The magnificent seven of Post-Bacc 2020

The magnificent seven of Post-Bacc 2020

March 13, 2020

For those out of the know, the Brandeis fine arts department hosts a post-baccalaureate program every year. The post-baccs are students (from Brandeis and beyond) who have graduated and are looking to spend an extra year expanding upon their artistic abilities. While working on their own projects, they serve as teaching assistants for undergraduate courses in the art studio. Each spring, these artists come together at the Dreitzer Gallery to show off their finished works. I asked one of the post-baccs this year why she chose Brandeis’ program given that our arts are not particularly well known or well funded. The answer was simple: it is one of the cheaper programs around. That is not to say, however, that Brandeis’s post-baccalaureate is not known in academic circles, and the talent we acquire every year tends to be extraordinary.

In light of the campus closure, this year’s post-baccalaureate art gallery could not have gotten off the ground soon enough. Tuesday’s opening celebration was rife with anxieties surrounding the uncertain future of campus operations. In a foreboding shift from last year’s opening, the cheese and wine normally prepared by studio art technician Rebecca Cora Strauss was replaced by a contagion-resistant platter of oranges, prepackaged snacks and canned drinks. It is a fact, however, that art shines in adversity, and the COVID-19 paranoia did little to tarnish the fabulous quality of the pieces on display. In spite of the uncertainty, the post-baccs of 2020 have produced a series of works worthy of the title “magnificent.”

The gargantuan oil paintings of Micaela Nee are the first pieces to steal visitors’ attention. The gallery’s rightmost painting, “10 year old Happy Meal,” is a clean rendition of a container of McDonald’s french fries and a cheeseburger within a covered glass dish—the kind of diner display-ware usually reserved for freshly baked pies and cookies. Behind the dish is a wall of garish pink leopard print. The message hits immediately enough to induce hilarity: American fast food is tacky but all-consuming. You wouldn’t put a Big Mac in a glass case, yet that kind of fast food remains an essential aspect of the American diet. This concept is greatly built upon by Nee’s accompanying works. “Born and Bread in the USA,” a series of photographs, depicts these disgusting, towering monstrosity sandwiches filled with candy and jelly and spaghetti-o’s and donuts and more. These morbid creations are pierced all over by tiny American flags and those plastic sword toothpick things. The photographs speak to a kind of uniquely American form of domination, a culinary colonialism vulgar enough to fascinate and disgust simultaneously. To match these photographs is another massive oil painting aptly titled “PB & J, Twinkie, Mac & Cheese Sandwich.” Well, the title speaks for itself. It is a grotesque but beautiful display of oil creative prowess.

The paintings themselves really are strangely beautiful, a testament to Nee’s apparent mastery of realism. Glass is traditionally one of the most difficult materials to render regardless of medium, but Nee manages to capture the subtle refractions of the glassware with unpainterly photorealism. The same can be said for the semi-transparent smudges of jelly seeping out of “PB & J.” The brushstrokes are practically invisible in both of her works. The fries are golden but limp (like the way they get when you put them in the fridge overnight), and the buns of her sandwiches possess an iconic prefab glossiness. The effort is obvious, and Nee’s works might one day warrant a grotesque gallery of their own.

Opposing Nee’s bright and hyper-organic pieces on one end of the gallery is Siyi Cao’s cool and mysterious machine wreathed in darkness on the other. The official title of the installation is “GATEWAY_V1”, but where there would normally be a title on the plaque is instead a QR code leading to a binary string that needs to be run through a translator in order to discover the true name of the work. Playfulness is Cao’s specialty, and “GATEWAY” is a highly interactive work of engineering that demands visitors to mess around with it in order to discover its various functions. A PVC gateway frames a rotating triangular prism on a pedestal that swivels automatically to reveal a glowing face. I mistakenly believed the robot-head was following me around the room, but that was not the case. The doorway undulates and fills with color as visitors approach the pedestal. I will not reveal the secret mechanisms of the installation, but a ton of engineering and thought went into every aspect of the gateway’s design, only to be hidden behind a facade of black paint. It is an artistic black box. The seemingly random rotations and color shifts are actually a form of communication, but perhaps the truth of its messages will die with this exhibition!

Though not the most immediately impressive objects on display, Scott Lerner’s collection of assorted detritus and plaster cast calculators confront Cao’s playful futurism with retro visions of technological waste. The artist’s primary display table is laden with colorful plaster renditions of primitive handheld game devices and electronic planners. In explaining the assortment, Lerner recalled foot-driven cars in the Flintstones. The cars in the cartoon are this absurd halfway-there Stone Age technology that would never, ever be seen. Likewise, these button-laden pocket devices share a kind of primitive worthlessness. The invention of the smartphone has reduced these objects to mere trash. The rough plaster texture of these objects highlights their uniquely tactile nature. They are covered in grooves and protrusions. Where the technology of Cao’s artwork is clean and concealed, these old pieces of equipment possess a kind of expressive charm that touchscreen technology has largely been deleted from our lives. To Lerner, the art of these things is not forgotten.

All of this commentary would not be complete without a statement on the human condition under social media, and Claudia Kim’s diverse array of installations deliver on that front. She bravely makes art of her own lived experience by printing her own Instagram photos and Tinder interactions onto silken posters that glimmer and twirl as they hang from the ceiling. This installation is grove-like. Visitors can walk among the hanging posters in order to fully immerse themselves in Kim’s digital life. Smiling and (apparently) happy photographs of Kim are juxtaposed with less fun Tinder interactions from racist men that reduce Kim’s Asian identity to a sexual novelty. Kim’s manicured photo-smiles are also placed under scrutiny by the handmade pillows that litter the floor of the exhibit. Each pillow possesses a face of detached anguish that indicates more than a little dissatisfaction. The virtual world classes violently with the material one throughout Kim’s portion of the gallery. In terms of emotional impact, this artist takes the cake.

A final special mention must be given to Rasha Obaid’s set of wax miniatures titled “Every person leaves a trace.” The figures, placed next to Nee’s mega paintings, are easy to miss, but they show strong craftsmanship. I find the title particularly charming. The hand-molded figures are riddled with tiny fingerprints and notches, indications of the artifice itself. Like the individual brush strokes of a painting, every fold of the wax is proof of the artist’s individuality. There is something soothing about this presence; in a gallery, one is never truly alone.

This article only highlights a handful of the spectacles currently on display in Spingold’s Dreitzer gallery. I highly encourage all readers to make an effort to visit the show themselves before the campus shutdown goes into full effect next week. The post-bacc gallery really is one of the final campus events to be held this semester, so get out there and experience the magnificence before it is too late! You’ll never see a Big Mac the same way again!

Menu Title