Sweet Nothings: Post Baccalaureate Exhibition 2019

April 5, 2019

The best part about Brandeis Art (besides the art, of course) is the food. As it turns out, our Studio Arts department possesses a superb cheese plate game. Those attending the opening day of the 2019 Post Baccalaureate exhibition two weeks ago were greeted with a great variety of cheeses, crackers, berries and (most importantly) a choice between red and white wine. The Dreitzer gallery, normally a deserted space, is packed on Post-Bac day.

But what is a Post-Bac? If you’ve taken a studio art class recently, you’ve probably met a few of them. Brandeis’ post baccalaureate program offers recent graduates an opportunity to continue building a portfolio while TAing, meeting visiting artists and partaking in a few “artscipades” to various galleries in the Boston area and beyond. The gallery exhibition is the culmination of a year’s worth of extra study, and it is indeed work until the very end. I was surprised to learn that the gallery itself wasn’t assembled by a museum crew or some other janitorial force. Gallery organization is an artform in itself, and the work of physically pinning massive sheets of canvas and paper to the Dreitzer walls was up to the Post-Bacs themselves.

Despite the fancy cheese, the atmosphere was hardly formal. After a few pleasant toasts and some wine refills, the artists and faculty that had been milling about the lobby decided it was time to begin the spectacle, and so it began. The stereotype of the antisocial artist couldn’t be farther from the truth here. Fill a small gallery with Post-Bacs that have been working on presumably nothing but their art for the past year in an academic setting and the result is a tight group of genial artists that, quite frankly, really seem to know their stuff. I was pulled aside by one artist immediately upon entering the gallery, and the discourse didn’t stop for the rest of the time.

These Post-Bacs haven’t only studied together for a year; some have been literally working on each other’s projects. Standing out in this year’s exhibition is a set of “Failure Projects,” so named because they are the discarded remains of one Post-Bac’s failed works completed by the hands of another. I came upon the first of these Failure Projects as I descended into the gallery. It was a saggy bundle of fabric ornamented with a thick layer of painted flowers. The pillow is the collaborative work of Zoila Coc-Chang and Orli Swergold, who decided that the discarded canvas of sculpted flowers would make a fantastic polyfill-stuffed pillow.

These collaborations serve as a chance for fellow Post-Bacs to get to know one another’s internal processes on a more palpable level. I asked Swergold if she was ever nervous about potentially mutilating her colleague’s work, but she explained that it wasn’t like that at all. Since the Projects were already deemed “failures” by their original artists, the Projects were an open and fun way to experiment with entirely new forms of expression.

Swergold was the first artist to steal my attention. After explaining the pillow, she brought me to her artwork located on the right side of the central bay. Her work is marked by two distinct features: pulpy textures and Jewish mythology. The raised texture was achieved by applying masses of paper pulp directly to the painting. The artist allowed me to feel one of them (you’d never hear that at the Louvre) and although the masses of pulp looked moist and pliable, they were actually caked on hard like volcanic rock. This effect is wonderfully executed in her work “Shemita.” It portrays a Jewish agricultural concept with the pulp technique being used to render a row of freshly tilled earth. The effect is gritty and rich. At a glance, it is as if she had plastered soil directly onto the wall.

The figures populating Swergold’s pieces are textured silhouettes, monstrous giants towering over vague, languishing forms. The subjects of her paintings are born from an Orthodox Jewish upbringing. These narratives, born from Jewish canon alongside a lived experience, are imbued with a dreamlike ephemerality. There is a biblical objectivity to her simplistic forms that juxtaposes deeper psychological truth. One of her smallest pieces, “Sea of Rabbis” looks like nothing more than a sheet of paper drowned in marker cross hatching, but closer inspection reveals the sharp forms of distinctly orthodox beards and hats. The sea of faces converge on a central head that is at once prideful, angry, and stoic. The piece conveys Swergold’s upbringing in a society that is simultaneously “cult-like” and “admirable.” Fable meets reality; obsession and worship are given tactility and form.

Personal narratives like these pervade most (if not all) of the artist’s collections. It’s hard not to expose a few deeply personal threads when an artist is forced to account for a year’s worth of work all at once. Sarah Valente’s works do not try to hide this personality at all. There is markedly less abstraction in her works compared to that of others in the exhibition. Her paintings consist of skillfully rendered portraits of figures from her life. The lounging man is a chemist, mentor and close friend. The painting of the scientist peering through her equipment is also the bride in a Portuguese wedding that Valente herself attended. Taken without pretension, Valente’s collection is an overt celebration of all the wonderful things that produce her identity: a love of art, science and family. The artist also became quite skilled at fixing sewing-machines.

Valente’s experiments go beyond simply employing a realistic style of painting. She is a self-professed multi-medium artist, and alongside mixing both oils and acrylics in a single piece, she also employs screen printing, casting and fabric-work. The books sitting upon the spectacled man’s shelf are real books transposed onto the painting. The pattern on the scientist’s wedding dress are also screen printed, and the archway above the bride and groom is adorned with literal sewn fabric and plaster roses fixed to the canvas. The first piece that Valente showed me was not a painting at all, but a small patchwork quilt, a mythic object that simultaneously represents practicality, artifice, and personal history.

My next artist, Scott Lerner, took Valente’s ideas of the material process of creation and pushed it to an extreme. His central work, an untitled collision of two canvases splattered in an “enormous mess” (his own words) of caked blues, pinks and yellows, was achieved through a relentless, Frankensteinian manipulation of the canvas. His methods sounded incredibly violent; he described using a belt sander and other power tools to wear down successive layers of dried paint and paper waste to produce a palimpsestic portrait of confusion and grandeur. The look of the work changed dramatically and constantly throughout its process of creation.

Guiding my attention to a specific splotch of color that resembled a topographic map, Lerner emphasized the layered nature of the work. A sanding belt had exposed concentric rings of color that, like the rings of a tree, attested to the history of Lerner’s process. This idea relates to another of his works, “The Public Gets What the Public Wants,” which consisted of 3D printed (a highly topographic medium) reliefs of screaming CNN hosts. By manipulating the depth of various parts of the face, Lerner toes the line between the recognizable and the mundane, the pictographic ratio of “signal to noise.”

Presumably, this cycle of endless application and reduction could last forever. When asked how he knew his piece was completed, Lerner answered that there was no objective indication. It’s all in the feeling. A completed piece, abstract or not, must “resonate” on the canvas. He often tried to imagine how the piece would look on display. If it couldn’t “hold its own” in the gallery, then the painting wasn’t done. Lerner’s delight in experimentation was contagious. In his world, art is all about “phenomenon”–the pleasure in “something happening.”

The bay next to Lerner’s contained the works of Stephanie Boyer. Like Orli’s pieces, Boyer’s paintings contain shadowy figures, but here they are all women, and all seemingly locked in intense anguish. These paintings are much less vague, however, and less mythical. Of all the collections, Boyer’s wields the rawest emotion and possibly the most powerful political force. Her two largest pieces, “Las Brujas” and “Shadow Puppets” present masses of tangled limbs, grasping hands and bent expressions. The artist sought to build a “psychological space” highlighting moments of female agitation and anxiety. I caught flavors of Dali and Picasso: dripping forms caught in utter terror and the utterly mundane. Take in “Las Brujas” and then look up “The Scream” or “Guernica.” I’d like to return to the gallery after it has resumed its silence and hear what the paintings have to say for themselves.

I ended my tour with the works that spoke most to me. Tucked in the left corner of the gallery was the vast collection of Zoila Coc-Chang. I refused to leave the gallery until I had a chance to speak with her. This artist’s specialty is foliage and landscapes; Coc-Chang’s larger works present jungle scenes. Her paintings are densely planted and equally dense on the eyes. Bright, solid colored linework causes the intricate leafage to pop while the undergrowth beckons. They’re like candy or fruit, proudly touting their delicious allure.

The story behind these pieces is touching. Where I crudely assumed an exotic intent behind the painting, they actually speak to something more profound and personal; to the artist, these paintings represent “home.” As a multicultural student, Coc-Chang’s sense of home is complicated–an indescribable feeling of displacement. It’s a feeling that she routinely has difficulty communicating to the faculty. The concept is unfixed, unpredictable; it can manifest in “unexpected places.” It comes in snatches and dreams, but plants help bridge the gap. “People are scary–Plants are friends,” she said. By painting these so called “hybrid worlds,” Coc-Chang gets a little closer to capturing the elusive idea.

This goes without mentioning Zoila’s impressive plant portraits, which can seem more like sculptures than mere paintings. No 3D glasses required, the paint is so thickly packed that they pop right off the canvas. The artist claims that she found pleasure in the “tactile” and “hands on” experience of molding her plant subjects, and the effort really shows.

I have provided only a taste of the exhibition here. The Post-Bacs have loaded the place with more than a hundred hidden pleasures waiting to be discovered. It’s a shame the artists aren’t being paid to speak full time! Though spectators might never again have the opportunity to meet this particular batch of Post-Bacs all in the same gallery and all at the same time, the gallery itself is still open and will remain so until April 17. It’s an infinitely diverse array of works from a group of promising young artists, many of whom are on the cusp of long and fruitful careers in the creative world. Catch the moment before it’s broken up forever.

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