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Old School

Faculty Artists Lead By Example In Group Show

SOUND AND VISION: an installation view of Jann Rosen-Queralt's "Trumpet Bells" series
Susie Brandt: "Hooper Field," hand-hooked wool rug in situ, 39" x 28"
Christine Neill: "Toxic Beauty: Oleander," 2004, watercolor, 34.5" x 47"
Susie Brandt: Stumps and Drains Series, 2004-2005, hand-hooked rugs, mixed media
"Person Listening to Dadoo," 2004, wood, wrought iron, digital sound composition, 6.125" x 12"

By J. Bowers | Posted 9/7/2005

MICA’s brand-spanking-new Decker Gallery—a roomy, promising space tucked behind the Fox Building’s café—is yet another example of the school’s knack for integrating impromptu art encounters and everyday student life. And the faculty work featured in this fall’s Sabbatical Exhibition drives the concept home, with installations, found photographs, sculpture, and mixed-media pieces so readily accessible that many of the works feel strangely out of place in a gallery environment.

To wit: Fiber faculty member Susie Brandt’s most recent pet project, “Stumps and Drains,” is a whimsical collection of oddly shaped, garishly colored hand-hooked wool rugs fashioned out of shredded thrift-store sweaters and blankets and scattered across the gallery floor. A stand of picture postcards—slip 25 cents into the cute wooden “Love Box” and have one of your very own—explains the rugs’ true purpose: Placed “in situ” atop manhole covers, tree stumps, and sidewalk squares, the bright swatches of color transform their surroundings, morphing hard wood and metal objects into soft, inviting ones. Taken out of context, as they are here, Brandt’s work loses some of its verve—but the savvy inclusion of the postcards allows you to understand the concept and laugh at how the Brandt recasts her works as souvenir-worthy landmarks.

Jann Rosen-Queralt, from the general sculptural studies department, presents a similarly brilliant, yet out-of-place piece with her “Trumpet Bells,” ten multicolored funnel-shaped sculptures topped with elegant fleur-de-lis finials. By gently lifting each wooden bell, and holding it up to the ear like a shell, viewers become listeners, experiencing everything from children laughing to strange mechanical noises. The black bell, with its strange tittering Ewok-like conversation, and the dark blue one, which contains a recording of crickets, birds, and other readily recognizable natural sounds, are particularly affecting. It’s always interesting when senses other than sight are engaged, and a treat to hear pieces like these alongside the more staid wall-mounted work.

That said, foundation faculty member Dennis Farber’s smooth, creamy slabs of acrylic on canvas are anything but staid. Ridged yet flat, glossy but textured, his skinlike layers of material build on one another, creating delightfully contradictory objects that simultaneously evoke strength and fragility. “Benglis’ Vein” finds Farber dribbling thin sheets of pink and mint green onto his canvas to create a smooth gray finish, like the inside of an oyster’s shell. “Greenpiece” replaces the flat surface with a honeycombed one, further exploring the texture of his mediums, as Farber layers red under countless layers of acid green. The edges of each piece are left rough and unfinished, providing insight into the artist’s process and an interesting visual counterpoint to the works’ slick surfaces.

Tom Baird’s “Anonymous,” a collection of black-and-white photographs developed from some random negatives that the artist acquired during the 1960s, feels uneasy here, aching for a family photo album or the cover of a John Steinbeck novel. Provenance completely unknown, the photographs are an artifact from Depression-era America, capturing sturdy-looking families gathered in front of not so sturdy-looking clapboard houses, men plowing cabbage fields, and wan pregnant women. The images, taken long ago by an unknown number of unknown photographers, are intrinsically problematic as Baird displays the shots without commentary or caption. The decision casts the artist as more curator than creator and leaves you wondering whether or not he can truly take credit for the work.

Michelle LaPerriere’s delicate mixed-media work feels strange in the context of a group show—quiet and intensely personal, her pieces combine found objects in stunningly delicate ways, almost the visual equivalent of a Zen koan or haiku. “Prayer” re-purposes two white lace pillowcases as ad-hoc prayer flags. One, hung right-side-up, features LaPerriere’s Audubon-perfect graphite bird sketches, distorted and disturbed by a jagged cargo of Wyoming rocks. Its companion, hung with the opening facing the floor, revisits the rocks—sketched in graphite on the cotton surface, and stacked in a tangible pile on the floor below the piece. The work’s inherent symmetry is immediately appealing, and its vaguely sacred undertones are intriguingly enigmatic.

By contrast, Mary Fredlund’s multimedia installation, “Memories and Moments,” leaves far too little to the imagination, relying on overt sentimentality and rummage sales for its raw materials. Combining a digital projection of family photographs with a grizzled yellow armchair, an unremarkable pile of men’s clothing, an outdated-looking touch-tone phone, a lamp, and a coffee-table book about Oskar Schlemmer, the piece feels lazy—as hastily assembled as a high-school theater set and as inviting as a musty corner of someone else’s basement.

Despite a few glaring missteps, the faculty works showcased in this exhibition are evidence of time off well-spent—and a fitting way to welcome wide-eyed first-years to MICA’s campus. By the looks of things, their professors do a damn fine job of teaching by example.

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