REVIEW: EMBODY 2018 MFA Thesis Exhibition

This past Friday, the Stamps Gallery was abuzz with an eclectic and ageless crowd—twenty-somethings in high-waisted khakis, solemn photographers, sixty-somethings in color blocked heels, an ecstatic ten year old girl in panda covered leggings. Around 7 o’clock Osman Khan, director of Michigan’s MFA Program and Associate Professor at Stamps, picked up the mic to congratulate the exhibiting artists— Brenna K. Murphy, Robert Fitzgerald, Brynn Higgins, and Stephanie Brown— at the opening reception for their MFA thesis exhibition: EMBODY.

Khan beamed, “For me what I’m most proud of is that they have embodied what the school means.” If this collective show may double as an echo of the school itself, then Stamps is an innovative attention to modernity, careful homage to both the consistencies and inconsistencies of developed creative form, and an unabashed questioning of norm.

The first performance of the night was part of Murphy’s three part work, “Crossing.” Situated in the back of the galley, the space is dictated by an elongated bobbin lace contraption. Sitting in a spotlight Higgins weaves the bobbins methodically as onlookers contemplate and are utterly consumed by the absence of breath in the space and the trancelike quality of the weaving.

The multi-media exhibit is a questioning of “how grief can be expressed by and embodied in the physical labor of making.” The performance itself is a hypnotic act of vulnerability that Higgins explains in her own words as a metaphor of grief her teacher gave her so long ago: “separating the bobbins into three groups: ‘it’s like two friends going over a river. First one crosses, then the other follows.’”

In order to view Fitzgerald’s performance of “/offscreen/” the crowd was ushered through an open glass annex out into the lobby of the McKinley Town Centre. Through the glass, the audience watched a suit-glad Fitzgerald move creatively around an empty wood floor. His movements were jumpy, repetitive, and exaggerated. A knowing side-eye and a particularly comic wardrobe addition of goggles enlisted periodic laughter from audience members. At one point he mimicked the movement of a golfer and at another he seemed to be urging invisible comrades to army-crawl with him through trenches.Seeming both puppet and controller of a confused dream series, Robert uses his performance to draw the audience further into the world of his concrete installation of “/offscreen/.” The work is a nostalgia trip that features moving images superimposed on the architecture of a childhood bedroom. In Robert’s words “ by mining the films of [his] adolescence, [he investigates] the construction of masculinity through movement.” A particularly striking projection found underneath the bed sheets highlights the physical language of inter-male compassion and intimacy. If you stay in the exhibition long enough you may be able to overhear two middle aged men discuss John Travolta in “Saturday Night Fever” and the way they used to flip their hair in high school.

Higgins’s work, “How to draw a line with a clenched fist” is an exciting juxtaposition of sculpture and video situated in the central passage. Most compelling is the map motif that splays itself over the video projection and reappears as a crumpled piece of sculpture on an opposite table. The video— a black white image of hands manipulating clay—seems oddly destructive when placed in juxtaposition to a striking collection of paper-thin, terracotta colored clay sculptures arranged on a podium by the opposite wall. The meticulous attention to arrangement and material itself externalizes our closest wishes to manipulate, protect, save, and create. In the words of Murphy this exhibit is predicated on the “tenuous nature of knowing a thing.”

Immediately upon entering the gallery, viewers are confronted with Brown’s work, “Am I Enough.” The exhibit is an interactive interplay of word and installation centered by the chilling last line of a poem printed on the wall: “When did you decide who you are?” Adjacent to these words is an installation of a closet filled with hanging human skins. This closet, toeing the line of cliché, is so strikingly unromantic that it is impossible to look away. Its cliché only serves to intensify a deeply familiar notion about the way our skin wears us and we it. In Brown’s words her installation “critiques skin color discrimination and its relationship to self-esteem…illustrating the unconscious decisions made in private spaces.” Her best work is found in her interactive use of language—a packet of poems and a Mad Lib about skin— and in her attention to detail: a stylized vanity decorated with a particular typography of subversive and brilliant quotes by influential African American men and woman (From James Baldwin to India Arie) that made me feel as if they had once sat at that very table and scribbled the thought in their own hand.More than worth a cold walk down S. Division, the EMBODY exhibition is a must-see for all who have ever been confronted by the fact of identity and its material place in the world.

The show will run until Sunday, April 1. A performance of “Crossing” by Brenna K. Murphy will take place from 11:30 – 4:30 pm on Saturday March, 31.


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