I preface this review with one central caveat: This will not be an entirely objective critique of Practice/Practice – the University of Minnesota’s BFA Thesis Exhibition. As the older brother of one of the exhibition’s featured artists (Emily Mohrbacher), there is, of course, a potent bias that I possess towards her respective piece, “Be kinder to yourself.” So, with some transparency regarding my biases and perspective established, hopefully the rest of this critique can proceed normally – with me simply pontificating about what did or did not rub me the right way.
Practice/Practice is an exhibition running until the 17th in the Katherine E. Nash Gallery, which features the work of the U of M’s most recent crop of BFA graduates. A free show profiling the work of 19 different artists, Practice/Practice is a largely strong exhibition overall – with a diverse array of work highlighted. This idea of diversity applies to both the subject matter addressed by the artists and to the different artistic mediums represented. Not only are there significant works in painting, drawing, photography and ceramics presented, but also printmaking, video, sculpture and animation.
As an art viewer, I find myself gravitating primarily towards work that offers both a strong indicator of technical or aesthetic craftmanship, and a window into the piece’s thematic content. Thankfully, most of the pieces in Practice/Practice either offer both of these qualities, or are aesthetically impressive enough to compensate for their nebulous meaning. A perfect example of this is the stunning pottery of ceramicist Ellie Bryan. Consisting of dark, cool colors and featuring mainly animal-based imagery, Bryan’s work embodies this idea of an artist’s stellar technique being the work’s most potent feature. Now, did I know what her various pieces were meant to imply? No. Was I rocked by such a clear display of talent? Yes. Would I have liked to buy one if I wasn’t a poor, sad man who blogs for free? Absolutely! Bryan’s large collection of pieces exemplify accomplished (albeit perhaps a tad conventional) craftmanship.
Equally robust in size, yet a world away in terms of medium, is the work of Elle Hansen. Unfortunately tucked away in one of the Katherine E. Nash Gallery’s more shadowy corners, Hansen’s drawings and animation still manage to jump off the wall. With her unique style, the work makes an impression on the viewer quickly. And while certainly by no means realistic, the images found in her pieces are disturbing, conveying a profound sense of loneliness and psychological agony. However (unlike many artists), Hansen’s work is not myopic in focus. It does not revel solely in misanthropy or self-seriousness – an undoubtedly beneficial quality. Some of her work even feels whimsical and silly, which gives the collection a sense of refreshing variety.
Now, as stated above, nearly all of the art constituting Practice/Practice displayed a high level of technical skill. This is not to say however that there weren’t some dubious pieces – far from it. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the sand-sculpture piece by Corey Devorak: an experiment that just didn’t work for me. With pieces such as Mr. Devorak’s (which consists of two sand towers with fragments of paper tucked into the gravelly surfaces) I sometimes feel a bit like a philistine, meaning simply: I just don’t get them. It’s not that I wasn’t intrigued on a certain level with the work. Let’s face it: Seeing two, three-foot tall sand towers inside the hallowed halls of an art museum ain’t an everyday kinda thing. Yet, while I wasn’t able to discern much from something like the two Hansen pieces posted above, I still felt something. There is a darkness to those works, an existential agony that feels like it had been ripped loose and placed upon the wall. With Devorak’s pieces I wasn’t sure how to feel, and ultimately I walked away feeling nothing.
Another artist whose work was somewhat disappointing was Blake Leigh’s photography; although this was for reasons opposite to the Devorak piece. While Devorak’s sculptures are, in my dispensable opinion, ultimately unsuccessful, they still feel artistically adventurous. Conversely, Leigh’s exhibition photos – constituted by shots of individuals on public transit – feel derivative. It’s not that they aren’t elegantly composed, it’s just that I’ve personally seen this subject matter photographed in roughly the same fashion about 10,000 times. What’s most intriguing about these photos being the ones chosen for display, is that his tumbler account contains work that is far more interesting.
But let’s return to more positive territory. For instance, an artist who largely avoids the problems inherent to Devorak’s and Leigh’s pieces is Andrew Hoffman, whose mixed-media piece on encephalitis lethargica is both unique and emotionally evocative. A multi-layered work featuring text, photography, video and even a mock office set, Hoffman’s piece offers a number of different sensory experiences. The work also carries a palpable mood, an eerie quality reenforced by the unoccupied desk and the unnerving photography which hangs adjacent to it. If there is anything to critique about the man’s work it’s that it feels a little sparse at certain points. Quite frankly, I wanted to see more from the piece. Perhaps a few more objects to look at on the desk would have sufficed.
Yet, as you might suspect, I’ve saved reviewing the piece that I consider the best for last. Emily Mohrbacher’s contribution to Practice/Practice is a singular work, a scene of domestic tranquility marked by a subtle darkness. Now, I understand that what I’m about to say will be difficult for any conscious person to swallow. Here goes: I don’t think my enjoyment of the work is solely dependent of my association with its creator. I mean, sure, I will never be able to truly know how deeply my (minor) analytical powers have been distorted by the fondness I have for my sibling. Yet, I truly do think that Emily’s piece encapsulates both the technical accomplishment and the thematic accessibility that I personally crave. With Emily’s piece you don’t have to know exactly what the meaning is; you can understand it’s broader nature.
Nearly everything in the work contains a dichotomy, a balance between light and darkness. One of the central features of the work is a kitchen sink, its massive basin filled with water. This image offers the promise of refreshment, and of cleanliness and renewal. It’s outside however is anything but smooth; it appears handcrafted and imperfect. Above the sink – which includes a striking metal faucet – are a number of shiny, polished tiles, each baring the image of a rabbit (who is saying a different thing in each tile). The messages displayed in the tiles are wide in scope, ranging from ominous statements like, “Are you even real?” and “All I see is darkness,” to odd, alarming queries: “What are your secrets?”
Aside from the small, beautifully designed cups that accompany the sink and tiles (pictured above), this piece is not destined to be a crowdpleaser; but then again challenging material never is. At the show I lost count of how many people passed by it slack-jawed, drooling and scratching their heads. I chuckled to myself as they waddled towards the wall where the title of Emily’s piece was displayed. “Be… kinder… to… yourself,” they would say, with the tone and speed of one who has never read or spoken common English words before.
Now, I understand that this is unfair. I’m speaking as one with insider knowledge. I know specifically what themes are percolating behind the piece’s facade. I’ve seen behind the curtain. I know that Oz is James Franco.
Still, just because I carry this perspective doesn’t mean that a large generalization on the piece can’t carry an iota of impartiality. Anyone viewing Emily’s piece – even if they don’t really understand much about it – would probably agree that there is a strong idea there, and a feeling that the artist was able to bring into impressive, three-dimensional reality. And really that’s the power of art. It is about making magic, and bringing the stories and ideas in our heads out into the larger world and to others. This is accomplished by nearly all the nascent artistic professionals displayed in Practice/Practice. Even the show’s least successful pieces carry with them a sense of talent that is marred simply by the execution. With this show the BFA students can leave on a high note. It’s an effective summation. It’s the end of one thing and the beginning of something new.
Artists Included in the Exhibition
Kieran Abbott, Benjamin Anderson, Ellie Bryan, Kristy Childress, Corey Devorak, Emma Gallenberg, Elle Hansen, Andrew Hoffman, Scott Kamlah, Evelyn Kim, Blake Leigh, Kayla McDaniels, Emily Mohrbacher, Ciara Newton, Michael Nguyen, Matthew Sadler, Emily Styles, Cam Treeby, Laichee Yang
Practice/Practice runs until the 17th of May. More information can be found here: https://art.umn.edu/nash/press/practice