Master of Fine Art students worked closely with USF’s Contemporary Art Museum (CAM) staff to reimagine their thesis exhibition, “Battin’ a Hundred,” into an online experience of their final projects. Opening night was held virtually through a video conferencing call, with about 170 alumni, students, family and faculty attendees. The video conference centered on a looped slide, where artists answered questions about their work.
“This is the next phase of the students’ career,” said Leslie Elsasser, CAM curator of education. “They worked really hard and it’s an extraordinary exhibition.”
The exhibition is the result of two years of preparation. Students first developed their ideas, submitted written proposals and then collaborated with museum staff individually to safely install their artwork over spring break. It's a crucial process and valuable experience for professional artists. The exhibition, which runs through May, includes paintings, photography, multimedia and sculpture.
In addition to the virtual opening, artists and CAM staff have created other ways to help spread the word about their work. CAM will produce a series called Artist Talk, which introduces each artist and invites them to elaborate on the ideas involved in their work. CAM will share these on its blog, Facebook and Instagram.
“CAM saved the day and all of us in the school are absolutely blown away with appreciation and gratitude,” said Wallace Wilson, director of the School of Art and Art history and professor of photography.
Ash Lester, one of the first artists featured, engages stereotypes about rural life to examine lived experience. Her work focuses on her hometown, Plattsburg, N.Y. She uses various materials and related paraphernalia to transform her space into a typical garage workshop scene complete with an entryway, concrete-like flooring and lined bottles painted in neon green.
“There is so much ingenuity in rural life that contrasts greatly with what I see here in Florida,” Lester said.
The virtual tour of the exhibition will ultimately have greater longevity than the physical exhibit, as with anything on the Internet. But it’s a mixed bag. Even before the installation began, students were aware that the work needed extra documentation because physical visits would not be possible.
“With the documentation you gain a perspective from what I see,” said MFA graduate student Jezabeth Gonzalez. “I really wanted to show my work as if it was caring for itself, almost like a display of affection.”
Gonzalez’s multimedia installation is a symbolic recreation of her home in Puerto Rico. She focuses on plant life to center on ideas about family relationships, labor and ties to the land. Gonzalez worked with her family to learn how to care for the transplanted plantain and passion fruit plants. Her work also showcases video recordings of her grandparents' living room synced to an audio advertisement selling land on the island.
Gonzalez’s installation, as with the others, examines personal observations while also inviting viewers to consider broader issues.
Matthew Campbell used a dense soap foam mixed with cement to create reliefs that mimic river delta formations. Campbell’s sculpture pieces, which stand about one foot off the floor, are semi-geometric isolations of patterns determined by many forces of nature. The installation reshapes the gallery space where visitors can walk around, but the online exhibit reveals an important aspect of Campbell’s work, which isn’t easily seen without lying on the floor.
“It reflects the waterline in a river which becomes this data line from which everything else is marked,” Campbell said.
CAM leaders and the artists hope that the greater Tampa Bay community and other artists access the work online and learn about how they are using art to engage.
“These are emerging artists involved in the world, and therefore their concepts and ideas are relevant to the contemporary world,” Elsasser said.