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“The Gold Standard” examines the work of VCU graduates from the last 10 years.

click to enlarge Janelle Proulx and Dana Ollestad's “Untitled” (2015) is a salt and multichannel audio installation that creates a labyrinth for the viewer; in the background is artist Annie Campbell’s “Overburden” (2015), a sparkling, hanging resin sculpture.

Scott Elmquist

Janelle Proulx and Dana Ollestad's “Untitled” (2015) is a salt and multichannel audio installation that creates a labyrinth for the viewer; in the background is artist Annie Campbell’s “Overburden” (2015), a sparkling, hanging resin sculpture.

Maybe you haven't heard, but art school is hard.

It's an incubator of activity, brimming with creative ideas and raw emotion, packed in so tightly it's sometimes liable to explode. There's the art history and dense theory, long hours in the studio, critiques and studio visits, each student jockeying for position, and undergirding it all a large dose of talking your way through it.

But in reality, graduating from art school — even with honors — doesn't make you an artist. Rather, it's what you do over a lifetime.

"The Gold Standard: Graduates of the Last Decade" at Virginia Commonwealth University's Depot Gallery through Aug. 30, picks up after graduation. It packs work by 25 emerging or midcareer artists into the two rooms. Each artist left the school holding a bachelor's or master's degree in fine arts.

Depot Gallery manager Andrea Alvarez says she wanted to feature all disciplines, but a lot came down to submissions. "We sent out a call to all of the chairs of departments with a BFA or MFA and posted the call on social media," she says. "We received 79 submissions, lots of it through word of mouth."

The exhibition aims to highlight successfully evolving, post-graduation practices as a way of encouraging current students.
"In regards to criteria for the exhibition," Alvarez says, "I was really interested in seeing how their work had evolved after graduation. I was looking for a drastic shift."

If evolution is the intended goal, it is slightly obscured, relying on one's familiarity with the artists' previous practice. It's personally apparent in works by Lily Cox-Richard, Derek Coté and George Gregory. All three display an investment in materials and archival processes. While present in their student work, it's magnified in their postgraduate practice.

Coté's "Soft Terror" (2015), a work from his larger series, "Terra Nullius," made after a residency at the Arctic Circle, combines a video projection of a glacier and a bucket of water filled to the brim. At the top of the bucket sits a small, white polyhedron that mimics an iceberg. The installation is meant to create a personal experience that investigates objects, scale and the Arctic as the last frontier.

But most viewers don't have this historical benefit. Instead, the remaining works that stand out do so on their own merit, isolated from earlier student investigations. Janelle Proulx and Dana Ollestad's "Untitled" (2015) salt and multichannel audio installation does just that. The salt, poured on the floor, sets up a labyrinth for the listener to walk through, bringing the person in contact with different speakers along the path that emit sounds recorded of homes and domestic activities, like a woman washing spinach.
Another highlight includes Annie Campbell's "Overburden" (2015), a hanging resin sculpture that mimics a topographical map and sparkles in the dark, back room of the gallery.

Two performance works, Marisa Finos' "Vessel II" (2015) and Whitney Lynn's "Living History/Performing Death" (2014/2015), are planned for the closing reception. Each seems particularly timely. Finos — who created a sarcophaguslike clay sculpture — will lay in her structure to contemplate her own body as a vessel. It summons the recently deceased Chris Burden's work — during the 1970s, Burden had himself shot, locked in a locker for days, and nailed to a VW Bug — but substitutes the violence and machismo for composed contemplation. Lynn will hire a Civil War re-enactor dressed in full uniform to lie dead in the gallery. She's done this before in Richmond, but in light of the recent debate over Monument Avenue and the Confederate flag, it feels politically charged in a fresh way.

In a letter from 1968, then still-emerging artist Walter De Maria, perhaps best known for "The Lightning Field" (1977) a grid of 400 steel rods placed in the New Mexico desert, wrote: "Risk is necessary. Yesterday I went up in a free balloon — over the countryside. We crashed into a tree on landing but managing to throw out sand — and we rose again." Originally trained as a musician, De Maria's successful career saw many shifts through sound, film, installation, performance and traditional media.

Perhaps in some way De Maria's quotation and practice sheds light on that elusive secret to long-term artistic success: The desire for change is really the only "Gold Standard" that keeps an artist working — returning to the studio to throw out the drag, risk everything one more time, and rise again to the next task. S

A closing reception will be held Aug. 28 at the Depot Gallery, 814 W. Broad St. Call 828-7720 or visit depot.vcu.edu.

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