September 19, 2019 | 49° F

“Action at a Distance” MFA thesis show demands to be felt by visitors


In the center of Downtown New Brunswick rests the heartbeat of the visual arts programs at the Mason Gross School of the Arts, and twice a semester the Rutgers Civic Square Building utilizes its gallery space to pump out its graduating class’s MFA Thesis Show exhibition.

This year the white-walled, open spaces were transformed by Mason Gross graduate students Ryan Chin, Jamie Williams, Ali Osborn, Ben Weathers, Julia Hickey, Bryan Volta and Sam Ashford.

With paintings, drawings, mixed-media compositions and performance art pieces, the artists’ works came together to create the “Action at a Distance” exhibition that opened last weekend and will run until Feb. 11.

Half of the artists from this year’s graduating class prepared their pieces as the first part of the two-part show, which will feature the second half on Feb. 17 in the same space.

The first room of the gallery is meant to feel akin to the underworld and was created by Bryan Volta and Sam Ashford.

“My whole idea for the show was to make things seem like they were happening underground,” Ashford said. “And I was thinking about ‘what is underground? What is sub-cultural? And who is the person that is the scapegoat for cleanliness?’”

One of Ashford’s favorite pieces is called “Anguish and Love,” which is a suit, fixed against the wall and made of a plethora of materials from newspaper, bubble wrap, installation and collected pieces that had been worn by several people throughout the opening reception.

“I basically collected garbage for three months,” Ashford said about getting all of the pieces to create the approximately 14-foot high façade.

Ashford said he has been musing with the ideas of the underground for some time, and it was originally thought of as a movie idea. But until that’s done, the project is manifesting itself into sculptures and performance pieces.

Above “Anguish and Love” is a sewer drain grate, suspended from the ceiling, that frames the point of view gallery visitors are suppose to have in the underground world that Ashford and Volta fabricated in their space.

On the other side of their room is “Old City,” which is a piece that further enforces the idea of being under the mainstream world. Visitors are invited to climb up a set of stairs, figuratively bringing them to street level.

On the landing, a video is set up on an old television screen of Ashford covering city streetlights with a yellow film to dim their lighting after the bulbs were replaced with LED lights. The video plays on a loop, showing Ashford using rock-climbing cables to climb up to the light bulbs in the middle of the night.

In the Ashford-Volta room you can also see “The Brain,” a cabinet that is one of the collaborative pieces in the room showcasing the objects that “create a logic around the show,” Ashford said.

From the collaborative room, you can reach the work of Julia Hickey, a California-native whose work revolves around the constructions of gender.

“My work has a lot to do with female catharsis and embracing female power and sexuality and fertility,” Hickey said. “And also the kind of violent side that comes with that in our culture.”

Her works, “Mother,” “Herd,” “Day to Night” and “Proud Mary” are made of fabric with dynamic folds, metal shapes and even plastic unicorn heads, respectively.

“I think of her as a proud but beautiful whore,” Hickey said of her “Proud Mary.” “But I don’t want the work to be didactic. I just want people to get feelings, and I don’t have a really direct message.”

When looking at the works there is no right or wrong for most of the artists in terms of perception.

Ashford said his work has reached the viewer well “just as long as they feel.”

Brittany Gibson

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