Higher Ground 

High School Art at Boise Art Museum

For a speech delivered in London last year, acerbic art critic Robert Hughes said, "I have never been against new art as such; some of it is good, much is crap, most is somewhere in between, and what else is new?" If Hughes visited Boise right now, he'd likely change his tune. Nearly every work on display at Boise Art Museum's Higher Ground exhibition is first rate. Hughes might also be shocked to learn the artists are all high school students.

One hundred sixty-five students, representing Boise and Meridian school districts, submitted 308 slides and accompanying artist statements for consideration in the biennial juried show. Two judges spent hours selecting the artwork now installed in the museum. According to Michelle Mallett, associate curator of education, "The jurors went through the slides three times to get down to 78 images. They prefer 60, but couldn't make the final cut. There wasn't much they didn't like."

Museum staff hung the selected works in three adjacent galleries, and jurors awarded one $500 scholarship and two $250 scholarships. Faced with so many high-quality pieces, the jurors also bestowed two honorable mentions. "Usually, we don't have honorable mentions," Mallett said.

Two-and three-dimensional art presents a wide array of subjects in many different mediums. The students used acrylics, photography, stoneware clay, colored pencil and scratchboard among other materials to examine themes spanning war, life and death, love and inner turmoil. Forty percent of the pieces include faces or human figures, and grapple with everything from self-discovery to homage.

Megan Thacker's small-scale Wild Child deftly contrasts superficial happiness with anxiety and conflict. The image presents a young girl seated in a chair, with heavy outlines imparting a comic feel and a background of pink, yellow, and red bands. Thacker's use of color also creates tension. The hot colors threaten to consume the receding blues of the girl's dress. In contrast with the rest of the image, Thacker paints the facial features in a naturalistic manner raising questions of who or what the little girl is looking at. Her smirk contains mischief, but her eyes betray fear as she gazes warily outside the picture frame.

The photography in the show includes a mix of digital, manipulated digital and traditional images. In Which One is Real, a sepia-toned photograph by Andrew V. Turner, a young boy stands in the desert holding a long mirror against his chest. The glass reflects back the image of another boy riding a dirt bike, and simultaneously introduces multiple points of view and versions of reality. Is the scene before the boy real, or does the mirror expose the dreams in his heart?

Sickness, by Lindsey Elizabeth Byron, presents a powerful and evocative profile of the artist's grandfather. Printed as a negative image, the ghostly lines of an oxygen tube glow against the old man's dark face. His bald head is tipped slightly forward, suggesting anguish but also acceptance. Byron's artist statement succinctly sums up the moment, "He was in a lot of pain, waiting and wanting to pass away."

These personal statements played an important role in the selection process and also aid the viewing public by providing a starting point for understanding the images. "If the jurors were torn, they'd look to the statements," Mallett said.

Ben Shirk's statement reveals the methods used to achieve an aged look in The Inner Workings: "I stained some parts with coffee and added brown tissue paper over others." Aaron Nelson interprets the symbols in Pollock's Last Meal, his earthenware tribute to the Abstract-Expressionist, as he writes, "The can represents Pollock's struggle with alcohol. The paintbrush and bowl represent the style of work which he was known for. The car in the bowl represents his ultimate demise." And Rachel Prusynski explains the symbols in her pencil drawing Shellshock, "I tried to display in handprints what life events might possibly be imprinted on [people's] hearts, souls and minds."

Many statements in this show offer a glimpse into the creator's thought process and intentions. Rob Kleine's mixed media collage, The Lone Piano, is a dynamic assortment of orange, blacks and whites. The expressive handling of line and color visually echoes the words in his statement, "Yet untouched, this silent piano pours out musical energy." Lauren Bruning's Kyle presents a sewn monster suspended on a plywood board with the word "blah" painted on the monster. "Kyle is the representation of my inner demon....Only one thing is said and this word means everything," Bruning writes.

In its entirety, this exhibition exudes a youthful willingness to experiment and displays an abundance of technical skill and emotional depth. There's no crap here.

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