c/o Aiden Malanaphy

c/o Aiden Malanaphy

After an early spring filled with uncertainty as to whether or not the University’s studio arts majors would be able to physically present their senior thesis projects, the Ezra and Cecile Zilkha Gallery (Zilkha) successfully hosted a third round of in-person senior thesis installations last week. As with week one and week two of thesis exhibitions, this third round of installations evaded traditional, singular definitions of a visual arts show. Spanning seven diverse artists, the show employed manifold formal processes to evoke ideas surrounding community, isolation, subjectivity, and hope.

My experience of last week’s show began in Zilkha’s separate South Gallery Room, veiled by the darkness of “Homecoming,” a video installation by Dayna Weissman ’21. Unlike installations with a single video, Weissman’s work consisted of multiple smaller, stop-motion clips projected into house cut-out shapes roughly the size of laptop screens. Despite the project’s title, which evokes large celebratory gatherings, “Homecoming” focused on the more unsettling scenes of domestic life. To create these shots, Weissman harnessed a meticulous stop-motion editing process that involved the shadow of paper cutouts on white backgrounds. As Weissman spent the fall of her senior year at home, the project’s ideas and processes were informed by the multilayered elements of the domestic space.

“With more free time on my hands than I expected, I became really interested in Carl Jung and his ideas of the collective unconscious,” Weissman explained in an email to The Argus. “This sort of massive interconnected neural swamp that our instincts, myths, and symbols all emerge from. The idea that there are universally recognized stories and symbols really interested me, and so in coming up with the content of my animations, I tried to tap into that more unconscious place to find my imagery and let it come to me rather than go out searching for it.”

The resultant videos often revolved around uncanny imagery. In one “house,” a large, projected eye watched over a dollhouse-sized bed. In another, a profile figure plucked their eye right out of the socket. The pieces I found most frightening and intriguing, though, were the scenes in which an antlered demon crept into a baby’s room, plucked the baby from its crib, and replaced it with a look-alike demon from a pouch. Arising from Gaelic folklore, the demon resided in an unhoused projection of its own before frighteningly descending upon the homes. 

“One of the recurring ‘characters’ in my animations is this skeletal deer-creature,” Weissman continued. “I had someone tell me that a student who attended the show with them felt like they had seen an iteration of this creature in their dreams. This is pretty much the best feedback I could ask for, since it means that whatever I was attempting to tap into with my imagery at least somewhat succeeded.”

Enraptured by Weissman’s mastery of home motif, I was surprised to find the next installation, “HomeBody” by Alyssa DaSilva ’21 bringing out the physicality of home through clothing. Comprised of a set of dressed mannequins, “HomeBody” featured outfits that were created using only materials that would be found in the house. From a garment made of tile and grout to a dress composed of lampshades, DaSilva’s creations trade material comfort for the supposed comfort of a house’s interior. 

“The idea behind the thesis came about through combining two of my really keen interests, garments/costuming and architecture,” DaSilva wrote in an email to The Argus. “I knew that I didn’t want to create a traditional architecture project, but instead wanted to take those architectural materials and see how they could be transported into the world of clothing. For these designs, the creative process needed to be really active and hands-on—my project could only be developed by making model after model, as each draft exposed new points of focus.”

On first impressions, I took DaSilva’s forms to create a kind of avant-garde fashion show. Embracing both built and bodily environments, the pieces took utilitarian materials to the point of abstraction, exemplified by one dress that was made of lampshade-like fabric and pipe. To call the work a dress, though, would be reducing the ambiguity inherent in its creation.

“Listening to how other people have been receiving my work has been so valuable to me, and I really welcome any/all interpretations of the collection,” DaSilva continued. “Some people seem to perceive the work as clothing, while others see it more as wearable sculpture. A lot of folks’ first goal was trying to brainstorm an occasion in which these garments can be worn to. People have also been much more interested in the physical labor behind each of the pieces than I originally thought they would. Although most often, people ask how long it all took to make, to which I can barely begin to fathom an answer.”

As I turned around and began to walk the runway of Zilkha’s main axis, I was immediately confronted by the wall-dwelling “La basura del encanto,” a multimedia work on cardboard by Verónica Socorro Matos ’21. Exuding both the fantasy and reality of Puerto Rico, where Matos is from, the work featured printed and drawn-on depictions of the man-made garbage that often lines the island’s treasured beaches. From a rotting apple to the broken shards of a bottle of beer popular in Puerto Rico, Matos’ designs challenged viewers with the global issue of waste and the island-specific litter with which many Wesleyan viewers may not be familiar. The work’s title, which means “the garbage of enchantment,” perfectly captures this duality, as it plays off of “la isla del encanto,” a Puerto Rican phrase meaning “the island of enchantment.”

“Last semester I had really been exploring this idea of the way in which we dispose of garbage and how people are really ready to just consume a lot and throw it away without thinking about it twice,” Matos said. “I was thinking about how that affects where we live and living creatures, so then I was experimenting too with found objects which I ended up doing for my thesis. Then I started printing plastic bags where you’ll ink something up and run it through a press and that’ll apply pressure to it and create an image. So I was really interested by the patterns that I was making with the plastic bags and I thought it would be really cool to make prints with the things I would find.”

Looking over Matos’ printed and drawn forms, I could decipher which was which while appreciating the ways they worked together. One of the prints, which Matos repeated throughout the canvas, was of an iconic garita fortification from El Morro, a fort in the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan. Immediately recognizable as a historic symbol of Puerto Rico, the prints of la garita grounded Matos’ expressions in a regional dialect, rendering her depictions of litter all the more potent. Against the backdrop of nationality, “la basura del encanto” stretched the printmaking process to its limits to create a potent confrontation of our often careless environmental behavior. 

“It’s really different from the work I’ve done in the past,” Matos continued. “Just because the printmaking I’ve done here has been a lot of carving the woodblock and printing it and that kind of thing and this focused a lot on me not carving things or not really altering the surface that much. I would print things just as I had found them and only choose colors and the way in which I printed them.”

c/o Aiden Malanaphy

c/o Aiden Malanaphy

Appreciating the totality of Matos’ work, I was beckoned by the music of another totality emanating from Zilkha’s north gallery, that of “EXBODE” by Ben Schneier ’21. Almost indescribable in both meaning and medium, Schneier’s work took over a wing of Zilkha with a row of three cryptic digital stills leading to a room with three projected, clothing-based videos. Alongside these highly abstracted fashion videos, an original, ambient piece of music composed by Schneier and Keizo Fish ’21 played through speakers situated just behind the viewer. Between the intense swells of the installation’s score, I could also smell something distinct in the air, which I later learned was a blend of essential oils Schneier had put in a diffuser at the start of his show. Despite stimulating almost every sense, from vision to olfaction, “EXBODE” did not seek to be readable in any sense.

“Nothing is completely legible in any of the works I showed,” Schneier said. “The prints, the kind of person-like figures in them, they’re definitely not people and all three of the prints actually have a poem that I wrote in them but all have it obscured in various ways to where you might be able to make out a couple of words but it’s really illegible. In the videos, there’s not a single moment where a full face is shown, only through translucent fabric obscured by a green screen and you get glimpses of the body like feet and hands but there’s nothing easy for it to latch onto, it’s not easily identifiable as clothing per se.”

This purposeful concealment defined my experience with every element of Schneier’s work. The first print, which featured two amorphous blobs superimposed onto a traditional landscape beneath the distorted text of a poem, gave the impression of humans without providing any recognizable features. In each of the three videos, Schneier’s frayed, multi-colored clothing took center stage, entirely covering wearers such as Stella Jiler ’21, Keizo Fish, Eli Baden-Lasar ’22, and Gabriella Banda ’21. Not even the scent, which involved a mix of tea tree, lemongrass, and lavender, was decipherable. All this was orchestrated by an artist with roots in music, fashion, and AI, who had originally planned to take over the entire gallery with a one-day fashion event. The result was an installation that enveloped me with intense feeling rather than concept, creating a world of its own within which outside knowledge was useless.

“I was watching people walk through the gallery the other day squinting, trying to read the text and stuff, and you can’t,” Schneier continued. “I liked that kind of space between reality and fantasy and I think when you can’t identify things it creates a sense of discomfort. I think it’s disorienting to look at text, but you can’t read it, or the uncanny valley or something that kind of looks like a person but not quite. That puts people in a mind state where they’re like if I don’t know what I’m looking at I can’t intellectualize it, I have to just feel it and let it flow through me.”

Still processing the world of “EXBODE,” I came upon a more grounded conceptual environment, that of Dana Kim ’21’s “우리 (Woori).” Recognizing the issue of shrinking rural towns facing a highly urbanized South Korea, Kim proposed a new architectural model for a multipurpose community center that facilitates activity while embracing its surroundings. The proposed structure combined a variety of town necessities, bringing an elementary school, senior center, library, office space, and dining hall to its community. The plan nevertheless left plenty of flexibility through the use of “Maru,” living room-esque spaces situated at the intersections of the building’s structural and functional axes. Combining a range of functions in a conceptually sophisticated housing, Kim’s proposal incisively responded to a specific societal issue.

“I’ve always wanted to do something with the Korean society,” Kim said. “Schools in rural areas are shutting down because there’s not enough kids, so what a lot of schools did is similar to our solution to COVID where they tried to replace a lot of physical learning to online education, and while I think that’s very cool, that’s not the ultimate solution. I felt like there should be some physical architecture where students can learn because I think that online education can only replace the learning education, not the socialization.”

Though imagined as a pastoral setting, Kim’s project incorporated high-tech features such as a kinetic wall system that responds to the weather, the location of the sun, and the movement of people inside. Kim presented all this in an intricate yet easy-to-understand series of panels that she designed from Korea, thousands of miles away from Zilkha. Despite the distance, Kim’s presentation effectively communicated how Woori” (meaning we” or us”) and Maru” work to viewers who would be unfamiliar with these terms. 

“I’ve never lived in a Korean traditional house,” Kim continued. “I always felt fascinated that people did every sort of thing besides sleeping in the outdoor [Maru] space. It was kind of the social hub for Korean households, but there is no furniture whatsoever usually, so it has to solve multiple functions, so most of [mine] are very small, [with] moveable furniture people use. All of those are really fascinating to me for someone who wants to study architecture because I’ve always seen space as serving one specific function, but I really like the concept, so that’s why I tried to add it in my project.”

Contrasting with the precision of Kim’s architecture, “All Day Suckers,” an installation by Rachel Mondshine ’21, synthesized art materials and found objects to create intense expressions of sweetness. From a monstrous mirror-like object that immediately reminded me of rapper Pusha T’s “Daytona” album cover to a dripping portrait of a figure tying their shoes in the bathroom, Mondshine treated each subject with both gritty and pastel sensibilities. One work, which featured a raccoon holding a bedazzled Jif peanut butter jar, particularly caught the eye of a fellow viewer. Another, of dancers wearing roller skates, appeared to me as if a postmodern take on an Edgar Degas painting. The resulting installation was nevertheless a highly original, sugar-coated feast for the eyes, bringing viewers into a world in which the things we desire the most are created out of those we have thrown away. 

“The process was surprising,” Mondshine said. “I would make a bunch of work, scrap half of it, and then decide to go in a whole other direction. It could be frustrating, sure, but it was so much more satisfying to solve the puzzle than to have carried out a plan. The process was about exploring my thoughts and associations about a topic and then narrowing the focus until I felt that a true expression of my perspective had been reached.”

On first look, “In The Hatred Of A Minute (Trembling Figures),” a painting installation by Ciara O’Flynn ’21 that occupied the gallery’s back bay, appeared to be a series of photographic works that explored the more imperfect underside of family memories. After learning the story behind the series, which involved O’Flynn discovering close familial ties to 1994 abortion clinic massacre perpetrator John Salvi, that general impression only went so far. O’Flynn’s canvases exuded an odious disquiet, offsetting seemingly realistic images of early childhood and Salvi, who committed suicide in custody, appearing to the media with crushing, dark undertones. The heinous nature of Salvi’s actions imbued each work, exemplified by one scene in which a toddler on a swing, centered in the composition with outstretched feet, peers at the viewer with brooding eyes while their pusher gazes towards us from an unlit background. This foreboding element ominously predicted chronologically later scenes, one of which shows Salvi staring and pointing at the viewer as he is carried out of a courtroom, feet flying towards a suggested camera. An onerous formal and topical undertaking, O’Flynn’s works impressively conveyed ideas of upbringing, depravity, and consequence.

c/o Aiden Malanaphy

c/o Aiden Malanaphy

This three-week series of student installations has done more than present the culmination of years of creative work. It has pioneered countless, nuanced processes of expression, each telling their own story through content and creation. These shows have defied expected and unexpected boundaries, ringing a triumphant era of student work that can only become more fully realized from here. 

Alongside new challenges for artists, this three-week series would not have been possible without innovation from Visual Arts department leadership. After guiding artists with consistent critiques and physical support, Visual Arts faculty put on weekly receptions that offered an intimate glimpse into each group of artists. In these receptions, which took place over Zoom due to high predicted attendance, Associate Professor of Art Julia Randall would introduce each week of works, followed by Associate Director of Visual Arts Benjamin Chaffee, who would go through the gallery, meeting with each artist to discuss their process and resultant installation. As Chaffee explained, this new format was one of the highlights of a year that was particularly difficult for student visual art.

“On the one hand, it’s really hard to have an outpouring of enthusiasm and celebration over Zoom—it doesn’t capture that quality,” Chaffee said. “But one thing it did capture that maybe the in person did not was the chance to have a kind of intimate conversation with each of the exhibiting seniors about what the process was of making their work, some of the thoughts about the work which really personally deepen my experience of their work and which I felt was a real silver lining in this process and something that we may want to experiment with again even when we are able to have an in-person opening.”

Randall, the thesis coordinator for the department this year, sought to create community among a fragmented group of thesis creators through consistent check-ins.

“I felt great being part of figuring out a solution for them to be able to show their work in person,” Randall said. “This has been a very, very difficult year to be an arts studio senior major or a general scholar doing an exhibition within the studio art program, because we got splintered…. I was really impressed that students did as well as they did being remote. Part of my challenge as the coordinator was just trying to keep everybody hanging loosely together even if we were in different places. Perhaps I over-emailed just as a way to keep everybody on the same page, to maintain structure, and to maintain a sense of continuity from our past years to this year.”

Both faculty and students nevertheless expressed excitement and optimism surrounding the return of in-person art after such a long hiatus. 

“It was amazing,” Chaffee said. “It was an amazing thing to see their work, the culmination of those projects, and frankly, just personally, I just missed art so much.”
Aiden Malanaphy can be reached at amalanapahy@wesleyan.edu.

Comments are closed