The Corcoran College of Art and Design’s annual showcase of its seniors’ thesis work, “Next,” is always a good way to check in on the state of the arts.
Photography, which has always been a strong department at the school, is accompanied by a profusion of multimedia. (I counted a few dozen pairs of headphones hanging from hooks on the wall.) There’s also a smattering of painting, drawing and sculpture.
Performance art — or its residue — also is healthy this year. Sarah Gettman’s installation “Right here. Be here now,” for example, features “participants, ceramics, pre-fab tent, paint and wood,” according to the wall label. All are in evidence except for the participants, whose ghostly presence must, presumably, be imagined.
I toured the show recently, on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art through May 18, and heard four students, hand-picked for their talent by teachers, speak about their work. Their projects suggest a blending of disciplines that transcends labels, along with an engagement with themes that mix the personal, the philosophical and the political.
For her thesis exhibition, Halsey Berryman plastered almost an entire wall of the museum with 45 hand-painted signs. Titled “Concessions,” her installation parodies old-fashioned sidewalk hucksterism, but instead of advertising slogans, it contains an array of everyday lies.
The fibs run the gamut from what the artist calls the necessary untruths that lubricate social interaction (e.g., “My phone was off”) to some that are less innocent. One sardonic example, painted on the back of a salvaged church pew, reads “All Sinners Welcome.”
While studying at the Corcoran the past three years, Berryman worked part time at the Foggy Bottom Trader Joe’s, where she honed her sign-painting skills. (The grocery chain is known for employing artists to update its in-store signage, create murals and design other original, if ephemeral, artworks.)
Berryman isn’t just pointing out that we all swim in a sea of falsehood; that’s fairly obvious. According to the artist, her thesis project was inspired by her decision to come out as a lesbian a year and a half ago.
Despite the screaming medium, Berryman’s message is subtle, and she says she isn’t interested in grinding a political axe, or a moral one. “Concessions,” Berryman says, is about all sorts of facades — those that destroy us, and those that protect us.
What Berryman really is interested in is a paradox: Everyone knows that authenticity can be faked, but fakery, to some extent, also is entirely natural.
Although most of “Next” has been installed on the Corcoran’s second floor, one prominent work greets visitors in the atrium. Suspended from the skylight, at a height of almost 40 feet, is an effigy of Queen Victoria. Loosely inspired by 19th-century caricatures of the British monarch, the puppetlike figure wears a long, faux-fur cloak, the train of which extends all the way to the floor. (The other day, lunchtime diners at the in-house restaurant Todd Gray’s Muse seemed happily oblivious to the art hanging overhead.)
Titled “That Which Is Seen and That Which Is Unseen,” the sculpture is the material residue of a public performance by Lorenzo Cardim, who will reprise the spectacle a few more times before the exhibition closes. The performance begins with Queen Victoria near the floor; the artist then emerges shirtless from a heap of fur and slowly hoists the figure aloft. The show ends with Cardim walking to the second floor, where he smashes a pane of breakaway glass in a steel-framed window.
Cardim says the work was inspired by the parable of the broken window. Taken from an 1850 essay by French thinker Frederic Bastiat, the parable posits that for every shattered window, there is both an apparent benefit (i.e., the repairman’s fee) and a hidden cost (i.e., the financial setback incurred by the window’s owner). Bastiat’s example is an illustration of the mixed blessings of war, which include both economic profit and loss, often used to discredit the argument that going to war stimulates a nation’s economy.
That’s the overt meaning, anyway. Cardim’s piece also has a subtitle — “slave of desire” — that suggests an interpretation having less to do with violence than with other aspects of morality. This is underscored by the choice of Queen Victoria — an icon of power, to be sure, but one more often associated with sexual strictures than with military action.
Cardim is hesitant to endorse any single reading of the work, which he calls both an examination of the human condition and a commentary on the art world. The slippery nature of his message should serve him well in the field of performance art, which loves provocation almost as much as ambiguity.
Cardim will perform “That Which Is Seen and That Which Is Unseen (slave of desire)” on May 3 from 4 to 5 p.m., May 9 from 1 to 2 p.m. and May 14 from 6 to 8 p.m. Dates are subject to change; consult the event calendar on the “Next” Web site for updates.
One word you hear a lot around the Corcoran College of Art and Design is “development.” Ideas, artistic practices, careers . . . they don’t just happen but are cultivated in an environment designed to foster — and maybe even to force — change.
Looking at the work of Travis Wagner, who transferred to the Corcoran from St. Louis Community College and who plans to continue his art education in grad school, you can see an artist who is still emerging from a chrysalis. Originally trained as a figurative artist, working in drawing and painting, Wagner has work here that, although clearly sculptural, betrays its roots in the picture, not the object.
The centerpiece of Wagner’s installation is a large heap of tar paper, bound together into sheaves by twine and construction adhesive, and piled haphazardly on a concrete pallet. At roughly 2,500 pounds, the sculpture’s brute physicality hides a more spiritual side. These 66 tar-paper “books” allude to the 66 books of the Protestant Bible. According to Wagner, the piece is about the idea of a finite divinity, a notion the artist calls “both profound and ludicrous.”
That stack of tar paper is paired with a triptych of flat wall pieces made from lead foil that has been wrapped, like canvas, around thick wooden panels. Like the artist’s floor sculpture, they’re heavy, around 30 pounds each.
Yet in these three panels, there’s also a powerful connection to painting. Each has a kind of horizon line etched across the middle, an accident of metal fabrication that makes them look not like sculpture but like landscape. Or, rather, seascape. In their evocation of gray skies above gray water, they resemble nothing so much as photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto’s acclaimed series of seascapes.
The Corcoran installation is a snapshot of an artist in transition. A combination of the pictorial and the sculptural, Wagner’s thesis pairs the muscular physicality of the object with the painterly sublime.
Set in Switzerland, where she grew up, Adriana Serrato’s short video “La Petite Batellerie” is a meditation on the simultaneously fugitive and formative nature of memory. Combining grainy photographs — largely of people and foggy landscapes near Lake Leman — with the artist’s simple, black-and-white drawings, it doesn’t so much tell a personal story as question storytelling itself.
According to Serrato, the film’s structure, a slide-show-like collage of still images, was inspired by Chris Marker’s 1962 film “ La Jete é,” which used a similar technique to tell a sci-fi tale of time travel. In its own way, Serrato’s film also investigates the notion of time and travel. Her drawings feature images of a clock, and the photographs themselves — blurred, washed-out and marred by artful light leaks — look antiqued, in the manner of a smartphone’s “vintage” camera filter.
Holding onto memories, in Serrato’s deeply poetic telling, requires effort. Because they fade, they may need to be conserved as well as constructed.