Ground Control

This is “A Guide.

to find out who you

really are

deep

deep

deep

down inside.”

Typewritten letters catch your eye, crudely photocopied across the front of a booklet. Its many pages are multicolored. Inside, you will find that this is a “document of documentation” – forms, photographs, precise words peppered across every page.

It is not hanging on the wall. It is resting in your hands. You have noticed it at the entrance of the University Art Gallery, and, your curiosity piqued, you have picked it up and started thumbing through its many Xeroxed pages. Alexis Disselkoen’s carefully assembled packet of papers may have been ignored by those who gravitated toward the bigger pieces dominating the room, but for those who stop to pay attention, her “guide” to human identity serves as an excellent introduction to “Ground Control.”

On Thursday, “Ground Control,” the second MFA Studio Art exhibit this year, allowed a handful of grad students to spread their creative talents across UCI’s art department, taking over both the University Art Gallery and the Room Gallery. Their results were largely impressive; many of the students have both a clear point of view and the talent to express it.

The star of the show was undoubtedly the aforesaid Disselkoen, whose projects sprawled across the UAG – especially on opening night. She performed a live piece, the details of which remain enticingly vague (I missed it by a hair). The remains of her performance art – plastic suits, which she encouraged viewers to put on after her piece – are still in the middle of the floor, and will remain there until March 5, when the exhibit will be taken down.

Then, of course, there’s her engrossing “Guide” at the door. Its musings ring true, if a little trite (ala Miranda July): “what does it all mean?” she wonders near the end. “nothing. I get in a bad mood when I am hungry just like everybody else.”

As a whole, Disselkoen’s project is a powerful little package, delving into our incessant categorization of each other and the constant assessment we must make of ourselves. Psychology tests, DNA helixes, census forms; there are so many checkboxes, so many convenient labels that we may apply to ourselves, or must apply, no matter how uncomfortable the labels are. Humans need to be sorted, and when the means of categorization get messy (what is it to be a Chicano, as opposed to a Latino, Hispanic, insert-any-other-ethnic-tag-here? What makes a person a “homosexual”?), the mental toll can be immense. Disselkoen’s booklet, although small, nicely captures that overwhelming existential crisis.

Maura Brewer’s “New Show at the Hayden Planetarium” video also presents questions of personal identity, but she widens her scope considerably, turning to star-gazing in lieu of navel-gazing. In approximately seven minutes, Brewer uses a phone conversation to connect you from a small dot in a city skyline – “me” – to your father – Tom Hanks. From there, the lines stretch out ever further into space.

The voice of Tom Hanks guides us through the cosmos, or more accurately, the cosmos viewed from within a planetarium. The distinction is a crucial one. When we gaze upon the endless array of galaxies, it dawns on us that, contrary to our constant monologues of self-importance, “we are not the center of the universe” but “part of something larger than ourselves.” Brewer’s simple video does an excellent job of expanding this idea through voice, text and diagrams, until the viewer becomes overcome with a feeling of cosmic insignificance. However, as our tiny dots are traced to the other infinite dots in the universe, everything comes back to the viewfinder of the planetarium. Text appears next to the diagram: “although you are not the center of the universe,” it says, “in the planetarium, you are.”

Other pieces echoed these feelings of lost identity and bittersweet futility. Noritaka Minami lit up panels of negatives, photographs of human tragedies like “Japanese Prefer Death to Dishonor on Saipan Island,” adding only a cold text overlay of their dates and filenames.

Samira Yamin cut geometric patterns into news magazines, the intricate designs obscuring the images of fear and terror printed on their pages. In doing so, Yamin presented a beautiful paradox – these neat cuts infused these neatly laid-out pages with chaos; Yamin thus reinstates the chaos of the original images which were sanitized by the magazines.

Yamin’s other piece, a giant photocopy transfer taking up the entire center wall of the UAG, was similarly overwhelming. This untitled piece is also a geometric pattern, but one made of people expanding into limitless rings of indeterminate bodies. More cosmic insignificance, more yearning for common human threads.

With such a wide variety of artists, “Ground Control” is bound to be hit-or-miss. Some pieces are pretty good aesthetically, but their concepts are muddled – or they lack a clean delivery thereof. For instance, C. Ree’s “Matter of administrative grace,” comprised of giant mirror letters hanging from the ceiling (“THIS PLACE IS OUT OF STATE”) imposes a vague sense of political/existential dread, but if I would be hard-pressed if I was asked to place it definitively. Ree’s piece across from it, “Dark Water v5 (2010)” consists of a broken ceiling grid dripping water; with its close placement and irregular rhythm, it accosts us with the beauty of mundane disasters. Yet again, we must wonder if there is a deeper thesis behind those sporadic drops.

Unfortunately, some of the pieces fail to register altogether; even more unfortunately, most of these are huddled together in the smaller Room Gallery. Amir Nikravan’s watercolor-washed canvases, cleverly titled “There,” “Here,” “This” and “That,” leave only the impression of cleverness. The same could be said for Marcus Perez, whose only input is a daub of green paint smeared across brown linen.

This section of “Ground Control” is mostly taken over by Sophie Lee and a long table with the work of Josh Cho. Cho’s expired Polaroid prints are neat, but look more like a practice photoshoot than a polished exhibit. Sophie Lee’s pieces also feel unfinished; she has set up several mixed media collages, consisting of little strips of textiles and prints that have been magpie-picked and thrown together in a pleasing but unassuming way. Even when Lee blows up her collages, taking up an entire corner of the Room Gallery with a sculptural nest, her concept leaves much to be desired.

Much more ink could be spilled over the work of Adrian de la Pena, whose staggering mixed media work, “The Describer” . . . can’t really be described. Or, I could try, but my description takes up a page of scrawled shorthand, so it would be far too much in print. A sample: “elaborate construction of bungee cords / echoed image / man appears to balance upside down on a thin beam / hidden face / reminds me of ships (black sail, masts, intricate network of cords).” Where Lee’s media mixed mere materials, Pena threw in the immaterial and the indescribable, taking the medium of “mixed media” to a whole new level.

Pena’s piece has to be seen to be described, let alone comprehended. In fact, that would be a good prescription for any of these pieces. “Ground Control” may not be entirely grounded, but its signal is out, waiting to be heard so that it may be seen.