In college, art critique can sometimes feel like a group therapy session. When talking about their work, most art students tend to “talk about their feelings,” using their artistic intent as a way to defend, instead of inform, the work in question. The stereotype looks like a kid with splattered overalls and an edgy haircut, using an old girlfriend to justify that shade of grey.
Criticism is softened to match. Often student work is considered too immature to warrant a critical dialogue; critical comments are repackaged as suggestions, since no one wants their feelings hurt. I have to wonder how much this “I think x of my art because I feel y” dialogue does to invite the sort of assessment common outside of art school.
As students, are we still too steeped in our formative stages to be taken seriously? Will we really be any better once we graduate and end up in some low rent Brooklyn loft, isolated and left to fend for ourselves? Or, as I like to suspect, is the stimuli provided by this community, these resources, and these professors pushing us to produce exceptional work? I think there is something about the creative incubation that comes with making art in a higher learning institution that is worth sharing.
The night I landed in Providence, I went straight from the airport to EXPOSE, RISD’s downtown gallery, to attend the opening of Soft Pastel Grunge. The gallery felt delicate, but not pristine. It’s as if a girl ate too much pink cotton candy and threw up her feelings all over the walls, in the best way possible. The gallery’s decorations reminded me of the prom scene from Virgin Suicides; there were pink streamers and candy bracelets and glitter and yes, stacks of beer. The show featured exasperatingly feminine and capriciously glum artworks from RISD students. Directly in front of the entrance lay a life-sized cast of a dead pony by Lauren Martin
, the supposed blood switched with lots of glitter. This is perhaps the strongest statement towards any morbidity or moodiness; other works, including curator Lauren Allegrezza’s own paintings, are decidedly pale and precious, with pink flamingo highlights. Allegrezza described the exhibition as “Kurt Cobain wearing a dress, but not Courtney Love.”
Yet the mood of the show isn’t necessarily nostalgic; instead there is a heave of 21st century social media self-awareness. Walking around the exhibition (which is almost impossible to do in the packed room full of college kids with PBRs) I feel like I’m scrolling through one of the innumerable Tumblrs of teenage self-described “girly cyber chicks,” with pictures of faded floral patterns, boys with skateboards, and girls with purple hair. For a theme that feels like it’s gone too viral to feel relevant, the show does a good job of gorging in its cuteness without coming off as too sweet. Much like the Facebook profile pictures of tweens and cyber queens, the candied self-indulgence of the exhibition is excused by its critical self-awareness of that very fact.
The next week I visited The Granoff Center to get a look at FULL, an exhibition featuring the work from the first graduating class of the Brown-RISD Dual Degree. These students are, rightfully so, primed to be the cream of the crop; in their five-year program, they will graduate with both a degree from Brown and from RISD. Although the Granoff was filled to the brim with artwork, some of the works felt insubstantial and unfulfilled, perhaps because of the exhibition’s lack of context.
The most fitting example was “For Your 42” Flatscreen TV,” an installation by Lukas Bentel and Kevin Wiesner, which consisted of seven stacked mini-fridges filled with empty ice cream pints and beer cans. Was I supposed to be impressed by the fact that they basically went dumpster diving in a frat house and piled all their findings in a gallery? More dubious still were the night’s “performances.” “Men With Skirts” by Collin McGregor consisted of literally just that—a gang of handsome men with white dress shirts and a rainbow of kilts prowling around the Granoff, whispering only to each other and shunning everyone else. Small pockets of college girls giggled in the corner. While providing momentary comedic relief, the whole thing felt like an inside joke between friends. The second performance, “A Full Table” by Jian Shen Tan, was even less successful, if at all meaningful. In a failed attempt at relational aesthetics, Jian accomplished basically what a typical college student does every weekend—organize a potluck where everyone brings a dish and gorges on the rest. I felt full, but not particularly impressed. I walked away from the exhibition wondering if student art truly boiled down to a stack of fridges filled with Natty Ice and cute boys wearing skirts.
But there were two works that I saw throughout my weekend that proved otherwise. These seemed most worthwhile because of their compulsive striving for perfection – an artistic practice reminiscent of the overachieving Ivy League student mentality I am far too familiar with. Xavier Donnelly’s solo exhibition Search featured several installation pieces (think retro television sets, roman columns, metal clink chains, and fake fruit) but I was most taken by his ink drawing of a city-scape. It is hard to appreciate the piece without getting a sense of its scale. Donnelly created a teeming urban maze, complete with astonishingly minute details, by hand. The sprawl clearly looks like it was strung out of Donnelly’s head, creating a habitat that is at once familiar and fantastical.
Another piece with a similar unhinged attention to detail was Jennifer Spark’s “Sketchbooks,” which were featured in FULL. At first the two scribbled red Moleskins seem like a commonplace college kid’s doodle, until you realize they’re identical. Down to the last pencil smudge and penned drawing, Sparks has taken an object of carelessness and freeform exploration and transformed it into an obsessive act of repetition. Sometimes I wonder if this is the effect that art school’s prescribed assignments and hard deadlines have on an artist’s process. Spark’s piece spoke to a tension in making art in a place which forces you to create. Whether a college is a good place to make art is debatable, but is a debate worth having.