Fine Fellows

High school is the scene a lot of trauma and drama, both real and imagined. It's also a popular setting for horror movies. Artist Kelly Sears uses a high school as the setting for her video, Once it started it could not end otherwise (2011). Blending a foreboding soundtrack with "animated" figures, Sears tells the supposedly untold story of an ominous event that happened at a high school in 1974.

Sears's darkly humorous video is the standout in this year's 2011 Core Exhibition at the Glassell School of Art. The Museum of Fine Arts' Core fellows are drawn from a national and international pool of applicants for nine-month residencies. This annual show reveals what they have been up to in their studios.

Sears tells her story through on-screen text, brilliantly animating her video using dorky black-and-white photos cut out from some circa-1974 high school annual. She inserts the figures into tinted photos of bland high school buildings that act as sets. Boyfriend and girlfriend embrace in the halls through the minute movement of the guy's arm. Marching band members flee the building in slow motion. The misfit members of the AV club look stunned. The story builds until Sears has blood flowing from lockers as well as students' eyes and mouths. It's wonderfully campy homemade horror.

Sears also worked with fellow Gabriel Martinez to realize the video for Martinez's work, They who do not love you remain without a homeland (2011). When you first walk into the exhibition space in the Glassell lobby, you are greeted by a black dress on a dress form. It's a short, sleeveless shift with a hem of black ostrich (?) feathers. I took a look at it, read the wall label with the title and thought, "Oh God, here we go." Core fellows have something of a reputation for throwing out oblique works with elaborate but unrevealed back-stories. But Martinez actually reveals the dress's back-story in his video.

Using text and still photos, the video tells how Martinez, while on an artist residency in Damascus, Syria, went with a friend to a souk to find a tailor. He wanted a fake Giorgio Armani suit for an exhibition in Milan. Before Martinez could pick it up, the United States carried out a raid in Abu Kamal, Syria, killing eight people. The U.S. said the victims were foreign fighters; Syria said they were civilians. Martinez was expelled from the country, along with other U.S. students. He never made it back to the tailor. His friend picked up the package and had it taken to London and then sent to Milan. Later, the show's curator e-mailed, saying she had been expecting a man's suit. Martinez said it was a man's suit. The curator sent a picture of the black feathered cocktail dress that had arrived.

Whether the dress was one of those weird "stranger in a strange land" screw-ups or subversive commentary by the tailor is unknown. It's an absurd story that artfully illustrates the difficulty of communication, on a personal as well as an international level.

Elsewhere, Clarissa Tossin's Matter of Belief (2010) amusingly offers up lucky (forged) American and Brazilian banknotes to viewers. According to the artist, it's a Brazilian superstition to keep an American dollar in your pocket to attract money. Less successful are Tossin's lackluster tracings of maps, which basically read as a bunch of crumpled paper stuck on the wall.

Fatima Haider's work is all about repetitive labor. In one piece, she's obsessively rubbed graphite into each side of a long roll of paper. Hung down both sides of a wall like a dark, burnished vertical stripe, the work is helpfully titled Studio Floor (2011), and you can see the tears and indentations that record the surface. There is something pleasing about this mindlessly meditative act of smearing graphite into the paper. The end result is a physical record of time and labor.

Haider's also got a series of small works that at first appear to be pencil drawings filled with obsessive marks. But they're actually collages of tiny squares of paper painstakingly cut from a phone book. Once ubiquitous, phone books are disappearing — when was the last time you used one? — but with their cheap acidic paper, they were never designed to be around for long. Haider makes something permanent out of them, selectively cutting little bits — lines of dots between names, phone numbers and the names themselves are each incorporated into their own collages. Also on view are the boards she taped them to while working, forever preserved in resin like an insect in amber. I don't know that this last step was necessary, but maybe it's something she felt she had to do after all that effort.

In Steffani Jemison's video, The Escaped Lunatic (2011), what appears to be four athletic young men run through Houston, along overpasses and through neighborhoods. Dressed identically in white T-shirts and jeans, they are of various ethnicities, although you can't see anyone up close. They vault over fences, leap off porches and seem to run in one direction through a vacant lot, and then the other.

In 21st-century America, when we see young men in T-shirts and jeans running at full speed through an urban environment, we assume someone is chasing them and they'll end up face down on the ground, their hands handcuffed behind their back. But here, they keep running, and as those Cops associations fade, a sense of freedom and exuberance takes over. You want to be out there, too, running as fast as you can, doing a handstand as you vault over a fence.

The video is shown in the context of a series of 2D works by Jemison, most of them printed on clear sheets of Mylar and tacked to the wall. One of them is a black-and-white photo of an airbrushed banner, with portraits commemorating the death of a young man, Gregory Robinson III. If you Google his name, a story comes up about a 14-year-old Chicago high school freshman shot while sitting in the back of a car after his cousin's basketball game. It's a senseless and all-too-common tragedy.

In other works, Mylar is printed with self-help-type statements and mounted on board. "If I can, I will love myself first, so that I may love others." The statement is repeated with changes in tense — "If I could..." and "If I could have..." — implying both inability and regret. In the context of the other works, they read as lamentations on the needlessly violent world we live in. Unfortunately, the Mylar just looks kind of cruddy. (Maybe it's referencing overhead projector transparencies?)

Other sheets of Mylar are printed with mound-like shapes and layered over brown paper shapes glued on the walls. I'm sure these are derived from something, but I have no clue as to what. (At this point, as in many previous Core exhibitions, one might turn to the accompanying catalogue, but it's not printed yet.) These images aren't interesting enough to make me care about them. Jemison is touching on provocative issues, but it seems like she's taking pains to throw in obscure imagery.

Julie Ann Nagle's Breakdown of a Long Chain (2011) is a plaster sculpture of a man in a suit, attached like a figurehead to a wooden construction that looks like the "prow" of a ship. His coat is blown back and his hands are stretched out, holding string intertwined between his fingers, cat's cradle-style. I don't know whether he's based on someone specific, but he's an absurd and intriguing figure. The prow shape is constructed from carefully cut pieces of wood, but then the artist stuck some random sloppily painted scraps of wood at the base. It's like Nagle said to herself, "Oh shit, I'm making this look too good, let me stick some crap here."

I see this impulse a lot in young artists, and I don't know where it comes from. It's like it's uncool to care what stuff looks like. I'm not some big advocate for "well-crafted" work — sometimes crappiness is inherent in your content. But when you have forced crappiness, it's just kind of silly. (Nick Barbee's enthusiastically crappy sculptures, made of stuff like orange peels, chewing gum and bad casts of bananas, are also on view, and a little goes a really long way.)

Also disappointing is The Inverted Structure (2010), Lourdes Correa-Carlo's large-scale photo installation presenting an upside-down image of an old wood-sided house. Correa-Carlo has flanked the photo panels with pieces of corrugated metal painted white. This is another piece where a back-story might suddenly make it fascinating, but as it is, there isn't much to hold your interest.

Art is still a visual thing. If people can't divine your content by looking at the work, you should at least give them something interesting to look at. In the meantime, I'll hope for enlightenment via the upcoming exhibition catalogue.

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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer