The Best of UT's Graduating Art and Architecture Classes Show Off at Ewing Gallery

I usually review art that is on display for some time following the appearance of an Artbeat column. However, when it comes to the University of Tennessee's 2011 Honors Exhibition, it's worth a mad dash to the Ewing Gallery by June 13 should this article remind you to see the current show.

Featuring painting, sculpture, and installations by eight fine-arts students and a dozen individual architecture/interior design projects, the exhibition's content was determined by faculty members (with architecture students chosen by a Tau Sigma Delta Honor Society-sponsored outside review team, as well). And the show is special for that reason—for the heady boost deserving young people get from being recognized by their mentors. What's more, works produced by these talented students could hold their own plugged into a showing of professional work.

Beside artists who've included small canvases in multimedia pieces, only two straight painters take part in the honors show. Three oil paintings by Javan Grover, although firmly rooted in the Abstract Expressionist firmament, are nevertheless fresh as objects in and of themselves. Grover, whether evoking Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, or some other mid-20th-century demigod, employs dynamic gesture, layering, and color to maximum effect; the color in both "Red Honor Jacket" and "The Mother of Twins" (which is a bit too blatantly upside down) is simply electric.

"Chair Study," by Nichole McMinn, consists of 30 sections, identical in size, each with—you guessed it—a chair as subject matter. "Black, White, and Gray," paying homage to Jasper Johns' American flags, utilizes thinned pigment that's been allowed to drip down the surface of the image, possibly referencing our present "rode hard and put up wet" national identity (think diminished strength, ongoing racial strife, cultural stasis, what have you). "Self Striation" signals a leap of sorts from other pieces, not only because it's nonrepresentational, but because McMinn's use of materials, in this instance oil paint and tar, seems both confident and distinctive.

Drew Dudak's sculpture incorporating tree branches and dismembered chairs or stool parts is scattered throughout the exhibition space, its placement sometimes problematic. For instance, two pieces adjacent to McMinn's paintings appear to accompany those paintings, especially the aforementioned "Chair Study." But there's no meaningful juxtaposition given their accidental connection. Worse yet, the "seat" of Dudak's part-chair, part-rock-on-a-stick piece is piled high with what looks like horse dung, leaving viewers wondering whether to laugh or cry. Trent Frazor's black papier-mâché orb resembling a wasp's nest adds a strangely ominous note to the offerings in sculpture. The show falls short as a whole when it comes to exhibition design (students having installed their own work), its participants presumably lacking presentation experience. However, the gallery's separate areas hold together if only because works are mixed and somewhat evenly distributed.

As impressive as selected architectural drawings and models are, I'm afraid I must lump them into one clump, as I've had to do in previous reviews of this annual exhibition. Unfortunately, extraordinarily detailed individual efforts are virtually impossible to adequately address within the scope of this column. For that, I apologize to both students and readers and urge them to see the show. The responses to varying architectural challenges are thoroughly considered and interesting—particularly those geared toward Knoxville.

Furthermore, the presentation of projects often bridges a gap between straightforward plans and what could only be called fine art. For instance, Andrew Ruff's "The Language of Earth" consists of a four-part folded panel with moody sketches of a monolithic structure above framed mixed-media works. Wood chips, gravel, blocks of wood, and dirt rest in small piles on the gallery floor beneath them. A tall rectangular box with a maul and some iron stands flank the central portion of the piece, serving as parentheses of sorts, framing a reminder that sweat and rudimentary materials are, despite technology, the essence of building. This back-to-basics emphasis, holding hands as it does with the green movement, can be found throughout the show.

Should I appear to be lauding architecture over fine art, I'll assert that comparing what is ultimately driven by function with what evolves from arguably fewer constraints is like comparing apples and oranges. In which case, installations might be tangelos. And installations in the honors show run the gamut from Caitlin Zimmerman's combined photography and video to Jessica Stewart's conglomeration of wall-hung ceramic pieces, a wood strip "nest," a mobile, and painted canvas.

Stewart also presents a glass cabinet with 10 ceramic teapots and the odd addition of a partly lopped-off head (and shoulders) that appears to model the circulatory system, until we notice veins are trees morphing into birds. Ben Dorger's mirrored space with images projected onto cloth caught up in a maze of string is intriguing, as is Frazor's photography and painting above a mass grave-like cluster of dime-store toy soldiers and a charred amputated leg. Eyes, cigarettes, and blood add to the mix, creating a fragmented and potent commentary on being at war.

Acknowledging exemplary work by students earning one of three degrees—a bachelor's of fine arts, a bachelor's of architecture, or a bachelor's of science for interior design—this 21st annual exhibition is indeed as memorable as shows in years past.