By Gianmaria Franchini
A glossy paper flier circulating around campus shows 12 Irwin scholars posing in Victorian garb. Under a backlit redwood tree they hold an array of bizarre objects and look directly at the viewer with self-satisfied expressions. A few pairs of worn sneakers peek out from under the costumes, telltale signs that the figures are in fact college art students. It’s unclear, exactly, why they are dressed like this, but their regal airs suggest a certain sense of communal accomplishment.
The flier affair might be a tongue-in-cheek reference to the young artists’ meritorious body of undergraduate artwork. The students, dressed so strikingly, have been awarded the William Hyde and Susan Benteen Irwin Scholarship by art department faculty as the most promising student artists. Along with a $2,500 end-of-year parting gift and an exhibition at the Sesnon gallery at Porter College, the 12 are also allowed to carry themselves, at least in print, with collegiate stateliness.
A variety of media adorn the Sesnon space as part of the exhibition, and though the pieces of art are not explicitly related thematically, they fit well together, tied loosely by the award given to their makers and by what Irwin Scholar Levi Goldman calls a “serendipitous” unity. In a cramped Sesnon back room in between an aborted attempt to offer coffee, Goldman and fellow Irwin winner Nolan Plant discussed their work. Both tend to eschew any sort of limelight, and even pass off credit to their Irwin-less peers for inspiration.
Goldman’s own sculpture, “Self-portrait with landscape,” shows a chalk-white female form, her belly soft, crowned with a bronze-colored masculine head, his features labored and rough. The figure is enthroned on a living grass lawn, with an abstract object at either side.
“One structure is a stacking of objects, and the other is more organic, feminine and intestinal,” Goldman said. “The piece is called ‘Self-portrait with landscape,’ and it’s about the way we choose to structure our environments, meaning our social environments and our physical environments. It’s a self-portrait with my exterior and inner landscape — two different spaces, social and physical. And I think all [of the art] touches on this idea of inner and outer spaces.”
Nolan Plant, whose brother was an Irwin Award winner last year, collaborated with Andrew Herbing in the multimedia “Aqueous Membrane” as a sort of warning about the dangers of plastic pollution in the oceans. In the gallery’s side room, the two artists have created a womb-like atmosphere with threads of fleshy red plastic material lining the walls and padding the floor. A video montage cut from vintage black-and-white footage naïvely announces the wonders of polymers, and what looks like an out-of-focus microscope slide with live specimens is embedded into the synthetic flesh.
“[Herbing] is very sculptural and uses a lot of found material to make an almost kind of living creature with abstract objects,” said Nolan, who works with digital art and new media. “What I wanted to do was to create a mood around his work. It’s supposed to be very abstract and to look very scientific, cellular, molecular. One of the problems with plastic in the oceans is when it gets broken up it soaks up a lot of free-floating chemicals that are floating in the water. Anything that’s hydrophobic sticks to the plastic, so you have these little sponges floating around and animals eat them, and we eat them.”
Art department chair Elizabeth Stephens was not part of the faculty team that selected the Irwin scholars, but she has kept close watch on the student artists’ development, and noted that this year’s exhibition reveals the quality, ambition and risk-taking that the artists demonstrated as undergraduates.
“[Artists] want to be respected, and they want to show their work,” Stephens said. “I think the exhibition validates their work at UCSC. It’s positive for everyone: positive for the school itself to produce such good young artists, positive for the professors who are teaching these students. And it’s good for the students because they can leave with some money in their pocket and some really good work they can show.”
Though they will graduate at the top of their class, Goldman and Nolan, both seniors, have no illusions about the difficulty of entering the professional realm. Goldman has modest plans. An ideal situation would be “making just enough money to support my art or more,” he said.
Nolan defined his goals without second thought.
“You need to find a way to support your art habit,” he said before correcting himself. “Art addiction.”
_The Irwin Scholar Exhibition runs at the Sesnon Gallery at Porter College through June 14. Nolan Plant’s collaborative, environmentally-themed art project is accessible at http://www.plasticjelly.com._