Trace Elements Gives Art Professors a Chance to Showcase Work
It is easy to decide that professors exist solely to teach us, grade us and — in some cases — make our lives living hell. We often lose sight of the fact that art professors do not exist merely to equip students with the skills to become starving artists. Professors are, in fact, intellectual human beings engaged in their own work, and as students, it is important to keep this in mind and give them the respect they deserve. Trace Elements, the current exhibition at the Allen Memorial Art Museum, gives us a chance to do just that.
The first AMAM show in 30 years to feature only the work of studio art professors at the College, it is linked by a shared exploration of the landscape and attention to discovering and coming to terms with origins and domestic life. The six artists — Rian Brown-Orso, Sarah Schuster, Pipo Nguyen-Duy, John Pearson, Nanette Yannuzzi-Macias and Johnny Coleman — contributed their most recent work to the exhibit and helped curator Stephen Borys organize and piece the show together.
Trace Elements opens with a small dark space, a wall and three screens designed to look like the door and twin windows on the façade of a house. This is Breadcrumbs, a film by Brown-Orso, professor of new media. If you visit at an odd time, you will get a seat and headphones and your attention will immediately surrender to this collage of emotionally-charged images. You will be drawn into an abstract narrative of a woman, or mother, traveling the landscape in search of a home.
The next exhibit will throw you into what seems to be the sterilized laboratory of an “artistic Darwin.” Schuster’s drawings and paintings catalogue species of plants, flowers and murky deep-sea creatures, simultaneously turning them into specimens of beauty and art, drawing inspiration from 19th century French illustrator and artist Pierre-Joseph Redoute.
Schuster’s powerful painting, “Origin of the Species,” explores the classical theory claiming that humanity originated in one human body that split in two. Schuster explains her passion for representing the landscape around her in art.
“The representation of the world around me is a way of finding myself in the world, and of finding myself in relation to that world. It is an act of intimacy, ingestion and distancing and the paintings are the meditation of the process, the image, the interface between my imagination and reality,” she said.
Moving forward, you will be confronted with a series of large, chromogenic prints which hearken back to the Romantic paintings of figures in pastoral landscapes. Nguyen-Duy, professor of photography, is exhibiting two series of works, “East of Eden” and “The Garden.”
Nguyen-Duy explained that even before he left Vietnam, he viewed the United States as a Garden of Eden, a paradise of sorts. After 9/11, Nguyen-Duy, along with most Americans, was forced to reconsider the country and re-contextualize the Garden of Eden. In the series, the landscape remains serene and beautiful, but the figures are creatures of conflict, representing the struggle of regrowth and change post-9/11.
While he was looking for subject matter for the “East of Eden” series, Nguyen-Duy stumbled upon an old abandoned greenhouse, one of many in Ohio, left behind to rot in the 1970s. About the size of a football field, the greenhouse had turned into a wild and “intriguing ecosystem” of plants, and was fertilized by bird excrement and surrounded by animals, including deer and ducks. Fascinated by this deteriorating structure, Nguyen-Duy began to photograph it, scientifically documenting its slow ruin. The project also holds personal meaning for the photography professor because the long-term documentation serves as a mark of his presence in Ohio and its status as a home for him.
Trace Elements continues into the modern art gallery where you will stroll down a hallway of the colorful silkscreen images of Pearson. The images, abstracted and colorful shapes and lines, seem like pages in a flipbook. You will be able to imagine them as variations or stages of the same form, growing and changing over time or distance. These mesmerizing works and his larger, abstract sculptures as well, deal with the process of metamorphosis.
To your left is what appears to be the contents of a room, the furniture moved haphazardly to its center, perhaps for the walls to be painted. Yannuzzi-Macias’s mixed media sculptures explore the concept of Thich Nhai Hanh, meditation in everyday life. Her works explore domesticity and the marking of labor and time passage through collections of her sweepings and children’s hair, teeth and nails.
Beside this is a large treehouse. Though you are not standing in someone’s backyard, Coleman will make you think you are. His creation appeals to all the senses and transports you into another place.
“My piece in Trace Elements, [‘A Promise of Blue in Green’], is a quiet prayer of rest, peace and joy for my mother. She passed in May ’03, and so for the first time in my life, I am facing the rest of my life without her physical presence accessible at least by phone,” she said.
The tree house is indeed a sculpture of serenity. You will ascend the wooden stairs and enter a small room with pillows. You will face a tranquil blue wall and hear the sounds of Coleman and Yannuzi-Macias’ children.
Trace Elements will leave you, the unsuspecting museum viewer, wowed by the talent at Oberlin. Fully experiencing this exhibit is like taking a nice, long art shower. The variety of styles, mediums and approaches to art in this exhibit is overwhelming. The messages, conveyed and supported by these works are fascinating and thought provoking. The fact that these are all artists at Oberlin College is incredibly impressive. As Nguyen-Duy triumphantly stated, “This is about six artists at the top of their game right now.”
The show runs through Jan. 15 at the Allen Memorial Art Museum.