There are a lot of studios in Bushwick, and a lot of white boxes and apartment galleries, too. If you need a break from any or all of those, I recommend venturing out to 299 Meserole Street, where recent alumni of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Sculpture and Extended Media MFA program have taken over part of a warehouse.
Stepping in yesterday from the street, where the sun was so strong I thought it might melt my skin, the space and the show within it were a dark, cavernous (though still hot), and refreshing sight. There’s something earnest and honest about this show, as well as a cohesiveness that feels like a welcome counterpoint to all the scattered studios and one-offs one sees throughout the weekend.
Twelve artists are included in the exhibition, which professor and interim department chair Carlton Newton told me the department had been putting on for almost a decade now. The first few took place at Kim Foster Gallery in Chelsea, followed by one at the Pierogi Boiler. But Newton explained that it was hard to encourage the students to work out their ideas by whatever means necessary and then try to cram all of that into a small space when they arrived in New York.
The sprawling warehouse, then, is a perfect setting, and not just for its size: all of the artworks in the show have an experimental, provisional feel that complements the transitional nature of the space, and by extension, the neighborhood. This isn’t to say that the pieces feel unfinished; they feel, rather, open to engagement. They challenge the viewer to make sense of and interact with them, and one feels that invitiation extending to and from the artists. An MFA show sense of possibility and evolution hangs in the air.
Two of the standout pieces inevitably do so because of their scale, but they also follow through on their promises. Melanie McLain’s “Damp Gestures” (2012) is a fully functioning steam room, which, granted, in the current weather will scare some people off. But after climbing the stairs and entering through a shower door, you’ll find a tile floor and three spare seats with neck rests. They position you perfectly to watch a video projected over the entrance of other massages, which creates a nice kind of mesmerizing feedback loop for the viewer. As you sit, the heat in the room begins to bend from oppressive toward liberating, and if you make it there between 2 and 4 pm today, you can get an actual massage to complete the experience.
Meanwhile, in the back of the space, Leslie Rogers’s loud and colorful “Haggle” (2013) beckons like an oracle. Alone in a vast room, the piece is comprised of a cloth-covered helium balloon resting atop a small platform, which is surrounded by black fabric peaks. The work evokes a slew of images, from a boulder and mountains to a snow globe or some other childhood collectible orb. Steady, trance-like music blares from nearby speakers, amping up the otherworldliness and the sense of having stumbled upon some great object from a forgotten culture. Newton told me that “Haggle” is actually an environment for a performance: one dancer wears the balloon-filled orb while another performs outside, moving around the fabric mountain ring.
These are two of the biggest pieces, but other, either more complicated or quieter ones also hold their own amid the captivating decay of the space. Tom Simon’s series of sculptures, video, and painting are small, heady signposts on the journey through the space, each one a curiosity for the viewer to try and decipher though more prolonged and intimate engagement. Alina Tenser’s video “Pong with Herself” (2012) moves from floating abstracted images in freeform digital space to a filled-out picture and back, bringing you with it. Ryan Crowley’s sculpture “My Washing Machine” (2013) is a carefully and beautifully constructed mess, a futuristic totem that looks like it was made from so many pieces left behind. And Jesse Potts, in “Double Positive” (2013), has turned boots and a broom into clocks. Hidden in a corner, they seem to simultaneously summon the building’s forgotten past and tick away the hours until its future.
The Virginia Commonwealth University recent sculpture MFA alumni show continues at 299 Meserole Street (Bushwick, Brooklyn) through 7 pm today.