Contemporary art tends to make headlines in one of two ways: either via “shock” art, or shockingly expensive art. “Shock” art was widely propagated by Charles Saatchi’s “Sensation” exhibition in the late ’90s (epitomized by Damien Hirst’s great white shark submerged in formaldehyde and Marcus Harvey’s portrait of the child-targeting murderer Myra Hindley), and was recently exemplified by a Yale art student, who claimed to have repeatedly impregnated herself and administered ‘herbal’ abortions. Outrageously expensive art reached new crescendos of conceit this past week, when Lucian Freud’s “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping,” broke records for the most ever paid for a painting by a living artist, selling for more than $34 million.
Oftentimes, these two attributes of contemporary art – the culture shock and the price shock – are intertwined. These two points tend to be the only ways that the general public comes into contact with the art world, and so have a propensity to define the way the public views art in general.
There is, however, another tradition of work that eschews both ostentatious shock value and the detached, minimal distance that characterized the first segment of this year’s master of fine arts graduate thesis show. There are certain parts of the current thesis iteration, “Oranges and Paper” that make their case not with outrageousness, but with work that is both visually arresting and layered in meaning and thought. There are precious few such pieces in this exhibition (in any exhibition, really). Works mottled with pedantic and obscure referentiality can, however, be found aplenty, per the usual.
Sandy de Lissovoy has filled the Room Gallery with an installation consisting of mostly raw, intersecting wooden boards and sawhorse-like structures, with two videos. His attempt at subverting the rectilinear control exercised by the space of the gallery is admirable, but the condition of the structure itself is distracting and disorienting: there are swatches of wallpaper slapped haphazardly against wooden slats, and uneven white paint is splotched onto the wooden structure at seemingly random spots. However intentional these decisions are – as evidenced by de Lissovoy’s referencing of Rem Koolhaas’s Junkspace work investigating the meltdown of society and the accumulation of human detritus – what comes across is simply messy. Though certain aspects of his process of discovery function well (especially in his use of sound–the piercing tones emitted by one of the videos in the installation entice the viewer to delve deeper into the structure) the overall effect of the installation is chaotic, and not in an engaging way.
David Kelly’s video installation, “Gold Standard,” has fleeting moments of heartbreaking, agonizing beauty, especially in his tableaux vivant “re-presentations” (his word—he is careful to use a dash here, as he should, separating our accepted idea of “representation” from the original meaning of “re-presentation” as “to present again”) of photographs of violent student protests. The immediacy and living, breathing flesh (in High Def) that the viewer is forced to confront upon the presentation of these constructed scenes is powerful, and the quivering actuality these tableaus exhibit wrings new life from the commonly found stasis of photography. Other parts of this work, however, are thick and difficult to navigate, and much of the work stands on legs made only of referential pretension. This includes his recontextualion of a (restaged) 1964 Rauschenberg performance in Tokyo as a line in a dialogue on political Orientalism.
Two photographers, Joey Lehman Morris and Gabie Strong, share the prominent front portion of the main gallery, and rightfully so: theirs is the most striking work in the show. Both employ depth in detail and texture. Morris’s piece, “Black Mountain Detachment: Two Nights, From Waxing to Fully Stated” is especially eye-catching: it stands on the floor, leans against the wall and straddles the gulf between photography and sculpture. The ruthless contrast of the piece is defined by the intensely textured grittiness of a desolate, sandy landscape, and at the same time carefully sidesteps the assumed function of the photograph as window (through its sculptural aspects). Morris’s reach to question the bloodlines of photographs (as both image and object) ring especially true with the aforementioned piece and a diptych also in the show, “Exuviation Consort.”
Strong’s series, “Datum,” in which the structures and systems of the war machine in Southern California are questioned, is close to home both literally and figuratively. She has photographed books on war in the UC Irvine Langson Library (including titles such as “What Every Veteran Should Know” bound in multiple bright-red volumes) in an attempt to draw a map of the hegemonic entrenchment that the military-industrial complex enjoys in Southern California. Her study of the naturalization this system has enjoyed in the hearts and minds of Americans is successful, especially in her utilization of these quaintly stacked, colorful volumes. Her rich palette in these images cleverly quells the harsh themes of her subject matter, while reflecting our own environment, all without resorting to shock.
“Oranges and Paper” is in the Room Gallery and University Art Gallery until May 30, open from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.