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This is the first of two posts on MICA’s Senior Thesis, an annual exhibit that sprawls across the entire campus and attempts to show the best work students create after four years at the institution. As you would expect, the show is an uneven mix of brilliance and not-so-brilliant, and an attempt at experiencing the thesis shows of close to four hundred graduates is an exercise in over saturation. The more you look, the less you see and that which stands out from the rest is significantly better and worse.

One new trend I noticed this year at MICA was the number of collective and group shows happening in different spaces. This is not the same as various students exhibiting simultaneously in the same gallery. What I am talking about is a thematic group exhibition, with a title and wall text identifying it as such. I noticed this the first time a few years back, in 2009, when Malcolm Lomax and Daniel Wickerham, collectively known as DUOX, created an installation in the Main Building during Artwalk. The two artists worked collectively then, so exhibiting their thesis work together made sense. Although the identities of the two individual artists were merged in the installation of sculpture and wall works, the combination rendered the works exponentially powerful and memorable, both because of the questions it raised about individual authorship and the purpose of the senior thesis show.

Fast forward to 2013, where a number of student groups banded together for a ‘strength in numbers’ approach to the senior thesis. I’m not convinced this approach is working. Although I am a huge fan of group shows and collaborative projects in general, many of these exhibits felt mismatched and forced. In another context, ‘MICA Studio Center 2013’ might be enough of a theme for a cohesive group show, but at a thesis exhibit, a common process or aesthetic is already assumed.

When a group show is successful, it enhances the power of individual works and elevates their message. This only happens when serious editing (known as curation) occurs. A collective exhibit needs to advance a thematic thread through all the work involved, and it is often necessary for individual identities to be sacrificed for the greater good. Although many of the individual works in these group shows were of high quality,  the idea of a group theme, or its lack thereof, was distracting. Most of these group exhibits came off as chummy, a casual collection by artschool buddies which is sweet, but isn’t doing individual artists any favors.

One collective project which stood out from the rest in a highly positive way was ‘Wish You Were Here,’ a dark and immersive maze staged in the Gateway’s Black Box Theater. Featuring individual works by Holden Brown, Travis Levasseur, Katrina Schneider, and Jessica Childress, the installation felt like a combination of an old-school haunted house, theme park ride, and home invasion. I will admit I know several of the artists involved in the project and I was thrilled to see their individual style and media merge into a unique and mostly cohesive experience.

On the whole, the lighting was rather sparse in this piece, so it is possible that the ubiquitous darkness added an element of cohesion and theatricality, removing works out of the typically well lit gallery setting and inserting them into other spaces, with random bits of furniture and lighting. However, the purpose of the piece – to explore conflicting reactions to public and private spaces, although vague, was also compelling. As you navigate, sometimes blindly, from one room to the next, certain spaces feel familiar, like a living room with comfy furniture, a generic office, a creepy nursery or playroom, the stinky room where the dog crate lives complete with dirt-smudged peach carpet, and what appears to be a travel agency.

Video monitors and projections are placed in nearly every room, but blend subtly into the installation, disguised as framed photos, windows, televisions, and create the illusion of outdoor spaces. Certain rooms in ‘Wish You Were Here’ are more absurd than others, with a movie theater-dark room projecting a giant scene of snow-capped mountains and a giant air conditioning unit blowing cold air at the top of the list.

On the whole, the installation provoked a number of reactions – from confusion, humor, nostalgia, and curiosity – and its immersive nature was jarring and transformational. I walked through the piece behind an elementary aged child and his reactions – mostly glee in recognizing familiar elements – were contagious. Not only was ‘Wish You Were Here’ an ambitious thesis project, the cohesive curation and cooperative nature of this behemoth of an installation appeared relevant far beyond the classroom.

Author Cara Ober is a Baltimore-based artist, writer, and professor. She is the editor of Bmoreart.

More Senior Artwalk coverage to follow!

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