Academic Stories

Visual arts BA thesis exhibition stretches across UChicago campus

Students cook up a mix of media, meanings and memes in “for an easier recipe, sear pork shoulder”

The outer wall of the Logan Center Gallery reads “for an easier recipe, sear pork shoulder” in bold, yellow letters. Far from the order a recipe implies, however, the exhibition inside is a melting pot of ideas, themes and media cooked up by this year’s graduating class of visual arts majors who have elected to take the studio track.

The Department of Visual Arts annually holds a BA thesis exhibition like this one in partnership with Logan Center Exhibitions, with an MFA show following soon after. “for an easier recipe, sear pork shoulder,” named after an inside joke among the BA students, opened April 5 and runs through April 28, with various programs occurring in between. Spilling out of the gallery into the Logan Center and even across campus, traces of the exhibit can be found in room 017 of the Logan Center’s Lower Level, in “the POD” outside Café Logan and at the Center for Identity + Inclusion.

Below the gallery, in room 017, is Sarah “Sam” Saltiel’s “What She Swallowed: A Pop Up Mental Health Exhibit.” Triple-majoring in visual arts, English and creative writing, Saltiel’s work for their BA thesis is an ongoing project that involves interviewing and drawing portraits of more than 50 people who identify, or at one point identified, as femme. Their work takes an investigative and palpably real, rather than abstract, approach to exploring the ways femme identities and mental illness intersect. In “What She Swallowed,” Saltiel’s goal is not simply to provide a physical platform where people can read the interviews; rather, room 017 is meant to act as a space for community, catharsis and care—for oneself and for others.

The grayness of the Logan Center’s Lower Level has been subverted in room 017: couches, carpets and pillows abound in the space, which is dimly illuminated by ambient blue lighting that filters through sheer fabrics hanging from above. On a table near the entrance, a tea kettle, nail polish and other objects commonly associated with acts of self-care sit waiting to be used, with a sign encouraging visitors to care for themselves in whatever form they want while in the room. Saltiel is also hosting several tabletop, role-playing games throughout the run of “What She Swallowed.” The games tackle issues of identity, the body and erasure and themes of queerness, alienation and gendered violence.

Allan Lake’s work, like Saltiel’s, is also split between two venues. “The Black Aesthetic: Artistic Interpretations of Black Culture and Identity” features an introductory piece at the gallery and a central work a few blocks away at the Center for Identity + Inclusion. A visual arts and comparative race and ethnic studies double major, Lake’s work at the gallery includes “Glassless Mirror,” a whiteboard that confronts viewers with two questions as soon as they enter: “Has Your Identity Been Challenged Today?” and “Has Your Identity Been Acknowledged Today?” Having been blank at the opening reception for the BA thesis exhibition, the board is now brimming with answers, scrawled with red and green wipeout markers. Directly on the other side of the wall is “Birth of a Movement,” an installation of X-ray transparencies, ultrasound images and a Black Panthers postcard.

At the Center for Identity + Inclusion, Lake’s expressions of black culture and identity delve into themes of racially motivated violence and stereotypes. One of the installations includes several pairs of Nike Air Force shoes placed on a series of shelves. On the bottom shelf, a black pair is covered in racial slurs and stereotypes painted in white. In another installation, a weave hangs out of an empty, oval mirror frame, while across the room bullet shells lay scattered under a can of spray paint and a painting on the wall.

Back at the Logan Center, the students are also running what they call “the POD,” a shipping container turned pop-up shop that first appeared during the opening reception of the show, during which red tote bags were sold. For three days starting April 15, "the POD" was reopened as a thrift shop selling used clothes. Inside it, visitors had the chance to see exclusive artwork not featured inside the exhibit.

This includes prints by visual arts and public policy major Michael Zhu, whose drawings and painting in the gallery navigate the meanings of dual citizenship, cultural clashing and identity fragmentation from the perspective of a first-generation American immigrant. Highly allegorical, his work borrows characters and motifs from classical Chinese mythology and casts them in contemporary sociopolitical contexts. His works in “the POD,” on the other hand, focus more explicitly on the racial tensions associated with an immigrant’s life, featuring, for example, a board with a yellow half and a white one, the words “TOO YELLOW” written on the former and “TOO WHITE” on the latter.

With a second major in creative writing, Kira Leadholm, who uses art to confront her audience with their viewership and voyeurism of the female form, is also featured in “the POD.” Her experiments with collage can be traced to the more developed paintings that are exhibited in the gallery.

Juhi Gupta, a visual arts and public policy double major, has a collection of digital collages and edited photos shown in “the POD”—preliminary explorations of the cyber chaos characterizing our contemporary moment in media history. Gupta’s corner of the gallery  bursts with color and includes several video works, some of them interactive.

Majoring in mathematics and cinema & media studies as well as visual arts, Jeffrey Hsu makes use of several screens in the gallery, hung below a roof that arches off the wall above the viewer—a roof he built himself leading up to the show. Running POD programming with Gupta, Hsu’s practice concerns itself with the marriage of science, technology and art.

BA shows tend not to be driven by a common theme, medium or subject, and this show is no exception. However, despite the seemingly arbitrary collision of media and ideas—ranging from Tyler Logan’s annotated self-portraits, “Presentation Notes”, to Sophie Harding-Jackson’s projection-based experience in the smaller room of the gallery—“for an easier recipe, sear pork shoulder” offers visitors an aesthetically and conceptually engaging body of work that does not fail to impress. This year’s graduating class of studio track students have clearly not chosen the easier recipe.