Everyone knew that “NEXT,” the annual senior thesis exhibition at the Corcoran School of the Arts & Design, would be different this year. In recent months, the institution has undergone a wrenching dissolution, with the school now under the auspices of George Washington University and the gallery’s expansive collection of artworks now in National Gallery of Art control.
The biggest difference in this year’s show, though, is atmospheric. “NEXT” was always mounted as a student space within the working museum in the Corcoran’s stately Beaux-Arts building. Now, the exterior and the entranceway hall may be the same, but the information desk and gift store are gone, and most of the galleries are roped off. The new feeling in the building is ad hoc, quite unlike the refined temple of art the space used to be.
In theory, this could be an appropriate setting for a student exhibition. But in this year’s thesis exhibit, the art is overshadowed by the vibe of uncertain change.
As usual, the annual exhibit includes some head-scratching conceptual pieces, like Eliot Hicks’ unadorned metal bleachers facing a gallery wall and Whitney Waller’s seemingly Southern Gothic installation, which features a torrent of strewn leaves and a taxidermied bobcat. There’s a solid selection of documentary photography, including Tiph Browne’s photographs and interviews with transgender people and Noelle Smith’s bleak images of a young couple struggling with two young children, a modern-day successor to Larry Clark’s Tulsa photobook.
Other notable photographic works include Taylor Pittman’s images of posed miniature toys, channeling the tableaux of David Levinthal and the fake cityscape constructions of Oliver Boberg. Meanwhile, Kelly Chick offers an array of negative images of indecipherable handwriting, ironically titled “A Conversation,” and Rick Coulby provides an eloquent, understated black-and-white series of images of pebbles, puddles, and dirt, framed by oversized white mats that emphasize the photographs’ subtle chiaroscuro.
A few works offer welcome visual and thematic playfulness. Dong Soh harnesses 3-D printing technology to create ultra-whimsical cartoon figurines with horns and hoopskirts, while graphic design student Sara Sklaroff (who is, full disclosure, an old friend) cleverly revives the bold colors and simple forms of Mondrian and other mid-20th-century modernists in the service of such objects as children’s blocks. Soohoo Cho turned a custom-built alcove into an impressive chamber of memories, using key-shaped paper cutouts to represent Proustian figments like “first love” and “first bikini,” each gently flapping in the air currents.
Two artists succeed by focusing on the overlooked. Colin Wheeler offers “Scopophilia,” a collection of photographs of the little-noticed microsights in national parks that are better known for their grand vistas. Wheeler turns his lens on a tree carving that suggests a Star of David; airy tufts of moss; a water surface bifurcated into a smooth half and a rippled half; an empty milkweed pod that suggests a skeletal bird head; and an unknown surface—bark, maybe?—with a rough surface that suggests a close-up of elephant skin.
The exhibition’s most unexpected and evocative touch, however, is a small portion of Julia Hilfiker’s multimedia work “For my father: For all that is unknown, 1945-2004.” It’s a pair of old-fashioned airmail envelopes folded and intertwined in such a way that it suggests a gentle hug. In an exhibit held amid rapid and uncertain change, it’s a visual that offers a small bit of comfort, even healing.
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