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MFA Students Showcased At The Kemper


Washington University St. Louis 2017 exhibit on view through Aug. 6


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Xizi Liu, "Computer Factory" (2017). | photo courtesy of the artist (click for larger version)

July 12, 2017
 
As West End Word critic Dickson Beall wrote last year, you could understand the 2016 Sam Fox MFA (master of fine arts) exhibition at Washington University under a rubric of diversity. There was, somehow, a unity despite the varied work on display.

 
The 2017 MFA exhibition at the Mildred Lane Kemper Museum is also varied, but it is not so much diverse as chaotic. This is not to say there isn't very good work. There is. But it is to underline how, to borrow from the poet Yeats, the center cannot hold.

"Phantasmagoria" & "The Radiant Twins"

 
The Rosenblith brothers' art is intricate, with a chaos evoking the tumult of life. At points it almost channels the cartoonist R. Crumb.

 
Edo Rosenblith's "The Tower Polyptych" is a gallery adaptation of his book, "The Tower," which tells a fantastical (not exactly linear) story, based in some ways on Middle Eastern history. He references Byzantium, which fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1433. One panel shows what appear to be Muslim women (and sharks) encircling the famous walled city of Constantinople (Istanbul).

 
Le'Ad Rosenblith – Edo's purported brother, who may or may not be fictional – displays a series of similar paintings (albeit in color) in "The Phantasmagoria Series."

 
While both make interesting work, both also include racialized images of Arab or Muslim women – evocative of the racist images made popular by outfits like "Charlie Hebdo."

 
What either think of these images is unclear.

"Perceptions of the Eyed Persephone"

 
There is an unfortunate schism in contemporary art. When one goes to the "political" art gallery, social experiences are often mapped. You get a cartography of injustice. When you go to a respected "for-profit" gallery, there is individual expression in abundance – but often abstracted from social concerns.

 
The writer Bertolt Brecht complained that even writers who were critical of how the status quo "impoverishes human beings" treated people's inner lives as "quantité negligeable."

 
Anna Maria Tucker's "Perceptions of the Eyed Persephone" provides, in contrast, an expressionist cartography. The artist holds up a series of positive and negative descriptions on flash cards; words people have used to describe her. This "autobiography" maps the inner life of a working-class single mother.

 
In Greek mythology, Persephone, the personification of the harvest, is abducted and taken to the underworld. Tucker's working-class Persephone maps another descent – a descent weighted by social class and gender.

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Waller Austin, "Prosaic (dis)appearance" (2017). | photograph courtesy of the artist. (click for larger version)

"Prosaic (dis)appearance"

 
Waller Austin's "Prosaic (dis)appearance" dominates the gallery. The installation's centerpiece, "(dis)appearance," – casts of the artist's body – is designed to tantalize us with theatricality. The artist starved himself – losing 73 pounds over 90 days – to create the casts; one at the beginning and one at the end of the process. Each was made entirely of melted crayon.

 
Behind the casts is a wall piece, "Prosaic," made of 152 one-foot square "monochromatic Crayola crayon paintings" on linen "inscribed with Crayola's corresponding lexical designations."

 
Art world ambition is contrasted with the pedestrian materials with which it is made.

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Jon Cornell, "Funerary Urns" (detail) (2017). | photo by Adam Turl (click for larger version)

"Funerary Urns"

 
Jon Cornell's "Funerary Urns" – a toilet and a urinal – exist in relationship to art history's most important urinal, the "Fountain" Marcel Duchamp submitted to the 1917 Armory Show.

 
Duchamp's gesture caused consternation. But it raised important questions about what was, and was not, considered art. It was also funny.

 
Cornell's fountains, a century later, could seem inappropriately direct in an art context that, too often, confuses ambiguity with nuance. One is made to look like Donald Trump. The other is a weirdly patriotic urinal. Their "stalls" are covered in graffiti, stickers, drawings and prints.

 
Cornell asks, "should art exist as merely a spectacle of wealth?" Or an opportunity for "socialites to compare intellects?"

 
He most succeeds when his punk crudity fuses with the beautiful; his almost baroque collages of discreet elements. This fusion allows for taking down the "high" while giving value to the "low."

Painting, Struggle and Work

 
There is always someone in the art world trying to convince you that painting is passé. Some art schools – Sam Fox is not among them – expend copious energies convincing student painters to not be painters.

 
One of the secrets of the art world, however, is that paintings are still the most sold, most viewed and most coveted medium of fine art.

 
Some of the finest work in this year's exhibition comes from painters. Maggie J. Tarr's "My skin crawls … " is a heroic hybrid of expressive painting and narrative.

 
If Waller Austin's installation explores the contradiction between art-world ambition and the prosaic, Xizi Liu's paintings "Computer Factory" and "Boeing Factory" explore the most prosaic, and ubiquitous, aspect of life – work.

 
Liu depicts the interplay of 21st century production in a manner recalling the art of Sarah Sze or Julie Mehretu; two artists who became synonymous with the dynamism of globalization and computer networks. Liu fuses those chaotic networks with the reality of material life: that most of us must work (often in jobs we do not like).

 
It was an art historical trope that Jackson Pollock abstracted the 1930s muralists – turning wheat fields and laborers into drips of paint. Maybe Liu is Pollock in reverse.

 
The 2017 Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Art MFA Thesis Exhibition will be on display at the Mildred Lane Kemper Museum of Art, 1 Brookings Drive at Washington University, through Aug. 6. Due to construction, the parking lots near the museum are not accessible. Street parking is available on Skinker and in Forest Park, about a two-block walk. Visit www.kemperartmuseum.wustl.edu for more details.

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