through March 29 | University of Central Florida Art Gallery | Visual Arts Building, 4000 Central Florida Blvd. | 407-823-5470 | gallery.cah.ucf.edu | free
Student work, even at the Master of Fine Arts level, is often painful, didactic or conceptualized beyond intelligibility; indeed, it is often passed over by critics until the students find their voices. Not so with these six, each of whom has already established a reputation as an artist. University of Central Florida's MFA exhibit this year consists of voices already found, speaking in mature language of the stress and struggle of our society's new poor in capitalism's twilight.
Visiting UCF's campus today requires navigational prowess; entering and turning left will bring you around a quarter-circle to the Visual Arts Building. Ignoring the campus's schizophrenic architectural pastiche, the visitor can make her way to the brick-columned building and enter the tall space of the gallery, open 10 a.m to 5 p.m. weekdays.
Bryce Hammond, the show's spokesman, says, "The six of us became very close … but one day in the fall  we simultaneously realized we were making blatant social statements within our content." This sets the viewer up for some strong grits. Themes of poverty and despair echo throughout each artist's work. Hammond has elaborated on his Beach Motel series here with an installation of a cheap motel room, complete with a Gideon Bible, inviting the viewer to listen to a dialogue of increasing despair and hopelessness between imaginary occupants. He paints the motel's placelessness, zeroing in on its banal architecture with sweet textural colors and planes.
Jeremy Eldridge, a photographer with international exhibits to his credit, takes it further with his series of backlit duratrans (a photograph through which light can shine). "Chez Moi" eerily invades the yard of a Southern home somewhere, a fluorescent glow beaming from a curtained window. Each photograph feels voyeuristic, highly personal, as if the dweller is outside but searching for his identity within. Yet more unsettling is Eldridge's Home Divided series, showing suburban Southern duplex homes, but the most disquieting by far is "Searching for Melissa" – the three photographs of young women waist-deep in a lake, gazing outward, send chills up the spine.
Gabe Gonzalez adapts the Juxtapoz-inspired language of the street to seek meaning in his experience as a soldier in Iraq. Chains, death's-heads, tombstones and gun barrels are serious matter, and when illustrated, cartoon-like, betray no heroes in battle. His Black and White (Heroes Not Number) pieces are fascinating – not quite illustrative, not quite pointillist, but complex patterns of figure and ground hinting at the horror of the warfighter's experience.
Noura Shuqair, an artist from Saudi Arabia, brings her own perspective from the Middle East's treatment of women. Islamic filigreed pattern-making gives way to stark, contrasting portraits: between white-garbed men and black-covered women; between women in hijab (head-scarf) and women clothed in Western fashion. Shuqair's exposé of the edges of cultural taboo culminates in a private booth labeled "For Women Only," inside which a self-portrait without the hijab may be found. (I peeked.)
Melissa Bush, right here in America, exposes some behavior just as abusive in her photography and crochet work. Traditionally a woman's craft, crochet oddly recalls the complex, fine geometrics referenced in Shuqair's work. Painstakingly woven into Bush's crocheted pieces is a story of abuse at the hands of her parents and aunt – abuses of all kinds, the text horrifyingly contrasting with the soft, maternal fabric flowing over a rocking chair and highlighted in frames.
Breaking stereotype also is Chad Burton Johnson, depicting Southern macho iconography in the glitter and sequins beloved by Southern redneck women. Daisy Dukes and other icons are lovingly crafted, folk-art-style, into huge, glistening panels. This celebration of that most masculine (if childish) of shows, The Dukes of Hazzard, reinterpreted in the material of a sequined Walmart T-shirt, completes this show's exploration of our culture's great unwashed.
While the 1 percenters party down on Wall Street, the rest of us are left to stare at each other and wonder: What comes next? This show's social commentary suggests a descent into mass-produced cultural cannibalism, as we turn to the emptiness of our middle-class existence to find meaning and identity. Contemporary war heroes, parents, authority figures and institutions are turned on their heads, and these MFA candidates are the harbingers of our new social dysfunction.
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