Off Pink: Parsons Fine Arts 2015 MFA Thesis Exhibition (The Kitchen- NYC)

I first went to The Kitchen last summer on a trip with my Sotheby’s Curating class. It has since become one of my go-to galleries when I want to be artistically or spiritually inspired, or just when I want to think about life a little differently. The artists The Kitchen represents use a variety of unique mediums, from video, to photography, to found objects, to a combination of all of these. Many of the works are politically minded in a way that spurs a dialogue about current issues. Yesterday I was pleasantly surprised to find that the current exhibit on display at the Kitchen is the MFA thesis exhibition for Parsons Fine Arts 2015. Even more lucky is the fact that I managed to walk in during the NINE DAYS this exhibit is being shown.  This show closes on SATURDAY, MAY 16th, so get on the subway and go see this show, stat.

And here’s why: it’s incredible. Even though the show is a thesis exhibition, and therefore not necessarily a cohesively curated exhibit with a central theme, it still feels unified. Many of the artists focused on representing the flip side of progress; the perils of a sexist, celebrity-obsessed, western-centric world. The artwork shown in “Off Pink” reveals the darker layers of social norms and questions them, turning them inside out for viewers to see. And the viewers cringe, because what they are seeing has always been blatantly there, but they have never noticed.

The first work that caught my eye was Leah Schrager’s Barcode series. Here are “Barcode II” and “Barcode III” (2014) of the four photograph series. In each, a model is shown in lingerie, posing provocatively for the camera. She appears to be encased in plastic wrapping, stamped with bar codes. The wrapping resembles packaging for everyday objects, which suggests that Schrager is pointing at female objectification through the metaphor of the plastic. It is a frightening thought once you really think about it. Stamping women with bar codes suggests that they are there for display, scrutiny, and eventually, purchase. It is only a metaphor for the leering male gaze, but it leaves a bad taste in your mouth to see women so blatantly equated with objects. This is precisely the point of the images. One walks away thinking about whether his or her actions reinforce objectification.

The wrapping is also stamped with the phrase “danger of suffocation” in several languages. It is common for plastic bags to bear this warning, but in the context of these photographs, it has a deeper significance. Perhaps Schrager is pointing to the suffocation felt by women due to pressures to fit the societal mold of femininity. The women pictured here are curvy, made-up, blemish-free and frizz-free. Society also over-sexualizes women, which creates a suffocating pressure to be sexy. The Barcode series takes the notion of the beautiful female model and questions its effects on society, particularly our expectations of femininity sexuality.

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Another work I enjoyed was Aaron Cooper’s “1500 Year old Greek Statue Found in Mediterranean Sea” (2015). This piece, shown in its entirety on the left-most photograph, is comprised of several parts. There is a shelf on the wall with a printed out sheet of paper from Ebay, plus two photographs. Then there are photographs on the wall. Lastly, three projectors on the floor project moving images onto thin screens.

The piece of paper from Ebay states that a 1500 year old Greek Statue from the Mediterranean Sea is up for sale for $500,000. The seller says that it is currently in Gaza, and that transportation has yet to be figured out. He also says that he does not know the historical significance of the statue. Beside this sheet are pictures of the statue. On the wall, there are pictures of a person holding up a white form to the photographs. On the floor, projectors project rotating images of the statue itself onto screens. Each projector shows a different part of the statue, one showing the head, the next its torso, and so on.

What are we to make of this configuration? I circled the set-up for several minutes, trying to connect the pieces. What was clear to me was that this is a commentary on artwork taken from its place of origin and sold in the US or Europe. It is a critique of the western state of mind that historical objects belong in western museums, where they can be viewed and studied by western academics, rather than in their native lands. It is evidence of the western superiority complex that has plagued the world for many centuries, and has continued into this one. But at the same time, I think that this work is meant to open a deeper dialogue. This is not only about statues found in Gaza that have been taken to the US. Given the recent events in Syria and Iraq (ISIS stormed museums and destroyed ancient artifacts in these countries), the world is now asking the question: Whose responsibility is it to protect the legacy of art and history? Furthermore, is it more important for ancient (and contemporary) art to stay in the lands where it was created, or for the art to be protected? And WHO has the right to decide?

This piece specifically could have asked these questions with the sheet printed from Ebay alone. So why incorporate the photos and the screens? One idea I have is that, in walking around the work and seeing it from all angles, the viewer physically embodies the journey of thought it takes to understand this complex issue. One is, in essence, discovering the many sides of the issue of ownership by walking through the artwork. The rotating images literally support this notion of the many sides of an issue. However, I find this interpretation a little too literal. It is also possible that the projectors are meant to represent the western gaze. By capturing the ancient statue on the screen, the statue becomes rooted in technology, the present, and most importantly, western ownership. In this interpretation, the projector in this artwork represents the act of taking for one’s own.

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I really loved Patience Rustomji’s “Troy Towers: 40 Conger Street” (2015). The title refers to a street in New Jersey, which must have some significance to the artist, thought I personally have no associations to make with it.

The entire piece seemed to glow eerily from within. The central table of “Troy Towers” looks like it has been abruptly left, with a drawer half open. Upon closer look, this idea of a moment preserved in time is heightened.

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In each glass vase, everyday objects are half encased in golden-brown oil. Beads rest on the surface and bits of fabric cover the vases. This gives them the faraway appearance of organ vials filled with formaldehyde. It seems that organs are being preserved. When one looks closer, he sees that it is not a heart and a liver dripping in liquid but a shoe and a porcelain cat, a phone and a remote.

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What is Rustomji trying to say with these eerily laminated jars of preserved objects? The feeling I get while looking at “Troy Towers” is triviality. All of these objects preserve a moment, and yet the things that occupied that moment seem utterly banal. What is a porcelain cat in the grand scheme of life? Why do we care so much for a phone and a remote when they are just pieces of plastic? Without the associations behind objects– nostalgia and family for a porcelain heirloom, or communication for a remote– they lose their meaning. Thus, we are able to step back and question why we really need them. My interpretation of “Troy Towers: 40 Conger Street” is that it is a commentary on consumer culture and the focus on things as opposed to experiences in today’s society. The desk’s resemblance to an altar also creates a mood of decay. Is humanity really dead, and can we resurrect it with attention to the world around us?

What is still frustrating me is that I cannot make sense of the title. Why is this remnant of a moment, forever preserved, named for a specific street? Did Rustomji live there? If so, I cannot tell if the moment preserved is a positive or negative one. I sense stillness and banality, but do not feel that the artist has passed judgement on the scene. The ambiguity leaves me restless, and maybe that is Rustomji’s interpretation.

This is most definitely not a closed interpretation… the next visitor at the Kitchen could have had a totally different read on this piece. Let me know what you think!

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Lastly, I’d like to talk about Buzz Slutzky’s “Religious Beliebs” (2015). This is going to be very difficult to explain, because the work includes the bed, t-shirt, and posters you see in the first picture, as well as a three-episode video. The best way to experience “Religious Beliebs” is to go see it, so please PLEASE find time to make it to the Kitchen. My words will not do this multimedia work justice.

…but I’ll try anyway. Firstly, there’s a twin bed made with yellow and green floral sheets. Behind the bed is a Justin Bieber t-shirt that has a yellow Star of David appliqué sewn into the front. It is reminiscent of the badges Jews were forced to wear during the Holocaust. It also reminded me of the brief buzz created when Bieber himself wrote in the Anne Frank House guest book, “I’m sure she would have been a belieber.” German posters and photographs decorate the wall beside the t-shirt. Beside the bed is a TV playing three different episodes of a video.

The first opens with an actress who looks like Anne Frank writing in a paperback copy of “Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl” as if it is her diary. A voiceover plays while the actress smiles and sighs, pretending to have all the thoughts the voiceover dictates. The words are phrases from Anne Frank’s actual diary, spliced with new dialogue that references Justin Bieber, and a devotion to pizza. This Anne is in love with both, and imagines what a date with Justin would be like. It was disorienting to hear the thoughts I read in “Diary of a Young Girl” modernized to make sense in the context of today’s celebrity culture. She idolizes Bieber, but viewers are left feeling like this Anne has been tarnished by exposure to the 21st century, namely the indiscretions of celebrities and the dark hole of the Internet. We are horrified because we think of her as an innocent girl who would later become a victim.

And yet, she was also one of the most profound and intellectual writers of her time. It makes one re-examine how Anne Frank, and other cultural figures, are categorized and understood. She is simultaneously an innocent little girl, a sexually maturing adolescent, and a profound writer. When modern references collide with Anne’s cultural representation, we can see how distorting the media can be in portraying a person’s identity.

The second episode is created with animated drawings. Anne and Justin sit together at a pizza parlor. A voiceover reads lyrics to Justin’s song lyrics in response to phrases from Anne’s diary. The juxtaposition of the two texts highlights, in my opinion, how ridiculous Justin Bieber’s lyrics are. I’m not sure if that’s what Slutzy meant to do, but it is certainly the effect. After Anne says something along the lines of being concerned about the war, Bieber intones, “Baby, baby, baby, oh. Baby, baby, baby, no! Baby, baby, baby… woah,” eliciting several laughs from viewers. My favorite bit is when Anne writes about the sirens outside the house where she is hiding. Bieber croons, “Oh baby, it’s just the paparazzi.” This Anne strikes a pose in front of the open window.

I liked this episode because it had the effect of putting things in perspective. Anne’s prose is much more eloquent than Bieber’s, and decidedly more calm than the fervent “baby” repeated over and over. This episode highlighted the triviality of modern celebrity culture by juxtaposing how terribly boring the lyrics of a billboard top 40 artist are in comparison with the diary entries of a 14 year old girl.

The last episode shows Anne singing along to current pop music and dancing in two different rooms, which I thought was the saddest and most poignant of all. I stopped thinking about any commentary being made on the present and instead focused on this brief moment of happiness for the real Anne, being depicted by this Anne. It may be only a portion of her identity being depicted, but after all, how can an entire person ever be truly understood by another?

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There were tons of other incredible works displayed in “Off Pink,” and your experience of these works can only be better if you go to see them in person. When we went, my friend and I were asked to pose in a picture looking at “Troy Towers: 40 Conger Street.” So who knows?! Maybe you’ll be famous!!! It isn’t NOT possible.

Until next time!

 

xoxo, Chloe <3

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