University of Georgia MFA show: Precision and just a little grandeur

Photography doesn't quite capture the feeling of standing underneath Layet Johnson's ceiling installation. Above: Layet Johnson, Groundlight, 2011, plywood, cactus plants, other mixed media, and one basketball. Photo courtesy the University of Georgia.

A bumper crop of MFA candidates at the University of Georgia have their work on exhibit now through April 15, spread throughout various galleries and exhibition spaces of the Lamar Dodd School of Art building in Athens, Georgia. It’s a diverse show, composed of students from many departments: drawing and painting, fabric, jewelry, photography, sculpture, ceramics, and printmaking. The installation is somewhat cramped, possibly forcing some compromise as to the number of works displayed and how they are presented. But even with 24 artists and the inevitable variation in quality and resolution that such diversity brings, the annual roundup of graduate work consistently provides one of the most exciting combinations of ideas, execution, presentation and range of visual art to be had in Athens. The packed house at the opening reception reinforced this excitement, but a return trip is required to view and appreciate what these artists have made.

A passage in artist Charles Arthur Westfall’s section of the exhibit catalog quotes Tony Cragg: “[As an artist,] one is taking the material of the world, imposing a set of forms on it in a very concentrated way, to actually reinvest our existence with meaning.” I definitely get that feeling from this show, especially the parts about material and concentration: There’s a highly resolved quality of execution and some grandeur in installation and scale. But the show isn’t playful or loose, and there are no opportunities to detect the stages of process or discovery that produced these works. It’s like a well stocked trophy case.

Of course, there was no curator or central theme, and the diversity of disciplines makes it hard to spot any trends. The issues engaged by individual artists include religion, consumption, identity, obsession, memory, and fantasy. I’ve listed some of my top picks below.

Helen Davis Farmer, Harlequin, mixed media. Photo courtesy the University of Georgia.
Helen Davis Farmer, Harlequin, (detail) mixed media. Photo by Michael Lachowski.

In the past Helen Davis Farmer has worked with ribbon, fabric, and soft 3D forms. But here she presents rigid work informed by upholstery and rugs that resembles ceramic with its glaze-like “baked-in” colors and glossy sheen. Puffy wall-mounted square pieces are hung in diamond orientation in two sizes with the larger squares heavily dimpled by a central “button.” A floor piece, Heavy Petting, is a bear-rug motif with upholstery rope edging. Farmer employs dichotomies of soft and hard with surface pattern, interval, and material under expert control.

Janie Askew’s two large drawings in graphite and pastel chalk are gorgeously rendered — which makes their otherwise grody organic forms of viscera more palatable. Her line, shading, smudging, and erasing is heavily worked, yet they successfully support her floating, swirling billows of form in compositions where color is used just barely as a highlight.

Jacqueline Nicole Davis, Apply, digital video, total run time: 5 minutes. Photo by Michael Lachowski.

Jacqueline Nicole Davis’s work explores glamour, beauty, and image. Large color prints of collaged magazine clippings of ears, lips, eyebrows, and other body parts are formed into stacked cylinders. Although her short video piece, Apply, plays on a simple screen, it attracted many engaged viewers at the opening. It consists of a single take of the artist, glamorously groomed and wearing makeup, as she calmly bites off and chews from a number of tubes of lipstick, occasionally smacking her lips and revealing the mushed-up reds that are stuck to her teeth and gums.

Leslie Burns’s seven identically presented photos are black-and-white platinum palladium prints featuring non-idealized nude bodies in partially concealed modes: lying face down in the grass, covered in wheat flour, drenched in syrup. Handwork is present in the brushed-on, light sensitive-material and the rough-edged prints that float in deep jet-black frames.

Charles Arthur Westfall presents two untitled paintings on stretched bare brown linen, both combining a flat geometric pattern with painterly “full color” imagery. One has ravaged body parts that look like the aftermath of a bomb, overlaid with the pattern, while in the larger work the imagery is masked by the pattern. The balance of grid, painterly and empty, and a beautiful color palette is perfect: implied violence and randomness veiled by barrier and precision.

Layet Johnson, Spectrum IV (Leonard Mullins Effect), (detail) steel, shock cord, and zip ties. Photo by Michael Lachowski.

Layet Johnson has disparate works in three locations at this show. His works’ spirit and energy, along with his use of ready-made materials, fill me with joy. In the main atrium, Spectrum IV (Leonard Mullins Effect) comprises bands of shock cord in sets of rich color stretched between two long horizontal metal bars.

Groundlight, another work by Johnson, is in the remote but awesome Bridge Gallery, which at first appears empty because the piece is on the ceiling — or, rather, is itself a suspended ceiling filled with squares of raw and teal-stained composite board and fine-grade plywood. Mounted in holes cut in the panels are downward-facing cactus plants — small spherical ones in brown plastic pots, and tall phallic ones emerging from small holes at their base. In addition to the 105 cacti, half of a basketball emerges from a single metal panel. The seemingly casual deployment of ready-made objects tends to disguise what is actually an expert formal composition of empty panels, cacti shape and grouping intervals, color, grid, surface texture, and the single ball. All of this is lit by bluish grow lights.

Johnson’s facile art-ease was on display in his third piece, the drawing Diptych (NBA MVP). It’s a cartoonish doodle of vignettes and references from his life, art, and friends. The piece is dated 3/25/11, the date of this show’s opening reception, and he hung it up that day. I love that.


Michael Lachowski is an artist and entrepreneur based in Athens, Georgia, and the publisher of Young, Foxy & Free, a quarterly creative magazine distributed at local businesses in Athens and Atlanta.

(Disclosure: Charles Westfall is a contributor to this publication. In pursuit of featuring work that contributes to important discourse in our region, as well as our commitment to transparency, our policy is to disclose instead of exclude.)

The UGA 2011 MFA Thesis Exhibition continues at the University of Georgia’s Lamar Dodd School of Art through Friday, April 15, 2011. Click here for more information about these graduates’ work.


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