The common thread in this year's Mills MFA exhibit seemed to be the environment, as in "Save the Whales,” or environments, as in, "This is an installation about personal space.” Ambiguity also seemed to be the name of the game, as you can tell from the title of the show.
The exhibit opens with a super dark and spooky spiral-walled, cavernous installation and ends with a shrine of camera skeletons encircling a gas lamp on a pedestal. The cameras are clicking and it's neat, but suddenly you're claustrophobic and have to leave. Skip ahead to Keegan Luttrel's two-channel video installation (there's always a two-channel video installation) and you can get as close as possible to the feeling of being in a plane crash without actually perishing. Fun!
It's impossible to miss a towering installation of speakers in the back of the Mills Art Museum, which has a ceiling so high it's necessary for someone to take up that air space. And Kate Short was the one to do it. At first glance, you wonder why all those speakers are going to waste, not making a sound, but when you lean in, you hear the ominous reverberation that says the speakers are live. The tower has a slim opening that makes you want to crawl inside, but it's just narrow enough that not even a baby could squish through it. But that's okay because you can fit a camera in there, and it seems like being fully immersed in the low-humming power tower might make you implode anyway. Kate Short also made a diagrammatic painting of a colorful speaker wall; her work implies she's a bass head, but her artist statement begins with a few words on silence.
On to the immersive personal space installations. One, by Katy Warner, is like the dorm room of a graphic design student in the '90s. A chalkboard wall is riddled with feverish, nonsensical notes, and there are enough messy personal effects lying around to make you feel like a creeper. Next door is Jenny Sharaf's The Blond Experience, a mysterious and shallow-feeling installation of pinkish paintings and objects -- a shag rug, a video of a chatty blonde with a Baldessari-style red dot over her face, weird photos of more blondes, and other things Barbie might have in her apartment if she was a curator.
Jenny Sharaf, The Blond Experience
Across the way was another installation by Barbara Obata, a living room filled with odd, bagged objects that look like stand-ins for any old decorative junk, or possessions headed for the auction house. Their anonymity seemed to point to the banality of coffee table décor. The installation also holds a performative wall drawing, a table with some tools, what look like two yellow marshmallows, and shelves of more ambiguous objects. All three installations felt like puzzles I'd never solve, despite being fun and interesting.
If I had to guess, I'd say this year's crop of Mills grads are control freaks, but not in a bad way. Some of the work has instructions like, "Please use this magnifying glass to look at the art and return it after,” and "Please interact with the installation but don't mess it up.” Evan Barbour's sea creature specimens necessitated the magnification. A crab and a turtle are mounted on the wall like tiny victims of society. They are preserved (or rendered) so perfectly and colorfully that they seem alive, like little circus performers who are really good at holding still. Barbour, who was trained as a biological illustrator, also had some photos and drawings about humans vs. nature that felt heavy handed but were striking, and the clear message was refreshing in this case.
Nadja Eulee Miller
There were handfuls of other desirable objects in the show, including Claire Colette's gold-leafed stones, some impressive ceramics by Nadja Eulee Miller, and earthy, glittery objects by Meri Page. For me, many of the wall works were overshadowed by the sculptures and installations, but the overall exhibition seemed to be a successful launching point for the 2013 grads. Check out the exhibition catalog to find out what their work is really all about.
Compound Vision is on view through May 26, 2013. For more info, visit out the Mills MFA blog at millsmfa.blogspot.com.
All photos by Kristin Farr.