I have always looked forward to seeing the graduate shows at UNM, and I have reviewed a few of them for this magazine. The overall quality of the work and the thinking behind it were generally impressive. It seemed that the students had prepared themselves well for the arduous task of assuming a place in the contemporary art world. And I never came away from a graduate exhibition feeling as dismayed as I did this year.
There is such an exciting climate in the art world right now. It's a great time for artists to blur boundaries and push the limits of any given medium or combination of mediums, and for plunging into an abyss of possibilities so as to refute banality and the status quo, to expand meaning. But it seems like the students in Albuquerque are working in a vacuum that gives very little nod to the last couple of iconoclastic decades of global art production. Just because these students live in the desert is no reason for them to stick their heads in the sand.
That's the bad news. And it bothers me to write this because I am not in the habit, as Maya Angelou once said, of "dipping my pen in someone else's blood." But I have to ask: Where was the risk taking? The exploration of media? The interrogation of history and current events? The show would have been more interesting if there even had been some art-celebrity look-alikes and wannabees. So. That grand slam is off my chest, but it doesn't mean there weren't some individual pieces in this show that caught my attention and held it, even if I kept wanting to make changes to some of the work that I did like.
Case in point: I watched Justin Nighbert's untitled video over and over, initially with a great deal of interest. It wasn't time consuming to do this, actually, as his video lasted only thirty-five seconds. Nighbert's short burst of moving images was just that: a depth charge shot into a black body of water resulting in a mushroom cloud of first large, then small bubbles. The initial forms from the explosion looked like pale pink lotus blossoms before the small bubbles of air took over. But the shortness of the video made no sense to me after a while. Was it an investigation of pure phenomena? Was there some underlying anti-atomic theme? In my own mind I kept slowing down the video. What would it have been like to vary the playback speed? To combine real time duration with a frame-by-frame segment, say, or some other speed alterations? I think the work would have been more powerful if the artist had found ways to embrace variation. Then again I have to ask: Did I miss some underlying message in those all-too-brief thirty-five seconds?
I was definitely intrigued with Stephen Wong's graphite drawing Chlorion. The work is astounding for the technical expertise Wong brought to his rendering of a thread-waisted wasp many hundreds of times larger than life. Drawn as though stuck through the middle with an insect collector's pin and suspended in the empty space of the white paper, this perfect facsimile gives not the faintest clue as to what the artist thinks or feels about it or anything else. Wong's statement in the catalog says, "I am interested in the study of interspecies nonverbal communication, the nature of consciousness and the recording of form and movement." This is interesting information to be sure, but you don't get the slightest idea of any of this from the work itself other than Wong's interest in "the recording of form."
May Goldman Chaltiel's video projection Breathe suffers from some of the same quality of irreducibility. What you see is what you get. The artist presented a short loop of a swimmer, in unnaturally green water, moving first to the left, then to the right. This is another work that is neither out far nor in deep, and the image from Chaltiel's piece that accompanies this review is misleading. I wish that her video had really been shown as a grid of images-a little technological and visual counterpoint to allay a sense of underlying pointlessness.
Saving the best for last, I have nothing but praise for Jenny Kuiper's two small panel paintings Pier and Lister. They are superb and possess an emotional complexity of great and startling depth. Kuiper created two beautifully painted and haunting visual equivalents of an essentially abstract state of mind. In one, an off-white pier juts out from the lower left corner and seems like a fist reaching into an immensity of fathomless blue. Only a single dark-green pole breaks the expanse of sky and water. That pole, and its faint curvy refraction on the surface of the water, is all the detail we are offered, yet it is enough. It is more than enough. The whole painting seems to hang on that refraction until the overall mood of the work takes you beyond it and one step closer to the bone. Kuiper succeeds in her visual distillation of something that is usually difficult to express without being maudlin or trite: The existential loneliness of those who feel and think too much. But Kuiper's vision accepts the uncertainty that comes from knowing there is no place else worth exploring but the spaces that are further out and in; then she proceeds to map this terrain for her viewers.