"Occam's razor" is the philosophical principle that the best solution to a problem tends to be the simplest one. Artists frequently enact this principle in their choices and usage of materials in order to achieve clear expression of their ideas. These threads of clarity of thought and straightforwardness with materials draw together the work of four artists in the annual show of graduating Master of Fine Arts students at UNC-Chapel Hill's Ackland Museum through May 23.
Culminating their two-year program, ceramic artist Jessica Dupuis, photographer T. Coke Whitworth and multimedia artists Emily Scott Beck and Kia Mercedes Carscallen mostly present the kind of complete work usually seen in the middles of careers. Curator Lauren Sanford, herself a Ph.D. candidate in art history, has skillfully overseen this tight exhibition, bringing out the themes of memory and gender that undergird the show.
T. Coke Whitworth's photographs are from a project titled Zionville, named for his Watauga County hometown, where the images were taken. And his crisp digital C-prints sum to more than a description of a place; instead, they ask questions about the generational codes visible in them. Although his photographs are technically perfect, one gets the sense that Whitworth finds them to be a point of departure, as if he records an image and mulls it for a while before deciding whether or not to print it.
It's difficult to resist overlaying movie genres atop Whitworth's images—the boys at target practice as a still from a coming-of-age story; the creepy dump in the woods as an ideal location in a serial killer flick—but they're overall more painterly than cinematic. A claustrophobic portrait of an elderly couple shows an almost Renaissance perspective as a bank of windows and its reflection in the television screen give diagonals to the central figure of a woman holding a photo album, a lamp hovering halo-like over her head.
Whitworth's choices are impeccable without being at all precious. Each image conveys the fact that any location's moment is written in multiple personal histories as well as a collective memory, and that these narratives are legible in the landscape if you know how to see them. Whitworth does.
Like Whitworth, Emily Scott Beck lets things happen in front of her recording devices, differentiating herself from the documentarian by giving her subjects physical and conceptual constraints. She explores the relationship between explicit narrative content and context, often dealing more abstractly with narrative itself. In a word, she is interested in the gist. In two video works that investigate gender and narrative, Beck uses prompts to get her subjects talking. In "Churn," various women Beck knows were asked to express "anything that frustrates them as a woman" while they submerged their faces in water. Their words are rarely understandable, but their stressed vocal tones combine with their washed-out skin and scrunched facial expressions to convey something essential, larger than any statement or secret. Beck's sharpness comes through best in "Belief," an audio work installed in the Ackland's permanent collection. Paintings and sculptures of Christ, St. John and St. Francis alternate with speakers emitting low-volume narratives about the development of one's belief or disbelief in God. The room becomes church-like as the audio's whisper combines with the austerity of the older works.
Kia Mercedes Carscallen also creates a sanctified space in "Systemic," which projects two videos on an alcove's floor. Like Beck, Carscallen uses no camera movement, instead drawing on her background in performance to enact the ritual. A figure (the artist) seen from above twitches, trapped beneath a white sheet on a bed. In her artist statement, Carscallen notes that she uses her body "not as an individual body but as a social body, collective body." At times, the figure doubles, evoking memories of jumping on the bed with her twin sister. But it doesn't find its way to any real place. Themes of family and illness power this work. Unable to walk for the better part of a decade during her youth, Carscallen also has cared for family members enduring significant illnesses. In contemplating the social difference of illness, Carscallen finds a universal, third category apart from either "normal" or "unwell" in these images, which are somehow neither concrete nor abstract.
Jessica Dupuis' untitled porcelain boxes describe the arc of her experimental project in the way they're displayed. Using the cardboard boxes that her clay is shipped in, she applies slip and newspaper. As the forms dry, the box absorbs moisture, reshaping the form as it buckles and curls. The finished product is tantalizingly tangible—they look like starting points, little rooms that one wants to climb inside and walk around in.
Ultimately, the boxes convey an obsessive purity, something honed through iterations of making and thinking in the studio.
Student work can be iffy—sometimes signifying less than imitating—but these graduate artists are reaching for universal expressions even as they're learning their media. And in the moments when these artists don't quite grasp what they're reaching for, one is certainly better for seeing where they're heading.