I've always loved student art competitions. The juxtaposition of polished, sophisticated works by older students with naïve, yet often brazen, offerings from underclassmen is refreshing. The real fun lies in picking out the undiscovered talents with original ideas. And yes, I do take some guilty pleasure in student art that's just painfully bad.
I can't help feeling that the 61st annual University of Tennessee student art competition, on campus at the Ewing Gallery, feels almost grown up. With the surge in new art spaces downtown, more than a handful of the student artists in the show have exhibited before, and their works look professional. The graduate students in particular are already familiar names, serving up some of the best art in town. (Several are gearing up for their anticipated spring thesis shows.) But the dichotomy between the unnervingly amateur and the highly realized was blurred, with the majority of works this year just falling in between.
David Houston, the chief curator of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans, juried the competition and chose the title and theme of the show: Concept: Execution. It seems like an elementary premise, but its back-to-basics approach proved appropriate for such a varied exhibition.
The idea of concept and execution was most evident in two works by sculpture grad student Jacob Stanley. His installation at the Ewing entrance, "Edward Wiesmann Tipping a Chair Back," featured carefully stacked wooden chairs piled high enough to form an arch with a 20-foot column in the gallery. Stanley landed the cash award for Best Grad Entry for "Don't Touch Ohm's Law," a sculpture composed of live exposed wire plugged into a socket and dangling precariously on a corner wall. Also noteworthy is Jessica Kreutter's "Spoon Babies." She added flocking to the surface of her ceramic snail-like creatures, which were engaged in a disturbing and funny reproductive cycle. Kreutter's ceramics piece made reference to contemporary artists like Jeff Koons and marked a departure from traditional vessel-oriented pieces.
As usual, the photography department took home several honors, including Best Undergrad Entry for Jonathan Bagby's "Self-Portrait." Bagby's two entries in the show conveyed a mastery of lighting and a sense of drama, akin to the works of Phillip Lorca Di Corcia. Amy Jones' digital photo "Sequoyah Morning" was a dreamy color landscape, while Chelsea Weaver's "White Sands" featured cascading dunes and resembled a cover from National Geographic.
Painting this year proved to be a mixed bag. Jordan Meyers had three pieces in the show, but only "Tag Me" resonated, with its cheeky play on vanity in the Facebook era. Printmaking fared better, with a solid group of entries. Sonja Foard's screen-printed repeats of romance novel covers on wallpaper was well executed, and Jessie Van Der Laan's three untitled large-scale monotype prints were notable for their subtlety and refinement. Crystal Wagner's intaglio piece also skillfully mixed dainty paper cuts and detailed etchings.
Now for the bad stuff—I reckon it proved to be not so bad after all. On first viewing I was nonplussed by Jessica Dover's seemingly inane color drawing, "Bitches II." But its collection of bad girl-types posing and drinking had enough attitude and bravado to win me over in the end.