The Faculty to Communicate

Posted May 29, 2008 in Arts & Culture

Faculty shows often are a mixed bag, yet Uncommon Practice at Pitzer College presents a widely divergent experience. A problematic feature of faculty shows in general is that, by definition, they limit curatorial voice. Contributing to the confusion is that some of this work is creative, while other pieces, within the media studies discipline, are political or documentary. That said, the show does have its share of works that are dense and ambitious.  


In Recut Project, a DVD projection by Ming-Yuen S. Ma, six artists interpret Cut Piece, Yoko Ono’s unnerving and at times excruciating performance. Ono’s act (which can be found online) features her sitting motionless on stage as members of the audience approach her one by one and, using a pair of shears, remove her clothes one cut at a time. Ma’s DVD documents performances at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE), in which artists appropriate Ono’s work to deeply personal effect. Particularly challenging are Recut 1 and Recut 5. Ma’s subject the former poses the question, “What happens when the body is corrupted by disease?” and, ultimately, what is the essence of our nature? A pair of scissors submerged in a jar of honey, along with used syringes, resists cutting as if in revolt. The artist in Ma’s Recut 5 presents her body as metaphor for colonial conquest. Her performance theorizes language as an implement of cultural imperialism; she’s interrupted from writing in her mother tongue each time a member of the audience inscribes their thoughts on her skin. And as the audience writes on her, she becomes a sacrificial lamb.     


The Drift, Kelly Sears’ exquisite looped DVD projection that’s pieced together from acquired still photos, touches on questions of what it means to be human, as well as what our place in the universe is. It owes something to Stanley Kubric’s masterpiece 2001, A Space Odyssey, and Andrei Tarkofsky’s Solaris. There’s an air of mystery and otherworldliness that’s sustained throughout the video, but as it progresses, something of the appealing ambiguity is lost. In places, the narration strikes a wistful and regretful tone maybe too much—perhaps suggesting very strong what to feel. The final line in the video functions as a challenge, and, at the same time, presents a too-tidy, narrow ending in the manner of a moral fable. Nevertheless, there are some fantastic lines in this piece, like: “We were told to look away from the drifters and look away from the sky,” and “ . . . losing themselves to the song that sounded like emptiness,” which has the ring of the Zen riddle about the sound of one hand clapping.


Ruins, a 78-minute looped DVD projection by Jesse Lerner that’s distilled from acquired documentary footage, still photos, and fabricated film, is a demanding work that deserves repeated viewing. Multiple points of view are presented as real and fictive narrators posit theories on Mesoamerica. Statements in this video run the gambit; some segments will leave you shaking your head while others may have you laughing hysterically. History judges us in ways we can’t predict, and one wonders how our cultural knowledge will be perceived in 50 to 100 years.  


Aids Lounge, a multi media installation by Alexandra Juhasz and Gina Lamb, features posters painted on various bits of cardboard, fabric, foam core, and what appears to be a thrift store painting, spouting slogans like “good things happen to those who wait on sex,” “for rimming, always use a latex barrier,” and “real men always use condoms.”  These slogans recall truisms, playground taunts and bumper stickers that read, “Real men love Jesus.” The use of shame and impugning an individual’s sense of self to modify behavior has been the staple of moralists for generations. While this kind of education is necessary to save lives, politics and art don’t often make for demanding, nuanced art.


Jessica McCoy’s painting is beautiful enough—a chamber drama complete with sleeping beauty, presented in fractured views. McCoy demonstrates an accomplished sense of color, poison-laced greens and soothing earth tones. The work is controlled and precise, bridling at its grid-like restraint. It puts us in the position of voyeur, but without perversity or discomfort.


Kathryn Miller’s rafts—sanded sticks containing polished rocks and shells—made precious by a chain which cordons the work from the rest of the gallery, conveys to her audience, at the very best, condescension—or worst, distrust.  


It’s hard to imagine a show that would justly present the work of such a diverse group without significantly larger gallery spaces. As presented, we get only a cursory view of each artist’s work, and in some cases, an appetite for more.


Uncommon Practice at Pitzer College Art Galleries, Nichols Gallery, Broad Center & Lenzner Family Art Gallery, Atherton Hall, 1050 North Mills Avenue, Claremont, (909) 607-3143. Show runs May 16–August 8. Gallery hours, Tues.–Fri., noon–5PM, or by appointment; Closing reception: Friday, August 8, 6–8PM


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