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Art Review

The Last Show on Earth: Mills College MFA Show

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Upon walking through the doors of the Mills College Art Museum, all I could say was, "YES!" Piles of junk, painted walls, and big sculptures greeted me, and it was clear that this year's crop of artists would maintain the legacy of the solid work we covered at Mills' MFA shows in 2009 and last year. The museum is grand and calls for art that measures up and fills the space, and the newly minted 2012 grads did their job. Their exhibition is titled The Last Show on Earth, and if it actually was, that would be OK by me.

I was on a mission to select a few favorites, but narrowing was a challenge. The mini solo exhibits gelled perfectly as one show, each artist in conversation with the next. Jocelyn Maggait's Free: A Utopian Project was the aforementioned pile of junk, which is what it looked like at first glance. This makeshift store of objects was culled from the free section on Craigslist, then curated and stacked together in poignant, aesthetically pleasing piles of handled objects, many of which had a creative bent. The artist invited her audience to take something home and consider the history of the object. I scored a plastic hot dog bun for my fake food collection and wondered how many children or animals had slobbered on it since 1987, which was the production date stamped on the bottom.

Sofia Sharpe's work focused on tools of the trade, highlighting their colorful beauty and playfulness as objects in both painting and sculptural form. Tressa Pack also isolated her tools, anthropomorphizing lamps and photo equipment by staging them outdoors, crowded together around unseen subjects. Her photos were arresting and mysterious and I felt like I could walk right into the largest one.

This group of artists experimented with video like it was a new toy; nearly every artist used it in distinct and clever ways. Camilla Newhagen, creator of the tallest piece in the show (an enormous, clothing-strewn sculpture), made stop-motion videos of clothes being tossed into a heap. Side-by-side, the two monitors looked like perfectly framed digital paintings. Newhagen is an elegant problem solver dealing with the fragility of structures built by accumulation.

I love stop-motion animation and was happy to see it used more than once. Madelyn Covey made a video of a woman oozing red yarn that is crocheted into curly strands as it exits her body. I appreciated Covey's unapologetic overuse of yarn, which has experienced a boost of importance in contemporary art with yarn bombing regularly making the news. Covey even crocheted covers for the headphones playing acoustic guitar soundtracks for her videos. Her large knitted (or crocheted -- I can't tell the difference) Talisman looked like a crazy butterfly, boldly towing the line between art and craft, begging to be critiqued with its kindergarten colors. Her art references the body and growth over time, and her medium is part of the message.

Samuel Levi Jones investigates "how decisions are made in giving various forms of public recognition," and created portraits of important figures printed in black ink on black paper made from recycled encyclopedia pages. The absence of color in his stunning full-wall installations spoke volumes.

Michael Mersereau's video installation seemed simple at first -- a film shot through the windshield of a car. But then I realized the passing street view was not what it seemed, and the rearview mirror wasn't telling the truth. The composition and cinematic quality of the installation was strikingly similar to the shadowy paintings I remember Mersereau making as an undergrad (I happen to know because we used to be neighbors).

Matthew Gottschalk made a video installed at ankle height on a pleasantly color-blocked pastel wall. There was a crafty puppet in the video and it was fun to see it in real life after rounding the corner into Gottschalk's installation space, which also housed a sculpture of a deceased dignitary, and a comic book full of blank dialogue bubbles. The narrative was puzzling and I decided to keep it that way.

With its dreamy campus full of grassy meadows, tree-lined streets, squirrels, and swimming pools, Mills churns out high-quality batches of Masters of Fine Art who all seem to make fresh and positive work. Many artists I've interviewed have mentioned a need to shake their grad school restrictions out of their heads as if they need to undo a brainwashing. But I suspect it's different for the students at Mills. They seem to grow and develop exactly as they need to, then hit the ground running, with momentum, straight out of the gate. When they graduate, I picture them hugging and crying like kids boarding the buses home from the best summer camp ever.

Photos won't do this exhibit justice; it needs to be seen, heard, and physically experienced, so catch it before it closes on May 27th. It is The Last Show on Earth and time is running out.

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