Sustaining Art: Inaugural Post-Baccalaureate Thesis Award

March 11, 2008

The end of art school often draws a blank canvas. Most art students will set aside their tools for more mainstream ways of making a living, and years may pass before they enter the studio again. For Elisabeth Meyer, associate professor in the Department of Art, the critical period after art school need not be so uncertain. Last spring, she initiated the Post-Baccalaureate Thesis Award, making it possible for recent graduates to exhibit at the AAP Center in New York City. Through this award, students with the most challenging and accomplished thesis exhibits are rewarded with an opportunity to display new work in the following season. “The idea behind the award is to help students transition from the academic environment into the art world of New York,” she explains. “We aim to broaden their exposure so they can get greater response for their work and promote a continuation of their practice.” For the inauguration of the award, the art faculty culled through works submitted by graduating seniors to determine the most deserving recipient. In the future, decisions will be based solely on the final thesis show. Only one student is to be awarded, but last spring two artists—Kathleen Hawkes and Nora Chase—stood out equally. Their exhibit featured new work and ran from December 17 to 21. Titled “Shared Space,” the show signaled the artists’ joint endeavor and emphasized the purpose of the AAP Center as a venue that promotes all of the best of the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning. For Kathleen Hawkes, this confluence of the various disciplines is what drew her to Cornell in the first place. “I enjoy letting the ideas behind the work steer the choice of media or process,” she explains. “I graduated with a dual concentration in photography and printmaking, but I was encouraged to never limit my work or define it by discipline.” In the exhibit, Hawkes used photographs and drawings to explore a single idea. Her works share identical dimensions and, when considered as parts of a whole, they read like a catalogue of the profoundly conflicted nature of surviving tragedy. Predominant in the collection are C-prints titled “Burned Items” which display heat-damaged household items, evoking both a sense of loss from a fire and a feeling of liberation from the weight of accrued possessions. Hawkes’ graphite drawings of a burned house and the aerial view of a suburban neighborhood radiating from a fire-radius provide the larger context for the photographs. They make clear that the modular squares of the whole collection connect to the grid of living, dramatizing the fragility of our belongings and our sense of belonging itself. Hawkes’ ruminations on the precarious nature of home and property inform her own relationship to her media. “The use of film always felt so poignant to me because the material is so delicate,” she says. “Certainly there are mishaps with digital work as well, but there is something more visceral or direct about film because it is so easily torn and scratched like human skin.” For Nora Chase, the award allowed her to continue her exploration of surfaces. A painting and printmaking major, Chase exhibited shaped and layered paper constructions for her “Wunderkammer” series. Based on human tissue specimens, Chase’s works straddle the line between visual abstraction and representation. The pieces attract viewers with their elaborate, elegant shapes while also repelling them by the fact that they are magnified models of pores, cells, scabs, bone plates, and blood vessels. “My work deals strongly with the notion of the sublime and the grotesque,” Chase explains. “It is aesthetically sublime and reflects both a meticulous and loving awareness and attention to the subject and the material. The grotesque is revealed primarily in the titles.” Chase’s juxtaposition of materials emphasizes this admixture of fascination and unease. Dressmaker’s tissue, delicate layers of paper, and entomological pins create a link between the pretty (as seen in fashion) and the pathological (as found in the laboratory). The works manifest the pressures that act upon the skin from inside and outside, making it a zone of conflict between externally imposed ideas of beauty and the inner workings of an organism that ages. “My work is meant to draw attention to the invisible aspects of the body while concealing the literal subject of skin through abstraction,” Chase explains. With the superb quality and complexity of the pilot exhibit in New York, the Post-Baccalaureate Thesis Award only promises to bring more important work to a greater metropolitan audience. As Elisabeth Meyer explains: “Students have just spent four years at Cornell and it becomes its own world. To reach out and suddenly be a part of the real world is a great opportunity. We can do more to make art exhibits a more common occurrence in New York and make them an integral part of our program.” —Jose Perez Beduya

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