This is the second report from a continued series regarding the University of Virginia studio art student exhibits at the Off-Grounds Gallery during the months of April and May.
Last Friday, I dropped by the Off-Grounds Gallery to catch the Distinguished Major Thesis Exhibition titled Trying, Despite. It featured the work of James Dean Erickson, Jesse Wells, Patrick Costello and Andrew Mausert-Mooney. Although the gallery was closed at the time, I was lucky enough to have been there when the students were critiquing. I give a special thanks to Howard Singerman, associate professor in UVa's Art Department (20th century art and theory), for letting me in despite the gallery being closed.
James Dean Erickson
Entering the gallery, I was greeted by a collection of 6 to 9 foot tall portraits. Frontal staring faces. Confrontational in a Chuck Close manner (note: I’m a crazy Chuck Close fan). The emotions were neutral but Erickson's technique is expressive. Each piece was done on sheet(s) of cardboard. Acrylics, spray paints, crayon and charcoals are used to scratch out the images with dynamic and loose gestures. A couple of the faces are void of color which simply shows off Erickson's superlative drawing skills. The more powerful portraits were those filled with color.
Although no text was associated with the images, I found out the individuals used for the portraits are Charlottesville locals who are often found on the downtown streets. Although we have seen them before, we tend to looked right through them. Look past them. Avert our eyes when they approach. These are the people society overlooks and, sometimes, steps over. Now, in Erickson's portraits, there is no avoiding them. They stare directly at us - we stare back. We notice every wrinkle and crease etched in their hard-scrabble faces. They are real. They are important. This is when artwork hanging in a gallery has social implications.
Even the use of a common cardboard is elemental in Erickson's art. What is generally considered utilitarian, Erickson alters its throwaway quality and elevates it to precious art. Kind of like he did with his subjects. Well done James, well done.
It took me a minute, but I ended up really liking Jesse Wells' paintings. Initially, I found them to be nice as they struck a few chords that are dear to my heart: the flattening of spaces, the use of negative space, and making unseen elements come to life. Specifically, I found Staring Contest to be the most powerful painting of the group. Good technical skills coupled with the inclusion of all that falls outside of the frame. What are these two starring at? Where are they? Reminded me of Michelangelo's David (bare with me… it's not as big of a stretch as you may think). David is not just a marble statue of a young man. What you don't see - Goliath lurking in his presence - creates the real drama.
What ultimately pulled Wells' work together was the inclusion of four prints hung opposite the paintings. It suddenly worked for me - or my cup of coffee finally kicked in. I liked the quality of the printing technique/skill as well as the subject matter. Adults playing kids' games is an intriguing subject. Wells depicts old games such as Three Legged Race, Marco Polo, Double Dutch and I Spy. Turning back to the paintings, I saw games being played there too: a string and cup phone, staring contest, and thumb wrestling. These games develop relationships skills. They are games taught to us as children, but they have very adult implications.
Patrick Costello owes a lot to Jesse Wells. I trust they are good friends. I say this because without Wells' paintings and prints, Costello's monumental piece in the show falls flat. What we have is a gigantic sofa cushion fort built in the corner of the gallery. The kind we all built in the living room of our childhood homes. You remember. We pulled all the square paneled cushions off the couch and chairs and built a little-person sized house of cards. Costello does the same, but uses the cushions of about 50 couches. And instead of using an old afghan blanket as the roof, he stitched together yards of varying fabric remnants and strung it circus-tent style.
Alone, Costello's installation was forgettable, but paired with Wells' paintings of childhood games, the fort became a stronger entity and integral to show. Something was comforting about being able to step into the fort and backwards about 35 years for me. Made me smile.
Costello also hung a small series of prints. Nice etchings coupled with a continuation of his textile work. Again, I am a huge fan of etchings and the print making process. Costello also tugs on my desire for simplified renderings. But these prints did not move me – for no other reason than I just didn’t have a personal connection with them. Maybe more refined sewing would have generated a higher level of importance in these few pieces. As Tim Gunn might say, "Make it work, Patrick."
While I was in the gallery, Andrew Mausert-Mooney had a viewing of his film titled "Flok". I missed the viewing, but did eavesdrop on a portion of the subsequent discussion and critique. Not being a film guy, I left it all alone. But, I'm particularly happy to see that film (16mm) was included in the show and is fostered by the UVa Art Department. Keep it up guys.
Without a doubt, this exhibit was the best I have seen at Off-Grounds Gallery. Top flight work; thoughtful presentation; and thoroughly enjoyable. Too bad for us it was only up for 5 days.