Anxiety variety: Artists unnerve with unseen energy

“Conflict, conflict, conflict!” is the mantra for aspiring screenwriters out to craft a successful script. But it also describes the current underlying the sculpture, painting, photography, and video in “Untitled: A Mid-Atlantic MFA Exhibition,” on view at the University of Virginia’s Ruffin Gallery. The eight contributing artists nurture uneasy tension by upending everyday icons of contemporary culture.

The exhibit grew out of a conversation between UVA art history graduate students Michael Maizels and Brittany Strupp, who wanted both to curate a show of up-and-coming artists and to offer art history scholars-in-training the chance to write about their studio-art peers. After announcing the project, they received over 200 inquiries from MFA students in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina, before settling on eight artists whose compelling work spoke to the academic interests of Maizels and Strupp’s contemporaries.

Maizels says they chose the name “Untitled” because they wanted the artists’ pieces to inform the show. Nevertheless, thematic unity emerges from each artist’s grappling with discontent and a shared sense that destructive forces threaten domestic well-being. In these artists’ visions, things have not gone according to plan.

Several use household furniture to create surreal spectacles that prod viewers’ discomfort. In Oscar Santillan’s video, “Cascade,” a chest of drawers stands off-kilter in the middle of a flooded river. Water flows not only around the chest but also spills out of its upper drawers, an image at once disturbing and magical. Similarly, sculptor Tracy Spencer-Stonestreet displaces the safe-and-secure expectations of furniture, literally stripping away the veneer of a dining table in one piece and nailing a chained silver spoon in the exposed area. Photographer Jamie Lawyer’s “The Rewrite Series” and sculptor Travis Donovan’s “Molt” also wreak havoc with domestic tranquility.

Particularly disconcerting is another Donovan piece, “Smolder.” A textured pyramid of dried and gnarled tobacco leaves emits wisps of smoke from its unseen interior, accompanied by a strange rumbling and sweet smell. It's repulsive yet inviting, like something found in the woods of a fairytale.

In fact, the magical realism of fairytales is another unifying aspect of “Untitled.” Both Chris Musina and painter Ali Miller draw on the moral ambiguity of folktales and fantasy in their pieces. Miller’s chaos of abstraction and refined illustration in her painting  “Break it Down” is beautifully anxious— like the overall exhibition.

A well-produced catalog containing essays written by Maizels and Strupp’s fellow grad students accompanies “Untitled.”
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"Untitled: A Mid-Atlantic MFA Exhibition," featuring work by Adam Nelson, Ali Miller, Chris Musina, Jamie Lawyer, Oscar Santillan, Tracy Spencer-Stonestreet, Travis Donovan, and Will Machin is on view through September 13 at the University of Virginia's Ruffin Gallery, Third Floor, Ruffin Hall, 179 Culbreth Road. For more information visit www.untitledexhibition.com, or contact Michael Maizels at michael.maizels@gmail.com.