Let the Show Begin 

Graduate students from VCU’s top-ranked arts school have big plans come graduation.

Time after time, when asked about the school, graduate students credit a large and diverse staff of talented professors for setting the school apart from others. Students found mentors quickly and discovered that the school’s staff bends over backward to insure students are exposed to as many educational, professional and financial opportunities as possible.

As a result, the graduating Master of Fine Arts students, who were the cream of the crop to begin with, come out of VCU with strong portfolios and a determination to make it as professional artists. These five have received encouragement from professionals and institutions, and are a good sampling of the drive and talent at VCU’s graduate art programs. Each shows his or her thesis exhibit at the Anderson Gallery. The first round is over, but the second half opens May 7.

Claire Watkins: Moving Sculptures

VCU’s sculpture department’s reputation for its openness to crossing disciplines attracted this artist who wanted to make art that moved. Long an environment where mechanical innovation has been commonplace, the department offered a course in microcontrollers that sent Watkins on her way to inventing delicate, veinlike imagery that often recalls human and plant vascular systems. Having mastered the art of programming microchips that can control the time and degree of movement, Watkins has built complex kinetic installations using circuit boards, motors, light-emitting diodes and assorted objects made from metal. Two years ago, she entered VCU as a technology neophyte; this spring she was the microcontroller-programming class instructor. Next for Watkins: 1708 Gallery’s “Pulse 2004,” an exhibition showcasing emerging artists, opening May 7.

Steven Jones: Dark, Cartoonlike Paintings

It took several visiting lecturers like New Yorker magazine art critic Peter Schjeldahl and artist David Reed to convince Steven Jones to go directly to New York City after graduate school instead of returning home to Chicago. Jones’ highly crafted and idiosyncratic imagery combining cartoonlike representations of suburban scenes with anxiety-ridden childhood memories struck the visitors as both weighty and fresh. While plenty of artists have appropriated a cartoon style of representation, Jones’ dark but humorous narratives are unique. The consensus is that Jones has a good shot at gaining some attention in New York galleries. With portfolio and impressive endorsements in tow, Jones plans a move to the Big Apple in the near future. His paintings will be on display at the Anderson Gallery May 7-16.

Fernando Aidinian-Mastrangelo: Floating Sculptures

Brilliant colors and high-gloss finish act as a bizarre contrast to the strange and menacing qualities of Fernando Aidinian-Mastrangelo’s fiberglass figures. Viewers, including New York-based curator and critic Gregory Volk, raise one thumb up while scratching their heads with the other. Aidinian-Mastrangelo seems content to confound and at the same time appeal to the senses. He, like Watkins, has learned and perfected a process — in his case building clay figures on armatures and then making molds of them — which has given birth to a new direction. Aidinian-Mastrangelo’s skill in clay and mold-making has landed him a job with Macy’s parade department. In July he’ll move to New York to start his new position and set up a studio with fellow large-scale artist and VCU grad Brian Caverly. You can see Aidinian-Mastrangelo’s work at www.fernandomastrangelo.com.

Dragana Crnjak: Painting Displacement

Since moving from Bosnia in 1997, Dragana Crnjak has been making paintings that deal with displacement “both as an act and as a state of mind,” as she wrote in the thesis exhibition catalog. Entering the graduate painting program two years ago, Crnjak painted abstractions with Eastern European landscape qualities. Lately her minimal paintings incorporate delicately painted, printed and drawn gestures on paper. The paintings are ethereal, as if the weight of her circumstances has somehow been lifted. Crnjak credits in-depth critiques in her school studio with forcing her to question motives and approach. Though she sees her art as evolving, there is a confidence and comfort level with her latest body of work that is drawing attention. Crnjak’s work can be seen at the Anderson Gallery from May 7-16 and the Page Bond Gallery through June 1 (by appointment, call 359-3633).

Alessandra Torres: Performance Sculptor

Not weighed down by categories and certainly not by borders, Alessandra Torres entered VCU’s sculpture department with interests in performance art and in crafting objects with a myriad of materials. Her body figures prominently in every work. Sometimes she makes objects that contain her, like an adult-size incubator, while other times she designs extensions of herself, such as garments with linked arms or yards and yards of skirt. While often serving as costumes for her performances, these inventions have also become the subject matter of photo collages.

Although Torres has technically finished her M.F.A., a recently awarded Jacob K. Javits Memorial Foundation grant will allow her to stay at the school at least another six months to take more classes and enjoy her studio. Eventually, she hopes to join her classmates in New York where audiences for performance art abound.

“I’d like to take performance out of the gallery and make it more public,” she says. This June graduate sculpture students will go to London to install their work at Keith Tallent Gallery. Torres says she’s tempted to experiment with performance in public places while she is there. Look out London. Torres’ thesis will be on display at the Anderson Gallery from May 7-16.

“MFA Thesis Exhibition Round 2” opening reception takes place at the Anderson Gallery, 907 1/2 W. Franklin St., Friday, May 7, from 5-7 p.m. The exhibit runs through May 16.

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