Vera Obscura Upsets Senior Studio Dominance

Jimmy Hagan, Arts Editor

Vera Obscura, an independent senior art show that opened last Saturday night at the Richard Baron Gallery behind Slow Train, dispelled the myth that Senior Studio is the only premier venue for the top talent in the Oberlin art community. The show consisted of impressive and exciting work by College seniors Eli Steltenpohl and Sophie Miles and College fifth-year Jake DeVito.

In general, Vera Obscura presented a complex investigation of various media and artistic disciplines. While Miles’s work addressed the idea of portraiture and the myths the genre reinforces about identity, Steltenpohl’s focused on the artificial distinction between sculpture, toolmaking and organic forms found in nature; additionally, DeVito’s pieces toyed with assumptions of photography and intimacy. Despite the varied results, all of the artists’ pursuits were rooted in straight or experimental photography.

Miles’s series of 16 black-and-white, medium-format images obscured most of her models’ faces with handcrafted and collected objects. Her work was based on the idea that the portrait offers false access to a person’s true self by focusing on facial features: In a time of growing material clutter, the objects that surround us play a larger role in defining who we are. To Miles, eyes, mouths and noses hold more mythical than actual significance to the construction of the self.

Evocative and beautiful, Miles’s images floated into the realm of the iconic. The objects chosen to obscure the faces derived from fantasies that suggested alien worlds where eggshells, feathers, tinsel, plastic bags and shampoo reveal essential qualities. The work indulged in a sense of sexiness and exoticism that one can find in the pages of National Geographic — a stated influence of Miles.

Steltenpohl also challenged the limitations of his genre of choice by deftly manipulating sticks and branches into man-made tools. Cleverly, Steltenpohl chose not to use his sculpted objects to reify a binary between organic and artificial, but flirted with the liminal space between both, suggesting that the only thing fake about the difference between tools and nature is the distinction itself.

More directly, Stetenpohl created and recorded imaginary “specimens” that he deemed “found objects.” In some pieces — such as the bush made of branches, wrenches and pipes — the constructions addressed the ongoing struggle between man and nature for dominance. In others, however, the integration was so seamless that it became impossible to differentiate one material from the other, with the wire and vine species in particular stunningly demonstrating the total integration of organic and machine. Yet given the monumental size of some of the other creatures, the small-scale wire and vine series could have benefited from a little extra space to grow — perhaps even culminating in a large wrapping of other objects in the wire/vine material.

As opposed to the finely-tuned and specifically focused work of Miles and Steltenpohl, DeVito’s work covered the widest breadth of real estate. In one installation in the gallery’s only side room, for instance, DeVito projected the face of one model onto the chest of another. The two models identified with countries who have at one time been at war — Morocco and Spain, the U.S. and Mexico. The model whose face was being projected hid behind a curtain that was switched to the other side every five minutes.

Two other intriguing pieces seemed to explore the idea of surveillance, but ended up dealing with re-contextualizing our notions of the intimate and the process of photography. In one installation, an iPhone camera was embedded in a mirror above a sink, recreating a space in which the abnormalities of our personal bathroom etiquette were exposed and then exhibited by a projector on an adjacent wall.

Another work displayed a pinhole camera lurking behind the peephole of a door. When the handle is turned, the shutter opens, capturing the person opposite the door on medium-format film. While a series of photographs nearby implied that the door was installed in a house and that the models were unwittingly photographed, in conversation DeVito revealed that the images were staged. While the installation was engaging, it was enticing to imagine the kinds of images the artist could compile in the future by placing them in the real world and nabbing shots of unsuspecting persons — an idea DeVito acknowledged as an initial consideration for the piece.

Overall, Vera Obscura’s success should serve as a measuring stick for any art show next year. Together, the three artists filled their spaces, expertly creating a natural dialogue between one another and integrating their individual works into a unified whole. Vera Obscura reminded Oberlin art students that memorable and top-quality art can radiate from outside the department-sanctioned allure of Senior Studio.