You Do Something to Me
2009 Skidmore Student Exhibition
Juror's Statement - Michael Oatman
As a longtime fan of Skidmore, its Art Department and the Tang Museum, I am honored to be the juror for the 2009 Student Exhibition. Now, I have an additional reason to be pleased – the work of the students. Wanting to be a ruthless juror – I was ready to whittle things down to about 14 works – I kept being thwarted by some gem in the corner or a print pulled from a pile. And so, I have opted to present more of the bounty than I might otherwise have done.
People always want to know what decision-making process I employ when jurying a show. The long answer is that I'm interested in the concept of the work and how hard it hits me. I look at how craft supports the concept, even when it is clear that facture (or the process of making) is the concept. I'm looking for things that breathe new life into traditional media or genres, and how an artist might use technology (remember, applying paint with a brushy stick is a technology) in such a way that the 'medium' vanishes.
I like works that show a real understanding of scale – this is harder to do than you might imagine, and it has to do with how the viewer apprehends the idea, not the thing. Of course, I am also drawn to works that seem to operate on their own terms, with total disregard for history or the way something is supposed to be done. Everyone is looking to make that thing that is fresh, singular, and yet we learn a great deal by imitating, borrowing or outright theft. Usually it is seeing how an artist merges all these factors that attracts me to a work.
But in the end, it really is a gut decision.
I juried the show in about three hours, making a pass where I looked at everything, eliminated stuff in a second pass and made final selections in the third. There were a few pieces that I brought back, and some early rejects became the works that rose to the top. At least one work has been on my mind for a week now.
As new media has sometimes dominated academic arts in recent years, it was exciting to see so many things made by hand. There were also conceptually solid and technically rigorous photos and videos (all three video submissions were strong). My favorite video work, Meredith Pierce's And her thoughts, and her thoughts, and her thoughts! captures and twists a real Thanksgiving memory into something that could be seen as a David Lynch/Baz Luhrman love child. Thoughts about the 'normative' nature of your own family experience are yanked apart in Pierce's self-help/finger piano/dollhouse/alt cabaret.
There were several works in the show that make variously humorous, somber and surprising translations of iconic or familiar forms. Kallie Day's We Are Our Own Enemy, a floor-bound map of the USA mired in waxy tanks reminds us that we will be tripping over our own national messes for some time. Nearby lurks Suzanna Okie's Power in a Can, another bit of American culture imported 'round the world and refashioned into a play gun. Flat-out funny are all prints by Shauna Feinberg, but particularly Sheryl and Steve, not least for the title. Here she takes woodblock printing to a new level of clunkiness (and I mean that in the best way) by insisting that in her world, everything is made of wood.
Jessie Moy's Bear and David Mishler's Frank I are occasional commuters to the real world, and I like the humor and cool that pervades these works. Or is it uncool? Either way, the bear/man and the guy with the big head stare back at us, occasionally, from the mirror.
The Sick Muse by Julia Cizeski returns us to a world of preciousness, in some hybrid of deco and quattrocento painting. Here the muse is just hanging out after a few glasses of wine and TiVoing all day. Equally opulent are the constructions of Melinda Kiefer. As a collector of many examples of material culture, I can identify with the overflowing nature of her object assemblies. The double-headed rubber Janus mask may well be an emblem for artists (at least, those working with collage) – we bring everything from the world into our studios and lives even as we try to clarify it.
My personal favorite in the show – Trilowheel – doesn't seem to be made at all, just found, in some studio, after it kicked around for 20 years. This, I think, can be the mark of a really personal work. Tell James I'd like to buy it, or trade for it. Mary knows how to get in touch. (One of the nice things about NOT actually being a real curator is that I can write statements like this, full of holes and written for the artists).
The honorable mention works in this show should get cash prizes too, but to be honest we just ran out of money. Hana Sackler's three muscular abstract paintings grew on me because of that menacing angular red form. They would resolve themselves as landscapes and suddenly fall apart, more verb than noun. Mary Beth Thompson's cassette tape figure unraveled in my mind when placed into the deck – a twee figure that insists on being heard. Alexis Herzog's books operate somewhere between sketchbook and deliberate art book projects. I'm pleased that she wants viewers to thumb through them.
Best in Show went to Jasper Goodrich's massive, witty and light Reflections of a Woodpecker, a work I almost missed, as it was situated outside the gallery. I'm not sure if it ever made it indoors, but the displacement of the sky into the sides of the log was both pleasurable and disorienting. I'm usually leery of those large sculptural works that situate themselves in the landscape and then ignore it – Reflections pushes you back out into the world even as you are peering inside it. It's always great when something comes along and challenges your own history and stance on things.
Finally, I love student shows because of the surprises and promise they afford. Nothing is more boring than to go see competent work by someone from whom you have certain expectations. As my own show opens this same night I'm keeping some thoughts in the back of my head: What am I doing with my own work, out of habit, that I have accepted, unchallenged? What did I learn from the Skidmore students that I will take back into the studio, and then out into the world?
I think viewers to this show (and hopefully the exhibiting artists themselves) will be answering questions like this for some time. These works will challenge, amuse and, occasionally, disturb. Thanks to all who submitted the some 213 works. Congratulations to the artists for having such a wealth of ideas and compelling physical manifestations; Skidmore and Saratoga are lucky to have such makers in their midst.