artbeat (2006-16)

NASCAR vs. Eggshells

Four graduating MFA students stage their exits

by Mike Gibson

Thursday, April 20 marks the first day of a week-long presentation of thesis exhibits by a handful of University of Tennessee MFA candidates, but don’t let the “thesis” part of that sentence keep you from coming out to see the work. Ryan O’Mara, Shawn Hardegree, Mitchell Wright, and Hao Chov—the aforementioned student artists—aren’t pedants in the least. Their respective works are as mindful of aesthetics and, dare we say it, fun, as they are of artistic manifestos and broader social themes.

Take the work of Shawn Hardegree, for instance, a series of paintings based on the legacy of Southern auto racing. “It’s the idea of the history and tradition of auto racing, and how it’s changing,” Hardegree says. “The images and the way they’re presented conceptually and technically respond to that idea.”

His bright, beautifully wrought images more than do justice to his concept—crumpled hulls and post-wreck carnage, thronging infield spectators, numbered cars careening around sharply curving tracks. He paints in such a way as to capture both the hyperrealistic and impressionist aspects of colorful racers moving at terrible speeds, sort of like Rockwell and Dali collaborating on a road trip to Talledega.

“I always shared the experience of watching auto racing with my father,” says Hardegree, who grew up in northern Georgia. “But racing is global now. So my work reflects that combination of nostalgia and change, sort of the idea of losing where you came from for the sake of commercialism.”

Wright’s guiding principles are a little more esoteric. When asked about theme, he describes his as “Sisyphus rolling a rock up a hill”, referring to the Greek legend of the tyrant king sentenced to forever push an enormous boulder up a mountain in Hades. “It’s the idea of continually having to do something again, because you never reach a conclusion,” he says.

His official artist’s statement is even less illuminating, but perhaps that’s by design. “I prefer to work during the night when I can, because working during daylight hours can feel like work, and daydreams seem less elusive,” it says. “Stare into the sun and it’s all about what you can’t see, what is not known. Daydreaming is pulling night into day, like screwing in the morning.”

Mitchell’s work is marked—perhaps “haunted” is a better word—by the perpetual contrasting of light and dark, night and day. His exhibit features a variety of artistic formats, including spraypaint on canvas, video projection on painting, and even multi-media sculpture. But even his painted works tend to favor stark black-and-white imagery, and the simple elegance of black lines that trace elaborate patterns and shapes, like spider webs, or seeping cracks in glass.

Ryan O’Mara is the odd man out in this bunch, in that his is the only one of the four exhibits to be displayed at the Downtown Gallery on South Gay (his exhibit, unlike the others, runs April 19-26). But his work is definitely worth the additional trip. Simultaneously surreal and deconstructionist, his images are veritable explosions of shape and shade, as visceral and aesthetically pleasing as they are intellectually provocative.

“It’s about challenging my own rationality,” he says. “We’re living in a rational, logical age. And I’m asking how we can get beyond these things, and transcend rationality.”

Of the four exhibits, Hao Chov’s is the most unconventional, and certainly—here’s that word again—the most fun . Her thesis exhibit consists of a pair of complementary works, both of which extensively feature the use of eggshells in their construction and theme. “The Great Wall” comprises four 8- by 13-foot sections of wall, a series of line drawings and an adjacent tile floor decorated with arranged pieces of shell. Next to The Great Wall will be an interactive piece—untitled—in which viewers are invited to walk across a floor scattered with eggshells and miked for sound.

Chov says there are several ideas at play in her work, one of which is the contrast of strength (in The Great Wall) versus fragility (the untitled piece) in the separate applications of the eggshells. More significant, though, is the way her untitled work dispenses with traditional notions of how viewer and art interact.

“This gets the viewer involved,” she explains, “letting them become part of the creation and destruction of a piece of art. My idea was to create a space, and then have a dialog between viewer and space.”

But words don’t do justice to hers or any of the other projects on display at the two UT sites; you should venture out to Ewing and the Downtown Gallery, and see for yourself.

What: MFA thesis exhibits for University of Tennessee students Hao Chov, Mitchell Wright, Shawn Hardegree, and Ryan O’Mara