CORNELL’S MFA ARTISTS & the TRANSFIGURATION of DISCOMFORT

It’s a damned strange world, and these four artists are out to make it stranger.

Editor’s note by Robert Whitehead


Ithaca Falls in Ithaca, NY.

Ithaca Falls in Ithaca, NY.

For the last year and a half, I have been making regular pilgrimages to Ithaca, NY to visit my boyfriend. I say pilgrimage because that particular type of journey is defined by an initial investment of physical discomfort, which, once you reach the destination, is transfigured. So let me describe the discomfort.

Typically, I wake up at a rude hour, the wide Philadelphia sky still dark. I scramble to the Greyhound station, forgetting a trail of essential items in my wake. At the station, I wait among pigeons under the glare of fluorescents, as the lady with the intercom microphone determines what my fate will be that day. Most of the time, the bus just doesn’t even try to come on time. The bus gives up entirely, rolls in four hours late. I get a Twix from the vending machine and eat it as the sun comes up. Sometimes I’m lucky and the bus does come on time, but then leaves me stranded somewhere along my route. Then I’m in Scranton. I go to the Dunkin Donuts and wait out my purgatory. That’s me, lucky.

Never once has the trip been exactly what it promised. And no matter what, it always smells like there’s a port-a-potty six feet away from you, which, of course, there is.

I do this pilgrimage because I am in love. When I get to Ithaca and I see him standing there looking well rested, fresh-as-a-daisy, without a single crick in his neck. I’m not even mad. I just smile and smooch him. My pilgrimage has ended, almost like it never happened at all. I am happy. The martyr pilgrim has been transformed.

The feeling of standing in front of these works is akin to standing naked in front of a mirror. It is vulnerable, but also deeply familiar; crude, but also liberating.

For most people, life is a Greyhound bus ride. Not particularly pleasant, but it gets you where you’re going. For example, that analogy was very unpleasant. Proof positive right there.

For many more people, life is worse than a Greyhound bus ride. For a select few, it’s better. Generally, we fall somewhere along the route. But no matter our fortune, the human psyche is compelled to follow its pleasures, we are hard-wired with an urge to seek out moments which may have the potential to translate our discomfort into our joy.

Each of the artists represented in this bunch (which includes the aforementioned boyfriend of mine— Hi, Brice!) tackle, at one level or another, some of the central discomforts of being, and find, through their diverse artistic practices, a variety of answers for how to freakin’ deal. Check out each artist’s work by clicking on their name, or by following the links to their work in the body of the essay. Get up close and personal with each of these four phenoms— you won’t regret it.


BRUNO CANÇADO

Bruno Cançado is an artist whose work intersects with architecture, archaeology, ecology, and epistemology, so it’s difficult to pin him definitively to one tradition or another. He typically makes sculptures with an industrial edge, but I’ve also seen him produce videos of verdant Ithacan fields, seen him make process-based and procedural concept-art. His materials are generally natural in origin (clay, beeswax, wood, stone) and his process is generally that of an engineer (he recently made an I-beam out of dried manure). As a person, he is often in a Cheshire cat grin or laughing, but his work is solemn, often oddly haunting. The discomfort of his work is not so much in the objects themselves—they are often solid and structural, assured and astute—but in what they say about the precipitousness of form itself, the tension of making ostensibly durable materials bleed, break down, nearly teeter over.

Take, for example, “Ensaio sobre o sólido / Studies on the Solid,” a series of works which reference classical vessel forms by drawing them in charcoal on a wall, then dripping beeswax down the image. The beeswax catches the charcoal pigment as it flows down the wall, finally cooling on the floor in a black puddle that makes me want to run for a paper towel. The resulting image is a black vase suspended in a honey-colored stream, like the art has been degraded by its own materials. And if the vessel silhouettes recall the archaeological antiquities, the pots and pitchers which are sometimes the sole survivors from a time we still struggle to understand, is this an audacious rebuke of sculpture’s ancient roots? The process is a “study,” and as such you have to wonder what is being studied? What happens when a “solid” material, like the carbon-black charcoal, is in fact subject to the chemistry of erosion? How does that alter our understanding of a solid’s “meaning”?

As the King said in Alice in Wonderland, “If there’s no meaning in it, that saves a world of trouble, you know, as we needn’t try to find any.” I don’t mean to suggest Cançado’s work is meaningless—far, far from it—but rather that they seem to prioritize a mode of communication perhaps more scientific than poetic. Of course, the binary between science and poetry is a false one, but I mean his work feels like stepping into a laboratory about his heart rather than into his heart. There is distance, remove, absence. And that perspective enhances the effect of the work while sublimating the “meaning,” creating a truly compelling image that resists being named or simplified.

An example of “vernacular architecture” from Harran, Turkey.

An example of “vernacular architecture” from Harran, Turkey.

In a scientific process, the hypothesis is not proven by one’s opinion of the experiment, but by the testing and re-testing of the conditions surrounding the hypothesis. So, too, are Cançado’s artworks seemingly less about personal emotional subjectivity and more about testing the limits of his materials, a process born from his interest in vernacular architecture (see right for an example). As the English architectural historian Ronald Brunskill noted, in vernacular architecture “[t]he function of the building would be the dominant factor, aesthetic considerations, though present to some small degree, being quite minimal.” But as in Cançado’s piece “Doble/Double,” our cover image for this issue, even minimal work can have a grand scope. The sculpture may be utilitarian in aspect—a blunt-cornered wooden chair with a cast shadow of the same chair sitting on top in reinforced concrete—but it’s proof that the minimization of aesthetic is not at the expense of a beautiful body of work.


BRICE PETERSON

Brice Peterson is the weirdest one of all. To me, weird is a word of highest praise, of course. And, of course, I am probably biased, but I’m also definitely right— this work is strange, demented, uncomfortable, and all the more so because it comes from a place of unrestrained, unironic devotion.

Love is perhaps the greatest discomfort one can endure, and I say that as someone in love. As Jesssica Fletcher, of Murder, She Wrote fame, once said, “it’s hard to know yourself, let alone another person.” This fictional mystery novelist-cum-detective played by Angela Lansbury is a constant fount of wisdom, with highly-attuned powers of intuition, a saintly level of generosity, and a New Englander’s preternatural inability to take anyone’s guff. It’s no wonder that Peterson idolizes her, but what’s most fascinating about his work is the sheer lunatic levels this idolatry reaches.

Peterson’s work often makes use of a central figure—typically Lansbury, but also Italian pop icon Mina (top left), actress and writer Carrie Fischer and her legendary mother Debbie Reynolds (top right), The Golden Girls (Bea Arthur pictured in bottom left), Designing Women (Dixie Carter pictured in bottom right), and other campy cultural ephemera. He then usually introduces seemingly incoherent materials on or around the image—including pine cones, cotton balls, partially-burnt candles, Styrofoam lemons, upholstery tassels, vertical blinds, fake flowers, etc. And while those two choices create a grandiose, maximalist aesthetic wackiness that accounts for a fair portion of the odd allure to Peterson’s work, to me the most engrossing detail is the quieter ways he manipulates his images.

Using some form of deterioration (scratching the image, splattering it with medium, tearing it), obfuscation (blurring the image, hiding it behind craft leaves and flowers, sticking the image on the underside of an upholstered chair), or ritualization (binding the image with ropes, carving out the eyes and mouth, framing the head with gold-foil halos), Peterson makes very sly, but very direct, confrontations with the images he so reveres. Through these gestures, it becomes clear this is not solely a body of work about queer adulation—there is friction and tension, there is a sense of something unfulfilled, or even a feeling of willful hostility behind these worshipful monuments.

Cary Leibowitz,  Joan Collins has a headache , 2018.

Cary Leibowitz, Joan Collins has a headache, 2018.

Rather than stop at and rest within his love of these icons, Peterson pushes himself further, considering how his nostalgia for a moment in mainstream pop culture is also a search for belonging in a culture that neglects or suppresses queer visibility. While the way he goes about this negotiation is entirely his own, one can’t help but think of Cary Leibowitz (pictured at the right) as a possible predecessor in the question of queer cultural sensibilities. However, Peterson’s work is not just about identifying with gay icons; it is about identifying the limitations of identification. There is a muted, subliminal horror to his art—the aura of which reminds me often of David Lynch—that seems to say there are deeply unsettling complications to the way queer people must make their fandom from the images of a capital-driven culture in which visible queerness is only the figment of an overactive imagination.

As in his “Positive Moves,” Peterson is currently investing his attention on a more minimal style that nevertheless retains its weird, disarming provocations. In this piece, the image is Angela Lansbury flat on her back, laying on a sumptuous carpet almost the same color as her jumpsuit—a still frame from her “workout” and lifestyle video of the same name. The image has been printed on primed canvas with a slight, eye-straining blur, and cut into long lengths to be hung from a vertical blind mount. The idea of an Angela Lansbury workout video is absurd enough in itself—see Amy Sedaris’ comedic take on At Home with Amy Sedaris if you don’t believe me—but then to make them into blinds, which would ostensibly be installed in a living space? Absolute craziness. And for an artist to survive, they have to be crazy. They have to make choices no one else would, or could, make. Brice Peterson is that kind of artist, making something so completely his own, so head-scratchingly strange, you can’t help but want to know more.

But back off, ladies, he’s mine.


LIBBY ROSA

Libby Rosa is a painter, and like every painter, has heard it a thousand times that painting is dead. It’s not true, of course, but if it were true, Rosa is out here documenting painting’s zombies. Her work reanimates the tired, classical themes of painting via vandalization. Rather than painting the classical portraits of swarthy, sexualized women inert on a chaise, Rosa is literally cutting the human form out of her paintings and leaving the offal behind. She is Frankensteining a compilation of odd, fleshy angles and smacking them up against stark, industrial textures, presenting a heaving vision of our distinctly provocative, 21st century bodies.

In her painting Part of Her,” you have to wonder: which part? A fist? An elbow? A vulva? All three? It’s like one of those close-ups you might have seen in a Highlights magazine while waiting for your pediatrician— guess what the object is from a super-magnified, compact detail image. Rosa’s work relies on a thoughtful collaging and cannibalizing of forms from disparate paintings that are then reconstructed to produce a sense of anxious fascination with her subjects. The feeling of standing in front of these works is akin to standing naked in front of a mirror. It is vulnerable, but also deeply familiar; crude, but also liberating.

JMW Turner,  The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons , 1835.

JMW Turner, The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 1835.

In Fevered Landscape,” the sweeping, idealized pastoral vistas you might have seen in the Hudson River School are redone by Rosa in toxic, cartoonish colors and trapped behind the frame of a ghostly window. Her work creates portals, escape routes, but you might wonder what you’re escaping into and how you might fare in that mad land. The work also reminds me of JMW Turner’s iconic The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons (pictured at right), which, like Rosa’s work, is charting the chaotic demise of an old order. While no painter may escape the influence of the Old Masters, Rosa reminds us that the idyllic relationship between humans and Nature which their paintings memorialize will not be around much longer, or is gone already.

There is no excitement quite like an artist who can crush the perceived limitations of her medium as if they were never there at all, and that is exactly what Libby Rosa does. It’s uncomfortable, challenging, highly enticing work that doesn’t have an ounce of pity or apology to it. Her images are sure, unsubtle, and daring, and the way they mean is utterly expansive, so much power per pixel.


SOPHIA STARLING

Perhaps one of life’s most enduring discomforts is the sense that there are hulking, material obstacles in our way. As Molière once said, “The greater the obstacle, the more glory in overcoming it.” But what would it look like to praise the obstacle, rather than overcome it? To fix the artistic attention on the more enchanting qualities to the barriers that hold us still for a moment?

Sophia Starling has that level of attention. Her sculptures and wall art are seemingly driven by the idea of disrupting motion, either through her series of “continuous paintings” which showcase shifting ovoid ruptures in long swaths of raw canvas or through her “studio obstacles” (or “blobstacles,” as she affectionately calls them) which create a sense of space taken up, of movement diverted.

Giovanni Strazza,  The Veiled Virgin,  1850.

Giovanni Strazza, The Veiled Virgin, 1850.

Applying a palette of buffed graphite, shiny white, black rubber, metallics, and bright shots of fluorescents and pastels, Starling’s minimalist objects often trail the remnants of the canvas they are cut from, draping them like the cloth over a funerary urn. As you can see in Shift (Continuous Painting), her work makes significant space for new formal impulses in the task of wrapping canvas over a wooden stretcher. Her hand is that of a haute couturier, with a show(wo)manship of ripples and reliefs in pucker-heavy seams that still somehow overlay her painted surfaces to create a meticulously stacked, three-dimensional stair of pigment. It feels dynamic rather than neat, but then you see how precisely the pieces line up and, yes, you must concede that it is neat— controlled, even. Her process is at once impulsive and obsessive, both delightfully askew and architecturally leveled.


Her sculptures, which you can see inCluster (vertical),” call to mind, at once, The Veiled Virgin statue by Giovanni Strazza (pictured left) and Sol Lewitt’s Model for Brick Sculpture, Three Domes (pictured below). She crosses the highly intricate work of a draped, veiled canvas with the deeply subdued ease of the rotund, domed form, crafting objects with a vaguely industrial sheen that are assembled as a “singlet,” a couple, or in packs heaped together with an articulate casualness.

Sol Lewitt,  Model for Brick Structure, Three Domes,  2003.

Sol Lewitt, Model for Brick Structure, Three Domes, 2003.

As I read on a website that listed the types and meanings of cemetery iconography (currently bookmarked for later perusal, thank you very much), the “draped urn” figure represents a few, very uncomfortable meanings. One such meaning is that the shroud stands as allegory for the partition between the living and the dead, the veil between the binary, the lapse amidst two astral planes.

A deeply-laden symbology does, in some way, underscore the spare image of Starling’s works. For while the attitude of these objects takes on a somewhat audacious, cheeky bravado, it is not at the expense of aptitude. These are deeply felt, poignant, and meditative artworks. They carry the emotive largess of a young artist reveling in the work of thinking through making, while also revealing the careful, formal considerations of a mature and evolved maker.


Robert Whitehead is the Managing Editor for NightBlock.