Class Act: UT's Honors Exhibition Delivers Once Again

For more than a decade, I've been reviewing the art, architecture, and design efforts of graduating University of Tennessee seniors selected for the Ewing Gallery's annual Honors Exhibition, and not one show has been disappointing. Many pieces and projects this time around—the 22nd year of the exhibition series—are not only exceptionally good, they also seem to indicate a new direction for the annual show. Although the number of students is smaller than usual—six in fine arts and eight in architecture/landscape architecture/interior design—viewers should feel boosted by an extra-strength dose of talent and imagination.

Fewer students means that gallery-goers will likely appreciate the quality over quantity, and also the relief of having less to digest. Architecture projects in particular have proved too much of a good thing in the past. The same cannot be said for fine art; for whatever reason, offerings in that category, however impressive, have dwindled somewhat.

The new direction reflected in this year's show is marked by an increased emphasis on the passage of time and the role of nostalgia, among other things. Dean Yasko presents his "Self Portrait" in the form of a tableau resembling a cluttered studio apartment, complete with a smattering of outdated lamps, photographic portraits, and a boom box playing '70s hits. The space (about 150 square feet, with doodled-on Styrofoam take-out boxes, a dental cast of teeth, one carpet tack-strip sculpture, and a mounted fish with a hat) functions as a tangible but skewed perspective on the artist's values, habits, and aspirations. Despite its whimsy, what Yasko's installation lays bare is unsettling in its intimacy. The place created is real, but its reality seems sucked into the past.

The enclosed space constructed by William Warden is far smaller than Yasko's room, requiring entry through the kind of drapes found in photo kiosks at the mall. In fact, viewers must supply the light (using cordless lanterns and headlamps provided outside the booth) to render visible a plethora of snapshots and other images hung on paneled walls. We're beckoned into Warden's space, but are nevertheless like intruders stumbling across someone else's memories. Warden's oil paintings are also on the small side, and rather traditional in comparison. But the handling of their surface and color is an accomplishment.

The directness of pieces by Honors Exhibition students is refreshing. For instance, William Lang's horizontal strip of more than 60 pages, apparently torn from a sketchbook, is a virtual string of various patterns, fantasies, and quirky thoughts. Simultaneously jaunty and disturbing, A.C. Wilson's circle of taxidermy ducklings is a version of death on the march, perhaps exposing the artist's most basic fears. Works by both Anna Halliwell Boyd and Danielle Jodoin convey what could well be very private aspects of themselves.

Boyd addresses what's presumably family history in "The Byrd House (they fed the chickens through the floorboards)" and in "Beatrice and Blake," a diptych with a woman's portrait alongside the watercolor rendition of a letter from her brother. Jodoin displays small- and large-scale drawings, the latter including "You Weigh a Ton," an effort using countless ballpoint pen strokes. The artist's bricks, bulging within ropes that suspend them, resemble some sort of Stone Age wrecking ball on the verge of wreaking havoc.

As for the mighty mass of toil and skill represented by this year's architecture projects, all I can say is that their creators deserve immediate, challenging employment in a field marred by dismal job prospects. Their work is that amazing, not to mention significant for being mostly produced by women; six of the eight students are female. What's more, the show features drawings and a model by Lauren McCarty—whose grandfather and father designed, in 1981, the very building in which her efforts are now displayed.

Claire Craven, Adam Richards, and Mitchell Riggleman, like McCarty, incorporate symbolic concepts into their work. McCarty's is a proposed religious center sited in New Orleans; Adam Richards' Key West travel hub and pier is for commerce, acknowledging the influence of Cuba in South Florida. But they share a sensibility determined to honor history, with elements that evoke jazz, cultural identity, and transport. Craven's design for saltwater baths also includes a long pier, this time suggesting healing expansion, as opposed to Riggleman's repurposed factory alluding to economic ebb and flow.

Annie Lauren Stone, the Tau Sigma Delta Bronze Medal winner, presents crumpled sketches hung on the wall as art in addition to her proposal for a circular park. Rodney Calvin's urban test-farm complex is brilliant, and Amanda Gann's conglomeration of drawings, photographs, and sculptural elements supporting her design for an arts district are visually commanding. Valerie Friedmann and Megan Zolnier round out the exhibition with a wide-ranging landscape-design project and a considered approach to the interior functionality of an air terminal. All in all, the 2012 Honors Exhibition is a moveable feast.