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Undergraduate juried exhibition tackles social issues through variety of mediums

By Jiana Smith, The Commonwealth Times

Art pieces ranging from colorful oil paintings and framed photographs to mannequins and audio installations filled the gallery spaces of The Anderson as part of the 2021 Undergraduate Juried Exhibition.

The submission-based exhibition, which takes place from Nov. 11 to Dec. 9, features 37 VCUarts students from various programs including painting and printmaking, craft and material studies and communication arts.

Chase Westfall, curator of student exhibitions and programs at The Anderson, said the exhibition gives undergraduates a chance to share their work with the VCU community and work with a curator who is knowledgeable about current trends in contemporary art. 

“We have a phenomenal art school, period, but there is a particularly strong undergraduate studio presence here,” Westfall said. “It’s a nice way to highlight that and bring students not only in conversation with each other, but with a curator who has their finger on the pulse of what’s happening in contemporary art.” 

The works featured in the exhibition were selected by juror Jennie Goldstein, assistant curator of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. A juror is a curator brought in from outside an institution, according to Westfall. The exhibition received submissions from 130 undergraduate students. 

Unlike in previous years, the 2021 exhibition had no theme to encourage students to submit art that engaged with important aesthetic and social issues, according to the exhibition’s webpage. Themes from past Undergraduate Juried Exhibitions included “Fake News” in 2020 and “Home Sweet Home” in 2019.  

Goldstein said she saw “key themes” arise in the submitted artwork, despite the lack of a theme. These themes helped inform the jury process by giving Goldstein a recurring idea around which to structure the exhibit. 

Themes that emerged in the exhibition ranged from the formation of self-identity as distinct from a group to commentary on the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Goldstein.

Goldstein said engaging with these social issues through art was important because it offers ways for artists to connect with others through their work.

“Artists are often uniquely capable of expressing their own experiences, and often in ways that deeply resonate with others,” Goldstein said. “Artists offer a way for the non-artists among us, including myself, to deeply connect to ideas that we might not be able to articulate ourselves.”

One piece featured in the exhibition was I Cannot Knot by craft and material studies junior Brianna Cappelli.

I Cannot Knot features a suspended swing made from white oak. The swing, completed over the course of one month, took 200 hours to make, according to Cappelli.

Cappelli said she wanted to use the piece to speak to the topic of mental and physical health and healing through meditation and introspection, which is represented by the wood of the swing. She said this piece was important to her because of her personal health struggle.

“I find the most solace when I’m connecting with nature, which brings me back to working with wood and being inspired by different shapes and movement,” Cappelli said. “It’s important for me to share these experiences of mental and physical healing not only to reach out to someone who maybe is also searching for a sense of relief or distraction.”

Root Tapestry System by senior Elise Wojtowicz, a photography and art education major, focuses on the impact of the environment on human life. 

The piece features cyanotype photographs of family and friends printed on a variety of paper and fabrics, as well as objects from nature like rocks, leaves and vines. Cyanotype processing involves coating a surface with liquid, light sensitive chemicals and exposing it to sunlight, according to Wojtowciz. 

Wojtowicz said climate change inspired her to create the piece and that she wanted to tackle human feelings and existence during a time of overwhelming environmental decay.

“We’re humans trying to make the best out of what we’re given,” Wojtowicz said. “We’re trying to exist, we’re trying to love each other, we’re trying to make it through and do the best we can. It’s a tragedy that these are the cards we’ve been dealt.”

Wojtowicz said that it “feels good” to have her piece featured in the exhibition because it is the first time the piece is being physically shown to the public.

“It’s really nice to see it existing in a gallery space and not just, you know, sitting in my closet,” Wojtowicz said. “I put so much time and love and energy into its creation and it’s nice that it has a place to live, at least for a month.”

In addition to allowing students to share their art, the Undergraduate Juried Exhibition helps students develop the skills necessary for an art career, according to Westfall. These skills include documenting their work and putting together a curriculum vitae, or a CV. A CV is a summary of one’s education and qualifications.

Westfall said he hopes that the exhibition will encourage students to be “vulnerable” with their work and take initiative for future opportunities.

“It’s a really healthy thing to feel vulnerable a bit, and to make yourself available for the judgment of someone who is coming from the outside,” Westfall said. “We hope it’s a positive experience for them all around.”

Lead Image: Artwork by Elise Wojtowicz, titled Root System Tapestry. The piece is a mixed media of cyanotypes on various papers, fabrics, rocks & leaves, vines, cotton thread, twine, inkjet prints on glitter paper, glitter and driftwood. Photo by Lily Doshi