2011 studio art seniors triumph at Kittredge

Student art shows – especially shows by seniors on the verge of graduation from an art program of one of our local colleges – are generally a good experience. Students who have steeped themselves in earnest exploration of their media make one last metaphoric strut across the gallery floor before they are pushed out of the nest to fend for themselves in the wild and crazy art world beyond the ivory tower.

Work by senior art students is well developed by long practice, concentration and effort. Yet this work is fresh – possessed of vitality and novelty. The annual senior art show at the University of Puget Sound’s (UPS) Kittredge Gallery never disappoints. The gallery’s current show of work by the 2011 seniors is in keeping with the trend. The work is vibrant, inventive and thoughtful.

Eight studio art students have presented work in a variety of media including print, painting, ceramic and sculpture- with much mixed media cross pollination.

Isaac Lewin combines serigraph images of people with tangles of graffiti-like scrawl that he calls “pathfinders.” The tangled “pathfinders” have a look of stylized writing, but there is nothing to decipher. Rather, they are a decorative kind of “almost-writing” that Lewin places upon the print images of his portrait subjects. He has also hand painted a huge pathfinder in his corner of the gallery space.

Elle Vargas compares herself to an alchemist in pursuit of the fabled philosopher’s stone as she delves into print media. Via self-portraiture, she explores self-identity and the act of creation.

The 2011 Senior Art Show features a trio of gifted painters. Alea Robertson’s gigantic watercolors are done by letting her pigments soak into and fan out through the fibers of huge sheets of wet paper. Usually featuring just one color that plays against the white surface, the works are feathery and velvety. Robertson also creates large, abstract wood carvings. The delicate and fluid process of watercolor stands in ironic contrast to the labor-intensive and tool-based work on wood, yet the two avenues of endeavor bear a family resemblance.

Jenni Denekas’ oil paintings on wood combine elements of folk art with an El Greco-like luminosity. Her series of blue-tinted landscapes present local places, mostly near water, that are made to stand in for states of being. Her bird’s-eye view of Thea Foss Waterway, for example, becomes symbol for revitalization.

The painter Mary Wolfe taps into Facebook in a brilliant exploration of identity via social media. Her “Social Identity” series are oil painted portraits executed on panels of varnished wood. Each portrait is surrounded by a halo or nimbus of smaller images – often repeated – that were printed out by an image transfer process. In keeping with the somewhat voyeuristic nature of Facebook, Wolfe anonymously selected from among people’s profile pictures as the source for the oil painted portraits. Her subjects are images of people that they themselves have chosen as revelatory of some aspect of their own identity. “Matt,” for example, is shown as an uber sports fan in a crisp sports jersey and matching hat of the Seattle Seahawks. “Sam” shows herself as the crazy party girl. She is wearing her purple hat askew and is drinking a bottle of beer through a long tube that wraps around her body and is looped in front of her eyes like a pair of goggles.

Each individual is surrounded by icons and logos of sports teams, school mascots, musical groups and political affiliations. The paintings are a brilliant expose of the consumerist aspect of contemporary identity formation. They elicit burst of surprised and delighted laughter on the part of the viewer. Well conceived and beautifully executed, Wolfe’s “Social Identity” series is a highlight of the show.

In the realm of ceramics, Valerie Moreland’s charming, anthropomorphic vessels are shaped and arranged in ways that depict various human relationships. “Intimidation” features a vessel that leans aggressively toward a smaller, more humble vessel. “Dependence” features one vessel pressed so close to another that its rim has cracked and caved in. The chalky colored, matte finish forms have a ghostly quality. These raw vessels look as if they have not been subject to the fire of the kiln.

Raye Watts has created a series of “shrines” from cardboard and papier mache. These resemble big, alien fungi that are populated by and surrounded with the detritus of everyday existence. Bits of paper, pages of books, candles, photographs, tin cans, pine cones, trinkets, baubles and toys have been arranged with obsessive devotion to form a gaudy display.

Aaron Badham’s sculptural installations stand in stark contrast to the business of Watts’ personal altars. Badham deploys a crisp minimalism that combines with sound to make his pieces literally hum. “Through the Wall” is a box of black metal - a section of an air duct - jutting out of the wall. A set of headphones allows one to hear bumping and shuffling sounds coming from within the box. “Contained” is a large shipping crate from which mysterious musical tones emanate.

The eight studio art seniors featured at Kittredge Gallery have assembled an engaging show that is highly recommended. The 2011 Senior Art Show runs though May 14 at Kittredge Gallery, which is located at North 15th and North Lawrence streets on the UPS campus. For further information visit www.pugetsound.edu/kittredge or call (253) 879-3701.

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