Bekí Basch – Paradise Reclaimed
The show on the right and closest to the door is Bekí Basch’s Paradise Reclaimed, a title which immediately calls to mind Milton’s Paradise Lost. The work included here is a continuation of her series titled The Crown.
The first work in the University of Maryland MFA exhibition is Fratercula Arctica, the scientific name for the Arctic Puffin. It consists of the body of a dead Puffin laying on borax, a white powdered material resembling snow, encased in a white box protruding from a gallery wall, with a transparent pane on the front face. The show also consists of two low, white assemblages of parts from cars and wooden carts, followed by a pair of framed, colored inkjet prints depicting a mound and a bird, which hang on the wall. In the middle of the exhibition, there is a translucent screen with an image of a mountain peak. At the end, there is a blue rock-like form made of foam, surrounded by several bird-like dolls made of wool. Visually speaking, it can be difficult to link the works together. It is, for example, unclear how the white assemblages of vehicle-related parts relate to mountains, and then also to Puffins. The assemblages are painted white possibly to resemble the “snow” in Fratercula Arctica. The assemblages also contain salt crystals and the objects within them are piled on, culminating into an apex. The texture and shape of the assemblages link them to the images of mountains. The visual cues alone might lead one to think the works in the exhibition speak to the Arctic and dying bird populations—essentially a statement on climate change and ecological disruption. However, that statement is at first unclear.
Basch’s intent becomes clearer with some research into her titles. For instance, the title of both white assemblages is Seventh Handcart Company, the name of a group of Mormons who traveled from Scandinavia (a region of which Iceland is a part) to Utah to join their fellow Mormons in the 1850s. The impetus for the migration was the desire to join the Mormon community in Utah. Many of them carried their belongings on handcarts. There were ten companies who made this trip, some from other regions of Europe, and many died. Their migration and sacrifices have been honored and glorified by the Mormon church. Elements of migration, global religious ties, transportation (handcarts and car parts), and the Arctic are all present in these two assemblages, and each of these aspects appears at least once more in the other five works in the exhibition.
The exhibition also includes a tablet that links to a page on the artist’s website explaining The Crown series and Paradise Reclaimed which further aids in navigating the exhibition. The artist explores the idea of the monomyth, a word used by mythographer, Joseph Campbell, in the characterization of a fundamental mythological template known as “the hero’s journey.” Although it may be a stretch, it appears then that the artist intends the Seventh Handcart Company to be treated as belonging to this monomythic exploration, in which they were heroes on a transformational journey.
Moving further through the exhibition, the viewer sees images of mountain peaks, symbolic of those things for which one strives, or the success that awaits the hero at the end of his journey. But the end of the exhibition, and hence the end of the viewer’s visual journey is not some paradise, rather the viewer goes from being treated with an image like Majestic Mountain, only to be relegated to a blue rock or melting glacier made of foam, with bird droppings on it (the work titled Roadside Iceland), and images of dead birds. In keeping with the statement about climate change, many of the works could be speaking to the greater journey of humanity, and how our desire to reach our fantastic mountain peaks, or our paradise, has real effects in the ordinary world, such as the melting Arctic and dying Puffin population. This is only one of many possible interpretations.
It seems the exhibition’s superficial interpretation is not meant to be easy. The artist may want the viewer to take a journey of interpretation by referencing the tablet and researching the stories behind the titles of the works. This would thus force them to sift through the layers of correlations between Iceland and America; places meaningful to the artist.
Jessica van Brakle – Garden Ghosts
Black and white collage elements from the Victorian era are interspersed between the gray, ink and acrylic drawings in the seven mixed media works by van Brakle. The resulting effect of this combination is that the collage elements become like living creatures in the scenery. In What Are You Thinking of in This Lost World of Ours?, the collaged pieces—depicting regular objects like a mirror, fan, and corset—resemble underwater fauna and flora, giving these images a new life. In Subterranean Seamen, she actually uses fish and plant imagery along with other expected underwater objects, like a ship’s wheel. The combination of underwater scenery and the collaged images make one think of the garbage that pollutes our oceans, including objects that are from the 1800s and earlier. By using them in the present and in this scenery, van Brakle revitalizes these cut pictures. The works cause one to ask questions like: How do these old objects have lives in the ocean? How do Victorian ideals, images, and objects have lives in the present? And by extension: How does any imagery or object from the past get reinterpreted in the present? How does the past stain the present? On the other hand, the images are limited to the Victorian era, a time often associated with the eccentric and fantastic (Alice in Wonderland). This limited association keeps them from taking on too much of a political tenor. Add to this the amount of open space in the scenery, and there is no sense of overcrowding, as is often associated with images of pollution. The openness of the scenery and the protruding character of the paper, on which these collages lie, suggests room for growth.
Also, of note are three framed works titled In Memoriam – Garden Ghosts, each numbered IX, X, and XI from left to right. The works employ dress imagery floating in space. Painted and collaged flowers are placed at the top of the dresses, giving the works a figurative quality. These three framed works are the “ghastliest” in the exhibition. Their hand painted frames and ovular shape are suggestive of a mirror. Reflected back are images of both life and death, the former is communicated by the flowers, and the latter by the black and white dated imagery.
Hugh Condrey Bryant – A Well Within a Sinking Ship
Condrey Bryant shows four large-scale sculptures made with fabricated steel in his A Well Within a Sinking Ship. The title of each work points to a different aspect of a ship. The three sculptures that use concrete, in addition to the fabricated steel, also evoke skeletal structures. The linear steel elements appear like “bones” and the concrete slabs between the steel components are the “ligaments” between them. Standing below Pintle, a work that is 10 feet high, reminds one of standing below a dinosaur fossil replica, like those formerly on display at the National Museum of Natural History. The sculpture has three legs that support a protruding structure that reaches over the viewer, almost like a rib cage of a large creature. The protruding character also recalls the shape of the ship part that is called “pintle.” The works Yaw and Pitch also contain ash from the volcano Mount St. Helens, further evoking a sense of the ancient.
Yaw and Pitch are vertical structures that wrap around an imaginary central line. The titular words are used in labeling different rotational motions in ships. Yaw has an opening at the top and an active, bulbous form in the center that suggests a contained energy ready to be released. Pitch has an energy that comes from its more pronounced shadows and angular twists. These are visual attributes that were perhaps inspired by the volcano. The theme of industrial decay manifests when one notices rust, rough concrete edges, and the scale of these sculptures that make them seem like the remains of once used machines. They serve as monuments to structures that once were or could have been. The shadows of the constructions offer a great deal of dynamism, giving the works a presence and liveliness. Although these works are not kinetic, a sense of movement is created in the artist’s active use of implied lines.
Placed adjacent to each other, all three exhibitions take on meanings associated with decay and human impact on the environment. What happens to the remains of buildings, which are not biodegradable? The Arctic is melting, species are dying, and our trash, both physical and cultural, continues to pollute our environments. The three exhibitions also point to an aspect of monumentality, whether it be in presenting steel monuments of decay, the structure of a myth in monumentalizing the journeys of legendary figures, or an enduring Victorian imagery. Yet, these are not still monuments. Rather, they move in narrative, referencing water, ships, growth, and death.
 For an explanation of the structure of “the hero’s journey” see: Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, originally published 1949.
The University of Maryland’s 2018 MFA Thesis Exhibition is on view until May 25th, with viewings by appointment only May 21-25. The exhibition is located at the University of Maryland Art Gallery in the Art-Sociology Building, College Park Campus.