd choice considering the rich political atmosphere of UT and its student body population. Abstracted pieces and hybrid performances were regulated to areas outside, or near the peripheries of the gallery space, with the main gallery focusing on pristine, well lit, and confined art.
This opinion is, of course, a wholly personal and subjective one, and much more of an institutional critique than a critique on the individual artists within. The show still was an excellent showcase of the diverse talent of the student body, and one that everyone should check out right away. While I wasn’t able to fairly respond to each piece, they’re all worth looking at, as I’m sure there were a couple I didn’t get to fully absorb. Also check out the instagram page, @ut_aah for pictures of the artists with their works, and check out the show running daily from March 6 to April 4th in the VAC on campus.