Student Art Show Raises, Answers Questions on Nature of the Abstract

Alexandra Tell

Artists have been pushing up against the boundaries of art for decades now, testing the limits of the artistic practice as a vehicle for expression. A turn to abstraction, a turn away from the representational and the referential, has persisted throughout the last century as a means of exploring the possibilities of art. The students in Professor of Studio Art John Pearson’s first module art class, The Nature of the Abstract, were asked crucial questions about what it means to work within abstraction. What is abstraction? Does abstract art have content? How can it convey meaning? The students presented their aesthetic responses to these questions last Thursday night in Hales Gymnasium, when they put together a show of their final work.

The work displayed by the fifteen artists in Pearson’s class represented a diverse set of inquiries and explorations into the realm of the abstract. The pieces varied greatly in scale and material, from College senior Lauren Melton’s series of delicate line drawings done in pen, to College sophomore Conor Donahue’s architectural wall installations, to College sophomore Katie Rotman’s room full of wall drawings. College junior Jake Dancy displayed a set of charcoal and color pencil drawings titled “Series from Memory. ” By layering charcoal atop colored pencil drawings, rendering the color only slightly visible, Dancy deals with the impossibility of memory, illuminating the haze of time that clouds all that we remember.

College junior Thomas Huston contributed a series of nine color field paintings. Huston created the work by enlarging photographs until they were pixilated and then using the distorted images as the basis for his paintings. Huston’s work pushes the limits of portraiture. He reveals, in his abstract paintings, the inherently subjective nature of representation.

The range of work presented at the final show reflects the class’s open-ended approach. Pearson encouraged the students to pursue and develop their own personal artistic vocabularies. Prompts for the class was left more vague than prescriptive, and students were free to use any sort of media in their work. In addition to a series of intensive critiques, the Nature of the Abstract class also took a trip to New York City in March. They visited Dia:Beacon, a museum in Beacon, New York, which has a collection of large-scale minimalist works. The trip encouraged the students to begin to think about their own work in new ways. “It’s funny,” College junior Becca Kahn Bloch mused. “After we got back from our trip to New York, everyone’s stuff got bigger and much more ambitious.”

This ambition was apparent at the final show. The work on display took risks, exploring unconventional content and materials. All of the artists featured in Hales had ventured into the realm of abstraction and found their own niches. Ultimately, both the class and final show were about individual discovery, an “inquiry into the relationship between the artist and their artwork,” as Dancy said. “When you’re producing work that isn’t simply representational or referential, the ways [through] which we find meaning or experiential value is not easily articulated.”

The Nature of the Abstract show exists as a meditation on how and why we create and view art. The show, in all of its diversity, reminds us that there is no straightforward answer to this question. Instead, this show presents us with fifteen proposals, each of which asks us to consider our own engagement with every piece, as well as how we approach art more generally. In this variety, we find a refreshingly honest, provocative and sensitive approach to the amorphous nature of the abstract.