What are you doing? You have ten cubic feet, maybe less, white walls, and a bathroom to tell us: go. This was the challenge given to this year’s University of Chicago’s departing Masters in Fine Arts students. The Department of Visual Arts (DOVA) temporary space is displaying the work of one or two of the eight MFA thesis students every week until June 5. Despite the perplexing nature of many pieces, little is spared in the way of labels or explanation. The gallery space itself is rectangular, white, and unornamented: there is no grandeur here, simply art, and its success depends entirely on the viewer’s ability to connect.
It seems one way to do this is to include the audience in the artistic process. Erik Wenzel, an MFA student displaying this week, takes particular pleasure in asking us what we are doing, literally. His piece, “Convincing People,” consists of a blank canvas with at least a dozen questions that prod at exactly that idea. In a statement about his work, Wenzel writes he is interested firstly in art, “and then all the things around art that happen…the conversations people have about the art, the museum, the gallery, the exhibitions space.” He is intrigued by the meta-world that lies within, but is not limited to, the gallery walls, and his fascination is contagious in his mixed-media show, “Warm for your Formalism.”
Less inclusive, but equally interesting conceptually, is Vanessa Ruiz’s “Selections From Another Norm,” an exploration in portraiture that is most concerned with using art to make sociological observations about gender. In seven color photos, identical in their bluish crystalline texture, Ruiz documents the elegant poses of various female models, each one representing a different religious character of ambiguous sexual identity, except for several biblical examples.
The point is the ambiguity, or “blur,” according to Ruiz. “Christianity has an impact on society’s view on homosexuality,” she explains, in that it forces us to make gender distinctions where non-Abrahamic religions don’t. Protesting this notion, Ruiz “queered” certain religious figures that were originally represented as heterosexual, such as the ancient Judaic “Sophia.”
The idea of using esoteric religious texts to make a statement about modern America is both startlingly astute and appropriate, but Ruiz may struggle to communicate her thoughts through this show. While the authoritative gaze and pose of many of her subjects imply power, there are not enough allegorical cues to point the viewer in the esoteric direction that the artist indicates. Consequently, her show just seems like appealing portraits arranged without logic. Ruiz could do more to confront the viewer visually with what she is trying to say conceptually.
Kimmy Noonen returns the audience’s attention to the space immediately surrounding them by cleverly drawing attention to common but often overlooked social interactions. With the piece “Untitled (Map),” Noonen converts the immaterial into the material and then back again. What might look like a schizophrenic attempt at a treasure map is actually an intensely objective documentation of the movements of 20 people in a confined space by connecting circles affixed with words such as “move” or “talk” with arrows and dotted lines.
Not a single dashed line lacks an endpoint, but such connections become irrelevant as they themselves obscure the invisible interaction that they’re intended to document. Using what she calls “the language of ability (scientific structure),” Noonen’s quirky exploration proves to be a useful window into the way we mentally process our own lives.
DOVA Temporary, 5228 S. Harper Ave. Through June 5. Saturday-Tuesday, noon-5pm; openings Fridays 6-9pm. (773)753-4821. Schedule of exhibitors at dovatemporary.uchicago.edu