A quick survey of the University of Tennessee 2010 Honors Exhibition at the Ewing Gallery reveals, unexpectedly, a sampling of recent movie trends—3-D glasses, torture porn—and like those tools of the trade, if the work of the graduating class doesn’t exactly feel of the moment, it nestles comfortably within the decade that largely informed it, i.e., the last one. There’s even paper craft.
But the pieces aren’t as gimmicky as all that may sound, and among these works are examples of skill and scale. Derek Whitlock’s “The Martyrdom of St. Erasmus of Formiae” is a depiction of the well-known, and sometime painted, tale in which St. Erasmus’ gut is sliced open and his intestines wound by crank around a horizontal pole. Here, raised on a stage, three figures, life-size cutouts, participate to varying degrees in the torture of a naked, horizontal fourth. The lines that create their features blur historical reference and cartoon, but their facial expressions, and, especially, the use of color (red, of course) belie whatever smarts lie in the endeavor. The overall result is a little funny, and absorbed pretty quickly. Whitlock has put care into its development, but the puzzle doesn’t quite have a thousand pieces.
The other beast of a piece is Bethany Robertson’s floor-to-ceiling “(In)formation.” What looks to be a ream of paper finds new purpose in layers of bowed and lacy arches, clustered tubes that resemble well-mannered sea sponges, and long strips jumbled into loose orbs that resemble ill-mannered tumbleweeds. On the wall behind, the bubbles and blooms continue in paint, and it’s the upward lift of the pleasantly looping brush strokes that call attention to the slight droop of the paper mass, either blossoming or oozing from the junction of two walls. A bit less precious, really, is Jo Beth Richards’ installation involving a silver platter, a carpet of pink roses, glitter, colored glitter, and colored glitter that covers the two man-made miniature animal trophies mounted on the wall. (These may be the most marketable things in the gallery, and are surely some kind of tangential upgrade on last decade’s emergence of cardboardsafari.com.)
Also over the top is architecture student Ryan Flener’s plan for the Yellowstone School of Art. (The Honors Exhibition features the work of students graduating from both the art and architecture departments. On the way out, I checked Flener’s major, just to be sure.) Included in addition to oodles of ways to manipulate sight lines to create specific views of the Grand Canyon and the rest of the park is a windowless gallery with fabricated rock formations situated throughout. Flener’s visions are based on the paintings of Yellowstone by Thomas Moran, who specialized in landscapes of the American West, many of which would invite Thomas Kinkade to eat his heart out. Flener lets the ideas about validation of experience mingle naturally with the fantastic and funny, and I hope there’s some earnestness mixed in. Because despite what little the show’s pieces collectively reflect, there are considered moments to be found.