Attention all skeptics who doubt the existence of teachers outside the classroom: Proof has arrived in the form of the 2011 Rhode Island School of Design Faculty Biennial. For the 200-plus RISD professors showing their work, teaching art is not enough — they also take its practice very seriously.
The exhibit, located in the RISD Museum's Chace Center galleries and Gelman Student Gallery, is difficult to digest. First of all, it's a lot to take in, spanning two floors of the museum. Second, some of the pieces demand to be viewed with a furrowed brow — not for their thought-provoking nature, but for the mental exertion required to make any sense whatsoever of them. And because one strange object — Jerry Mischak's "Brush Off" — incorporates cat fur.
When Magritte painted the famous words "Ceci n'est pas une pipe," he was warning media consumers not to mistake representations for reality. Personally, I like art that tricks its viewers into thinking it is real, that sucks them into another world then spits them out ruthlessly. Reference to something in the world — a thing or an idea — makes art relatable.
It is one thing when the medium is the message, and quite another when the message is nothing but the medium. Maybe I just don't get it, but that's the conclusion I came to after twisting my brain and shifting my eyes around the most vacuous works, which all seem to be "Untitled." Jack Massey's "Untitled Drawing" is a pattern of straight graphite lines on a black surface; Ellen Petraits' "Untitled" doesn't look like anything but resembles faint brown scales on worn white paper; Paddy Ginther's "Untitled" is a childlike crayon scribble drawing on paper evidently ripped from a notebook.
I'm torn. When a work of art looks like it could have been done by a toddler, it usually in fact could not have been. Some artists are like gymnasts — their success makes the feat look easy. So, I try to avoid the hackneyed "my baby cousin, or grandchildren, or golden retriever, could have art in this gallery according to these standards" complaint. But using crayons is kind of asking for it.
I don't mean to cast my criticism too broadly. The exhibit also contains the talent one expects of RISD faculty. The strongest pieces are the ones that lend themselves to practical application — like the innovative furniture and nifty jewelry — make statements or educate. Jan Baker hung religious relics from old-fashioned hoop skirts with the tongue-in-cheek title "Skirting the Issues." Marie Cieri's "Impressionistic Maps of the Katrina / Rita Diaspora" — a map of the United States created on a computer and featuring ink arrows and other shapes tracking the routes of evacuees — experiments with one way to coherently imagine the unimaginably incoherent. Dan Wood modified a newspaper article about Obama's "Inauguration," ironically highlighting not the arrival of the new president, but the departure of the old in a helicopter.
My favorite piece was Chris Buzzelli's "M-44." At first glance, the oil painting looks like it belongs in a storybook. A closer look reveals that the subject matter is far graver. In the foreground, a friendly-looking wolf inhales a toxic chemical planted underneath it by a tiny, skeletal human figure. The scene vaguely recalls the famous tableau of Romulus and Remus suckling at the teats of their adoptive wolf mother, except Buzzelli's character is releasing a deadly substance rather than receiving a life-giving one. M-44s, the painting's description explains, are devices implanted in the ground to protect livestock by killing predators. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services spends over $100 million annually on these "indiscriminate killers," the description reads.
Other memorable works draw their appeal strictly from their aesthetics. "Saiga Rift (Pronghorn)" by Jacob Feige depicts a moose either killing or grieving over a deer amidst brilliant greenery with surreal lighting in oils and alkyd. "Black Window" by Jim Peters blends oil paints, digital photography and glass to create an image of a room that is eerie yet inviting, with delicate sheets on a bed against a tattered wall and a cracked mirror. It feels as if one might break through the image's glass surface, the way the photographed woman on the bed appears to be falling through the mirror. This representation, though not veridical, is easily mistaken for reality.
So if you find yourself in the RISD useum between now and March 20, stop by the second floor. Who knows — the works that meant nothing to me may mean something to you, especially if you have comprehensive knowledge of art. But you can't say you weren't forewarned: For some pieces, don't hurt your head and eyes looking for a message that is simply lost in the medium. Unless that message is about cat fur.