The ambitious paintings of the senior midyear exhibition

January 17, 2020

Brandeis University might not have the most rigorous fine arts program in all of New England, but our student painters possess more than enough skill and creativity to stand out in a gallery. Any skeptics need only visit this year’s Senior Midyear Exhibition to be amazed into submission. For context, seniors looking to explore and develop their arts can sign up for a two-semester Senior Studio course. Every December, the Dreitzer gallery in Spingold hosts the midyear exhibition to showcase these students’ progress and provide them with a platform to practice gallery organization firsthand. While the exhibition showcases works of sculpture and photography among other mediums, this article focuses on the paintings. There is simply too much art to cover it all equally, and the quality of the paintings in particular is impossible to ignore.

Those that managed to see the posters for the exhibition are already familiar with one of the gallery’s most striking pieces, “Affluenza 3.” The painting is a striking (and massive) portrait of a woman with blue skin and cherry lips and the phrase “SH!T” emerging abstractly from one of her eye sockets. It is the third and central painting in Zoe Jin’s ’20 Affluenza series, but while all three of Jin’s paintings are on display, it is not difficult to see why the artist’s largest painting made the cut for the posters. The piece oozes texture. It is one of those works that proves why photography can never truly kill the art of painting. The woman’s face is a gyre of concentric motion. Conspicuous brushstrokes draw the viewer’s eye from the bright “SH!T” triangle across the forehead to a swirl of white highlights that spiral downward along the contours of the cheek and upward again, terminating in the opposing eyelid. Her earrings, which would otherwise be a flat, dull gold, are brought dynamically to life by swirling globs of white and yellow highlights that lift off the canvas. 

Photographs cannot do justice to this effect; the paint looks freshly wet upon the canvas. This technique could not be more thematically appropriate: the smeared paints of the portrait’s face mirror the makeup motifs on display throughout the series. The three paintings in continuum, all prominently displaying lipsticks, done up eyes and heavy contours, appear to show a kind of transformative breakdown that culminates in the sad and silent blue monster that reigns over the final painting. Despite their theming, there is nothing superficial about Jin’s gallery entries.

Contrasting Jin’s textured works are softer paintings of the body and face by Allison Fritz ’20. Fritz renders human flesh with a level of intricacy and care that is uncontested throughout the rest of the exhibition. Her larger painting, “Release,” matches “Affluenza 3” in scale, but its representation of temperature and light is more immediately complex. A body that flows like water serves as a battleground for cool blues threatened by warmer pinks and oranges reflected from an unseen rightward light source. It is an image of simultaneous vigor and repose. These pushed pink and blue values carry over to Fritz’s “Self-portrait in Brown,” which seamlessly wraps the opposing colors into one harmonious cheek. If Jin succeeds by accentuating brush strokes, then Fritz is a master of obscuring them. Her strive to blend flesh tones in a field loaded with abstracted painterliness is beautifully unique and skillful. By comparison, the rest of the portrait suffers, especially the neck and shoulder, but the amount of hours put into the face alone is probably equal to most full paintings. The nose itself is so captivating that the unwary viewer would hardly notice.

Leah Nashel’s ’20 painting “Grenade” opposes Fritz’s self-portrait both in terms of literal placement in the gallery and painterly anti-smoothness: the piece presents a face exploding into a pomegranate. The texture of the face matches the granularity of the fruit that it is transforming into. Freckles of white and robin’s egg frame a pair of engorged, fruit-like lips, full eyeballs that gleam, fixed to captivate forever and another jaw-dropping nose. Color control is excellent, with the maroons of the pomegranate eerily matching the hues and highlights of the face’s tear ducts. This painting is pure captivation in the midst of chaos. The painting adjacent to “Grenade” is “Ophelia Psychelia,” which poses a vibrant concept and background but appears ultimately unfinished. The body of Ophelia emerging from the water looks to be an underpainting that could have benefited from more layers of paint. Nashel’s smaller portrait, “It’s my face,” is a fun little face that shows the artist’s love for pomegranate hues while also highlighting the raw power of curt brush strokes. 

The majority of Carrie Sheng’s ’20 paintings are smaller than those of her fellow artists, but they undoubtedly pack the most life. Her self-portrait poses a similar image to Fritz’s “Release” but, where Fritz’s woman expands and flows with confident compositions and colors, Sheng’s presentation of the body is more withdrawn, grounded. The folds of her back muscles take on nuance as pale skin folds and stretches to expose mounds of muscle beneath. Strong attention is paid to the varying flexibilities and rigidities that living skin upon the body can display, and one detects a real depth in the crease of the spinal ridge. The depth of the whole painting is magnified by Sheng’s decision to paint a bright vase of yellow impasto flowers in the foreground of her portrait. The painting below “Self-portrait” is “Grandma,” which showcases a more dynamic exploration of color. Sheng’s painting of a bird on a branch entitled “Spring” seemingly contains every color ever conceived. Generally speaking, the portraits of this exhibition display an amazing range of skin tones achievable with oil paints, and the range of colors on display across the board are delicious.

Sheng is prolific to an unreal degree. Alongside the three paintings described above, she is also the artist behind the massive and ambitious battle painting “Guan Yu vs Qin Qiong.” Words cannot describe the scope of this piece, and it is difficult to imagine that this goliath was created in a span of four months alongside the artist’s other works. Despite some flaws in anatomy, this painting is undoubtedly my favorite piece in the entire gallery. I’d buy it if I could.

The 2019 Senior Midyear Exhibition opened December 11 and will close January 21. So much could not be covered that deserved to be. If you missed out, do not despair. This is, afterall, only the midyear exhibition. The final products of the senior studio will be on display by the end of the semester. If these seniors can match the quality of their first semester projects in these last few months, then their final showcase will be something worth paying for.

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