In this age of closing galleries and reduced museum hours, we need to be grateful for the deeper pockets and scholarly smarts of university galleries.
Tacoma has three colleges, two of which regularly offer fantastic art that’s often local and always thought-provoking. This week, two shows coincide within two minutes’ walk of each other at the University of Puget Sound: the ceramic-and-chalk pessimism of Brian Benfer at Kittredge Gallery, and the delightful pen-and-ink optimism of Mark Hoppmann inside the Collins Library.
If you’ve seen the photo for Benfer’s installation “Inchoate,” it’s even more important to walk into the gallery for a surround-sculpture moment photos just can’t capture. On the floor in the center of the low-hung room, 444 little white ceramic baby-heads sit domed and bald in neat rows, rather like an army of Buddhas discovered in an ancient Chinese tomb. They’re flanked on six stretches of wall by huge black-and-white chalk frescos that have all the white stutter and ambiguity of a smartphone scanning code. Yes, white chalk rubbed like a cross between Bridget Riley and Jackson Pollock onto chalkboard paint, directly on the wall. Benfer, who during the past decade has taught at the art schools at Ohio and Temple universities, is with this installation making a frighteningly clear point about the uselessness of higher education.
On one of the room’s four pillars is his statement, and it’s worth reading. After 10 years of watching his students not learn much from a system that values their numerical presence more than their ultimate learning, it seems Benfer decided to express this in clay. Using exactly the same mold, he cast one head for each student he has taught (their names are listed on the other pillars). You’d think they’d be identical, but on closer inspection, they’re not; molds deteriorate with time, Benfer explained. He said learning systems do the same. But they’re similar enough. Surrounded by the white static of the paintings, the heads seem innocent, defenseless, but also uncaring and ignorant. It’s a truly pessimistic view of education, and while it’s definitely uncomfortable standing in the room with all of those blank heads, it’s worth staying for a while to see deeper into their babylike incoherence.
Walk up through the stately grounds to the Collins Library for a very different view of the world. Tacoma artist Mark Hoppmann received a Tacoma Artists Initiative Program grant to complete more than 60 illustrations for an art book that anyone who sees will instantly covet. Titled “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crows” (a retake on a 1842 book by Charles MacKay) this series follows an unlikely hero – the small, tented figure of a crow – through some pretty astonishing adventures in time and place. With amazing dexterity, Hoppmann shows what beauty can be created through simple pen and ink (or at least calligraphy nibs, colored India ink, conte crayons and graphite). Inspired by historical illustrations such as “The Book of Kells,” Hoppmann makes textures and borders with every imaginable linework: hatching, cross-hatching, flaring geometric shapes, curlicues, patchwork. It’s the ultimate doodle, intricate and flawless.
And inside these borders are the crows: humble little birds with astonishingly expressive gestures considering the only facial feature they have is a beak. Like comic book heroes, they wander through literary and historical worlds: upturned dead in “Alas Poor Yorick,” spinning Escher-like into nothingness in “Whirling Crows,” enshrined in stained glass in “Crowsette Window,” perched enigmatically in rows of five-seven-five in “Haiku,” watching a starry crows-foot sky in “Vincent van Crow” or poignantly self-reflecting in “Mirror, Mirror.”
These tiny lines are the labor of many hours, hand-crafted books, the collection of tiny miscellaneous objects (also shown in the glass cases) and a sly sense of humor. Hoppmann’s other, non-crow drawings are equally skillful – a ferociously scary tree in “The Jabberwock,” its branches snatching; or three pinwheel flamingoes in elegantly balanced pink and graphite gray.
If “Inchoate” makes you shudder, “Extraordinary Delusions” will make you smile at the world. It also will make you reach for your own pen to start doodling.