Things Aren’t Always What They Seem: Kent State University School of Art Recent Alumni Show
I went down to Kent on a humid Thursday afternoon to check out the Kent State School of Art Recent Alumni Show, now in its final days (through August 4). Personally, I love visiting college campuses in the summertime – the sidewalks empty, the quad quiet, it’s tranquil and you can easily get a parking spot. The Galleries at Kent State University actually includes seven different spaces (the CVA Gallery, Payto Gallery, Crawford Gallery, Michener Gallery, Downtown Gallery, Eells Gallery and the Hotel and Conference Center Gallery) on the Kent campus, in downtown Kent, and at the Blossom Music Center. Art from local, regional, national, and international artists are exhibited in these galleries as well as works from their excellent permanent collection. Obviously students also have the opportunity to exhibit work, as well as ex-students in this case.
The Recent Alumni Exhibition is in the main gallery on campus – specifically the CVA Gallery, in the Center for the Visual Arts Building (a recently opened $33.5 million facility that houses all of Kent’s visual arts programs and disciplines under one roof). This large space is fairly raw, with exposed ductwork and polished concrete floors. Works of all shapes and sizes are scattered around the room, from free-standing sculpture, video-installations, to tiny pieces of metalwork. It’s impossible to discern a theme here as it’s more of a showcase than an exhibition – highlights really, from School of Art alumni who graduated in the past 10 years. I suppose the one thing to take away from this jumble of art works is the tremendous range of programs offered – ceramics, glass, jewelry, metals, enameling, photography, and textiles are all represented, alongside the requisite paintings and sculptures.
There were definitely some stand-outs, and strangely, all of the works I gravitated to were not exactly what they seemed to be. The first piece that grabbed my attention I assumed was a print from across the room, but turned out to be a delightful painting by Sarah Gretsinger (BFA Painting 2015). Untitled (oil on paper, 2016) is daring for its simplicity – but more so for the sinewy lines laid down with (what appears to have been) swift, determined brushstrokes. Reminiscent of Brice Marden’s gestural mark-making – Gretsinger’s lines are deliberate, but sometimes awkward and shaky in places. These imperfections along the way are what make the piece for me. Sure, it could be a print, but seeing where the artist’s swiftly moving brush left dry, choppy, imperfect edges reinforces the painting’s appeal.
This delicate figure study looks like a muted monochromatic gouache painting, but is in fact a photograph – made with a Gum Bichromate process using breast milk – which was certainly unexpected. Lindsay E. Koontz (BFA Sculpture 2014) is represented by two pieces from her “A Second Skin” Series (2017) – both show a figure covering, or uncovering itself with a garment of some sort. The second piece (below) shows a scaly swathe of fabric draped across the figure’s back, hazily appearing very much like a second skin. The airy, ethereal quality of these photographs brings to mind the nude studies of Pictorialist photographers of the early twentieth-century, such as Robert Demachy, who was fond of the dreamy artistic qualities inherent to the gum bichromate process. He was not using breast milk as a medium, however. I am not usually fond of the heavy-handed insertion of a quote-on-qoute feminist element such as this – breast milk is a pretty “loaded” choice, but here, it works.
For some, breast milk may represent a certain time in their lives, a time when an ordinary girl realizes the power of her body, and the significance of her new role as mother. Shedding the “skin” of the past, this new mother-being emerges along with the child. Or something. Any way you look at it, Koontz is definitely toying with the theme of motherhood – in these works and in others. A recent piece that was not in this show, but I found on her website, is called Surrogate Child (2017, seen hanging with the artist’s Second Skin Series below) AND it was made using a Dehydrated Kombucha “Mother” (a Mother is a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast used to ferment Kombucha tea). The play-on-words here is pretty delightful, as is the use of these unexpected, organic materials.
But by far the biggest stand-out for me was the work of Erin R. Miller, a 2014 graduate of the Fiber Arts Program – she just finished her MFA at Eastern Michigan University. This small piece of bumpy unassuming white fabric drew me over from a distance. I couldn’t figure out why I was drawn to it, and as I approached it dawned on me – bubble wrap… As a somewhat anxious person, I love the joyous release of popping the individual bubbles on an untouched sheet of bubble wrap. But obviously, this is not bubble wrap. Bubble Wrap Toy (2017) is made of wool and tencel – tencel is a sustainable fabric, regenerated from wood cellulose, one of the most environmentally friendly fabrics in the world.
It’s not as if this piece of fabric fooled me into believing it was bubble wrap – it’s far from trompe l’oeil – but I love that implicit and easy familiarity. I also love the amount of care given to hand-stitching what is usually just a ubiquitous and wasteful piece of plastic (it’s not lost on me that it’s made with sustainable materials…)
Speaking of trompe l’oeil, Miller’s other piece in the show (by far my favorite) continues the bubble wrap theme, but in a totally different direction. From a distance it almost appears that she put a giant piece of bubble wrap on the wall – but as you get closer, it reveals its true nature. Why this isn’t bubble wrap at all – it’s a fleece!
Fleece Bubble Wrap (2017) is made of polyester, and would likely work just as well as a throw blanket as an art object. An extremely high-res image must have been digitally printed onto this surprisingly thin material – and the effect is honestly impressive. I love the way that Miller toys with perception and high/low culture – a quick visit to her website shows that bubble wrap isn’t the limit to these explorations. There you will find used wool bubblewrap (some of the “bubbles” appear popped), wool cardboard, those poofy packing pillow thingies – but made of silk of course, wool packing peanuts, two different packing-peanut themed textiles (below), and even packing tape made of silk!
I love how graceful Miller’s ode to packing materials is – I love how unexpectedly pleasing these works are. This is good stuff. If this is the kind of thing coming out of Kent’s art program, I can’t wait to see more.
P.S. To see more of Erin R. Miller’s work, head to Praxis Fiber Workshop for the opening of her solo show “Return to Sender” during Walk All Over Waterloo on August 4th.