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Over Where?

Works From Undergrad Study-Abroad Program Not Quite There Yet

OFF THE WALL: Nicole Wilson’s “Wet Dream” stands out in this group show.

By J. Bowers | Posted 2/8/2006

Center for Art + Culture 2004-2005

At MICA’s Pinkard Gallery through Feb. 12

More an advertisement for a study-abroad program than an actual exhibit, Center for Art + Culture 2004-2005 is a survey of recent work created by 11 undergraduates during a sojourn in Aix-en-Provence, France, under the auspices of the Maryland Institute College of Art and the Institute for American Universities’ Center for Art + Culture program. From a glance through the program’s brochure, it looks like a blast—CA+C students take classes with artists-in-residence, explore European museums and cultural centers, munch baguettes, and generally soak up the sun in southern France while working on their own art. It sounds like a great opportunity, and the young artists featured in this showcase probably benefited from the experience in many profound ways, both emotionally and intellectually.

Unfortunately, inner growth doesn’t necessarily translate into compelling artwork, and what we have here is a mostly underwhelming mélange of half-formed ideas, mostly accomplished in technique, but unremarkable in execution. There’s a slapdash, last-minute aura surrounding most of the works, almost as though their creators rushed to put something together in time for the show upon their return to the States.

An undeniably French undercurrent runs through the proceedings with varying degrees of success. Leah Cooperson’s puzzling “Kitchen Kitch” installation consists of French recipe cards from the 1960s mounted in a large sheet on a wall. Like any other recipe cards from this era, American or European, Cooperson’s are garish photographs of unappetizing-looking food—and it feels patently odd to call the cards Cooperson’s, since she didn’t do much beyond fastening them to the gallery wall. Sure, it’s art, but it’s lazy.

Where Cooperson attempts to engage through obviousness, Andrew Kim offers two installations that desperately strive to convey mystery and succeed, after a fashion, by signifying almost nothing at all. “Andrew: Before and After” and the corner-mounted “Jennifer: Corner of My Eye” are very similar, layered squares of material that look as though they were assembled in under an hour. Kim might have been trying for minimalism—but even minimalist works manage to stand on their own merit, without explanation, and convey some meaning. These works fail on both counts.

Erica Lambertson Philippe proves herself to be both prolific and competent with a series of postcard-sized paintings that impressionistically depict everyday Aix scenes—hanging baskets, smear-faced villagers, and the like. Philippe’s work doesn’t break any new ground, but the homespun simplicity of each piece is admirable, along with the artist/student’s commitment to illustrating her temporary home.

Which isn’t to say that this exhibit is bereft of bright spots—there are a few names worth watching, most notably photographer and mixed-media artist Aram Assarian. The small alcove connected to the Pinkard Gallery holds “Alteration of Plants,” a tiny showcase of Assarian’s work with living plants, hemmed in and occasionally smashed by sinister-looking geometric constructions of metal and glass. These works deserve a look, and so do Assarian’s “Walls of Aix-en-Provence and France,” an attractive pair of ultra-close-up photographs exploring the texture of two aged cement walls.

Tom Smith struts his illustration chops with “A Tout Les Beaux Francais,” four colorful line drawings that depict the adventures of several young homosexual men. The standout work finds three guys standing in a row, smirking faces bathed in primary-colored halos as they reach into each others’ tight European jeans. A tiny, wrecked female figure lies collapsed at their feet, playfully labeled SUZANNA with an arrow pointing down. It’s definitely an inside joke, but it’s a charming one.

Impressive for its sheer scale, Nicole Willson’s “Wet Dream” is a whole wall’s worth of pastel drawings, held up by masking tape. Equal parts nonobjective and figural, these drawings work in abstractions—a handful of blackberries here, a twist of barbed wire there, a couple playing footsie, a dripping line of hanging laundry. These are things we’ve all seen before, and their familiarity suggests a disjointed, dreamlike narrative, but the end result feels like a series of random pages torn out of a sketchbook.

Doubtlessly, the true benefits of the time that these young artists spent in France will reveal themselves in the years to come. For now, it’s probably safe to say that the works in this showcase are not a good indication of the program’s success. Accompanying artists’ statements would have gone a long way in articulating what the students were trying to accomplish—alone, these works just don’t make themselves clear.

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