By: Shelby Len
I lock up my bike and walk into Union South to escape the drizzle and weighted blanket of humidity outside; it’s Tuesday morning, the day before fall classes begin at UW. Upon walking in a breath of air conditioning dries the sweat on my back, and I notice the throngs of students waiting in line to get their Wiscard photos taken, staring at phones in impatience. Taking a right turn by Peet’s coffee, every booth is occupied by students typing away furiously on their computers, scribbling in planners, reading syllabi, all completely oblivious to my passing by. Campus is certainly alive and kicking, and school has barely even started yet!
I found this effervescent energy echoed in the exhibit In Transit, on display in Union South’s Gallery 1308. The exhibition features works by both art and non-art students as well as recent alumni, “[highlighting] young people and how they use art to pass through and across space and time.” Co-curated by UW students Elizabeth Parker and Sophia Abrams, In Transit makes lemonade out of the undeniable lemon that was this past academic year. Each piece works in concert to take the collective loneliness and introspection felt in isolation and transforms it into a moment of pride, acceptance, and even celebration as we return to campus for another school year.
In the gallery’s entrance there is a clipboard fastened to the wall to introduce the exhibit, and on it is a question that sticks out to me in particular: “how do we transition as individuals within a generation coming of age?” The question itself belies a dialectic, a tension that runs through the entire gallery, one of consolidating between individual and collective experience. One piece in particular that epitomizes this antagonism is Sophia Abrams’s diptych The Start of Something. The brilliant color palette and dancing brush strokes both conceal and reveal a sea of amorphous faces looking out from the canvas. The primal, pattern-seeking part of the brain takes each face individually, and each is totally unique in its color composition and shape. But at the same time there is a soothing, beautiful rhythm in the congregation (and I purposefully use this word for its multiplicity of meaning.) It forces me to contemplate the merits of conformity versus that of uniqueness, but more so serves as a reminder that you cannot have one without the other.
As I continue meandering through the gallery, I’m quite struck by the proliferate number of phone mirror selfies in the exhibit. Not necessarily the sort of photography you’d expect in an art gallery, is it? However, what draws me to them is the telescoping of gazes that occurs in the act of displaying a mirror selfie, as opposed to more traditional methods of portraiture, such as a painting. The image-taker looks at themself in the mirror, the phone looks at the mirror’s reflected image, the reproduction of the reflection is looked at by both the image-taker in the moment of its capture and the viewer in the gallery. Does this manifold reproduction of the original image distort or obscure the aura of the original? I’m reminded of the self-conscious, meta portraits of Vivian Maier, and more broadly the birth of the photographic portrait in general, a watershed in the history of representational art. Does the light reflected and absorbed off our faces, subsequently read by the camera’s lens, offer a “true” representation of the self?
I think what I find most intriguing about the mirror selfie is the act of turning the gaze onto oneself. It creates a space for introspection and reflection, a space which many of us became very familiar with due to restrictions on community events and gatherings. I found Veda Manly’s Hair, In a Few Years to excel at this self-reflection in particular. In various photographs of herself not only do we see her hair change from short to long, platinum to red to blue and back again, but we also see smizes, smirks, funny faces. There’s no linearity as to which hairstyle came first, no visible progression from A to B, but despite that there is a sense of affirmation in having implicitly arrived at the present day, while carrying the weight of all the past permutations of herself on her shoulders.
As the school year gets into full swing and summer fades into fall, In Transit serves as a much-needed reminder to self-reflect, take pause and consider the person who is looking out from the mirror back at us. It asks us to consider not only the sound of our own footsteps, but how all around others are walking the same path.