As many of you probably don’t know, I am a loyal watcher of the Emmy Award-winning, Friday-night making, reality TV show “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” I mostly tune in to the show every Friday night because the lip syncs and fashion are iconic, but also because an emotional backstory is my reality-TV kryptonite.
Do I know anything about how to perform in drag? No. Did I once think that lip liner was a form of sharpie? Yes. But I am nevertheless entranced by the technical skills the queens bring to the stage, so I keep coming back.
I say this because “Heartened Surfaces: The 2021 MFA Thesis Exhibition” and I have a similar relationship. I may not understand the complex nuance each artist brought to their projects. Yet it was still as thrilling to witness as “Drag Race.” Having the chance to go to an in-person gallery was the cherry on top for an exhibit that had almost everything I would typically look for — a little drama here, some camp there and a lot of artistry.
So now I will delve into my tops and bottoms for the gallery, and just like the first half of season 13 of “Drag Race” — there are no losers, only winners, baby. So say “love” and start your engines for this review of “Heartened Surfaces.”
At the top this week are Christine Bruening’s “Permeable Bodies” and Rey Jeong’s “Screaming Yellow.” Bruening’s “Permeable Bodies” explores the intersection of the horror aesthetic and the artist’s own experience of fear and trauma. The artist’s body of work captures the camp nature of horror to the tee, using the broad strokes of the horror aesthetic as a foreground for her own experience.
“Frankenstein and the Doctor,” also by Bruening, was one of my favorite pieces; it juxtaposes the artist’s fear of pregnancy with the discomfort of a “party-city” Frankenstein headpiece and cartoony green body paint, perfectly highlighting the innate discomfort of horror.
This collection had high drama and a strong viewpoint to back it up, making Bruening my top toot (aka favorite artist) of the exhibit.
Jeong’s “Screaming Yellow,” a social sculpture that talks about the experience of the Global Majority, also had its form of high drama in the form of a decked-out neon yellow truck. Yes, a real-life truck that looks like it just came out of “Jay Leno’s Garage.” It was definitely the centerpiece of the exhibition, catching my eye from the get-go.
Jeong’s work felt immersive and full of color. The use of LED and neon lights highlighted the artificiality of the truck’s purpose as a fake grassroots campaign for an imaginary politician. This political motif offered a structure for the social sculpture, providing a literal platform for participants in Jeong’s work to express their emotions and voices through conversations, poetry and personal stories.
Unfortunately, along with my tops, I also have my bottoms of the week. Nathan Bryne’s “Equally Empty” lacked the payoff I had hoped for. Based on a graphite drawing by Dean Smith, Bryne’s piece was an immersive spatial encounter that used a soundscape by Emmerich Anklam, who is also known as Distant Reader, and Smith’s drawing as a foundation plan. Bryne’s installation felt magnetic at the center, the sound design along with the beautiful metalwork that accented the dark space bringing out the beauty in the still air. But as I began to move to the outer shell of the installation, it quickly lost its appeal. The piece needed to carry the energy to the ends of the installation, yet after that stunning center, the meandering wooden fences felt lost and tired.
The winner for the gallery challenge has to be Christine Bruening. Her work spoke to me the most out of all the pieces and made me want to find more on Bruening’s website.
And the loser: YOU! Because you haven’t already gone to see it. Located at the Stamps Gallery in Ann Arbor, Mich., this gallery’s artists are giving me life, at least until next Friday’s episode of Drag Race.
Daily Arts Writer Matthew Eggers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.