With an almost 40-year career in higher education, I always looked forward to the juried student exhibition each spring. Not only is this annual event at most art schools a major celebration and showcase of student accomplishments, it is often the first step for many young artists in submitting their art (and voice) for adjudication by outside “eyes.” It takes a degree of vulnerability to submit one’s art to this scrutiny. At best an artist’s intentions are revealed and admired. At worst, one’s innermost motivations are glanced over or misread. When accepted, the response is affirming and exciting. When rejected, a juror’s choices may seem overly calculated or even random. As such, I wholly applaud all the students, who submitted works to this year’s exhibition. For me, it was an honor and enjoyable task to review their amazing pieces.
The annual student juried exhibition is also an unparalleled barometer of our current times and culture. This is surely the case for California State University Chico’s 65th Annual Juried Student Exhibition. It would be remiss not to factor the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the heightened national unease that has gripped our nation for far too many years and I was keen to discover how these poignant concerns might be channeled through their work. Confirmed by the quality of the works submitted, CSU students successfully rose above the challenges of working remotely and adapting to digital Zoom critiques during this unprecedented and highly anxious time, but it nonetheless clearly left its mark on work produced in isolation and in makeshift studios. Pandemic safety measures also impacted the “normal” jury process for this show. Even though the 2020 exhibition was cancelled, I was pleased to learn those who could not participate last year were encouraged to do so this time. Likewise, in the past, the juror would be invited to an on-campus visit with the opportunity to view the submissions first-hand, meet with students, and present an artist talk that would include remarks about how they made their choices. Sadly, I was limited to screening the submissions online. While this is a typical norm for many adjudications, there is no comparison to viewing the art up close and in person. I would have thoroughly enjoyed visiting your beautiful campus and meeting with the students. Instead, I spent many hours responding to much that can be distilled from a digital file and I look forward to our Zoom conversation on May 11th. In response to these extraordinary times, I applaud the decision to showcase all the submissions in the online exhibition.
Given the current circumstances, it is not surprising that most of the pieces are small scale works on paper that investigate drawing or digital processes. Many are also subdued in coloration, with dense grey or monotoned palettes. Most are image based with only a few explorations in abstraction. Overall, there is a pervading melancholy, a sense of isolation, and a chronic anxiety that permeates all the works. When comfort is addressed, it is often undermined by conflicting emotional prompts. These themes are unpacked in more detail in my ensuing remarks and further amplified in my comments about the individual prize winners.
Overall, I found the submissions to be thoughtful and thought provoking, subtle and bold, raw and skillful. At the end of the day, I am profoundly grateful artmaking can provoke as well as heal. With hopeful optimism, I wish you well. Congratulations.
–Reni Gower, Juror
Rae Helms, Middle Class, 2021 9” x 12”, Aquatint Etching
This skillfully executed aquatint, is a powerful, yet heartbreaking metaphor. An intimate interpretation suggests lost or unrequited love. Valued for its worth and beauty, fine china (porcelain) can be seen as a symbol of a shared and precious love. The same can be said of the two roses depicted inside the cup. Not your typical ashtray, the stubbed-out cigarettes disturb the sanctity of the hoped-for relationship; suggesting an aggressive frustration or even impotence. Its title, Middle Class, offers insight into a broader interpretation, where the sullied teacup represents limited access to a better way of life. The delicacy of the etched lines underscores the fragility of many in marginalized communities. The hazy aquatint conjures endless hours of smoking with nothing better to do. Regardless of the interpretation, the image is both raw and beautiful.
Kim Schmidt, A Soft Cover for Hard Times, 2021 5’ x 5’, Handmade quilt, Polaroid transfer on cotton
From a traditional quilting bee (the crafting of a beautiful, but functional object through the contribution of many hands) to the revitalizing warmth felt when wrapped in the blanket; quilts often generate feelings of comfort and community. Both sentiments sorely missed and sought due to the social distancing constraints of the pandemic. At first glance, Schmidt’s quilt is what its title implies; A Soft Cover for Hard Times. Upon closer inspection, disjointed fragments of a woman’s body are revealed in the Polaroid image transfers that have been delicately stitched together. While the transfers are an unusual material to employ in the making of a quilt, they greatly expand the ethereal and private nature of the images. Almost indecipherable, most blocks are cropped closeups of intimate angles of soft flesh. The few that include a hand, only heighten the desire for a return to intimacy and human touch. With the center most block, the only block to reveal a face clearly, the quilt in essence becomes a portrait of the artist. With her eyes closed, the artist has turned inward to find solace and hopefully her strength
James Ross Neiswonger, Insupportable Loneliness, 2021 30” x 40”, Acrylic on canvas
Insupportable Loneliness is a melancholy self-portrait that speaks boldly of isolation felt by many without access to or support from their usual communities. Due to the compressed collapsed space in the painting, the figure seems completely alone. Maybe an insomniac, the sleep deprived figure also appears unwashed and unfocused – helpless to push back the room closing in around him. While chain smoking may provide a false sense of control, the screen of oversized cigarette butts imprisons the figure as it highlights an unhealthy choice. The gritty tonality of the colors combined with the anemic flesh tones paint a grim portrait of severe loneliness that is begging for fresh air.
Jennifer Lopez, “Mother’s Dress” 18” x 24”, Willow charcoal, charcoal pencils, kneaded eraser
Mother’s Dress is seductive drawing of a delicate garment rendered with meticulously drawn embroideries and diaphanous gossamer effects. Could it be her mother’s wedding dress, revisited in her loss? Or simply a nostalgic heirloom from her family’s past? Using only charcoal and an eraser, the artist works expertly within a minimal tonal range. She adeptly employs both additive and subtractive marks and rubbings to create an object that seems real and filled with a body’s form and a life’s breath, while simultaneously appearing as an apparition, illusion, or memory.
Juror’s Best Picks: Isolation and Melancholy
Isolation and loneliness are embedded in the narrative of many of the works. In Junkyard Kid by Valeria Moreno a young woman is surrounded by the clutter of shabby childhood toys and digital detritus in a junkyard setting. At first the purple electronic glow, which is cast over the entire scene from an abandoned tv, conjures a kid friendly arcade setting. In actuality, it reveals her numerous injuries patched with impractical Band-Aids while it heightens her resigned despondency. In stark contrast, Natalie Jenkins, “What do I do know?” confronts the viewer with the enormity of disability and loss through a powerfully minimal depiction of an abandoned wheel chair in an otherwise empty room. Likewise, Cassie Sturdevant’s desolate nocturnal bus shelter, Interstices evokes fears about what lurks in the dark, of getting lost, or being left behind.
–Reni Gower, Juror
Juror’s Best Picks: Anxiety and Death
Acute anxiety and death are also reoccurring themes in many of the works. Jolie Asuncion’s My Mind in Saturated Shapes, Ericka M. Berry’s Answer from my Dreams, Zoey Rosenthal’s Autumn Walk, as well as Nicholas McMenamin’s MTK are all stunning portraits of anxiety. High key color, fragmentation, repetition, and densely packed compositions are just some of the many devices that draw the viewer into their dystopian landscapes and hyper mindscapes. Death also raises it specter, in the densely packed narrative ink drawings of both Joel Solis, Through the head and Michael Webb, We Don’t Know if It’ll Work but We’re Praying Like Hell That It Will, or They’re Rough As Bastards and They Move Like Cats, or Big Fuckin’ Surprise You’re All Hanging Together, You’re All Fucked in the Head. Using an intense bold black and white graphic style or outlier sensibility, both artists skillfully address serious topics with cynicism, sarcasm, and humor.
–Reni Gower, Juror
Juror’s Best Picks: Comfort
While finding comfort is not revealed as prevalently as the need to seek it, there are a few lovely examples that address more quiet means of coping. Reliance on or resilience through family is expressed in the ceramic bust of Rosa Garcia’s, Papa and in the tender embrace between a mother and child in the drypoint etching, syzygy by McKenzie Kushmaul, as well as the unusual Nesting Bowls (a companion to rest with) by Tamara Murphy. Likewise, in Mommy’s Makeup, Gracie Gomes a young girl seeks comfort in familiar things by primping using her mother’s cosmetics. With the conflicting props of a glass of wine and a childhood toy artfully detailed, the actual age of the girl is not clear. In a simpler time, this might be read as an innocent rite of passage, which is now underscored by apprehension. Notwithstanding, the warm glow of the yellow ground creates one of the more hopeful and playful pieces in the exhibition.
–Reni Gower, Juror
Award Ceremony Video Recording
The video of the Award Ceremony for the 65th Annual Juried Exhibition will be live soon.
Juror’s Celebration and FLASHPOINTS
Artist Panel Video Recording
The video of the Juror’s Celebration and the FLASHPOINTS Artist Panel will be live soon.