The senior thesis exhibition currently on view in the Lucas Gallery at 185 Nassau is entirely wordless. There is no artist’s statement, no title. The artist’s name is nowhere to be seen. Not even the VIS website offers a hint at the identity of the senior behind the show. This may at first seem like conspicuous modesty or loud self-denial. It also may seem like a somewhat flashy, performative act. It certainly incites curiosity, while also forcing the viewer to consider the relationship between an artist’s identity and his or her work.
However, the anonymity of the exhibition contributes more than an element of performance. It allows for a consideration of the works without any distractions. Particularly in a community where a visitor to the gallery is likely to know, or at least know of, the artist as a fellow student, the distance this show provides is tender and crucial. The works have nothing to do with that kid who talks too much in your precept, with your best friend whose paintings you love unconditionally, with the person you desire from afar. Instead, the works and nothing else fill up the viewer’s mind.
And these works inspire careful looking. There are fourteen in total—a small exhibition, compared to the other senior thesis shows this year—and, remarkably, I can remember all of them without looking back at the photos I took. Each piece involves what appears to be ink marked onto a different material. There are two works of ink on layers of glass panels pressed together, four works of ink on wood, five works of ink on paper, and four suspended cloud-like paper sculptures.
The artist’s ink markings are distinct. Most are small and wormlike—sometimes faint, sometimes dark, but always of consistent thickness. In some works they are disorderly, layered, and swimming in all different directions. In others, they follow distinct patterns of movement. In two, they form neat, concentric circles that resemble tree rings. The works in which the marks are squiggly and layered seem almost like something seen under a microscope. They also call up images of woodworms. The wormlike markings, tree rings, and use of actual wood demonstrate a thorough and multifarious contemplation of the material.
The artist also takes advantage of the Lucas Gallery’s wooden floorboards in order to subtly transform the exhibition space. Two small, rectangular works on wood rest on the floor. They almost make it seem as though the floor is suddenly jutting itself upwards, changing its orientation from horizontal to vertical.
What struck me as most unique about this exhibition in comparison with others I have seen in the Lucas Gallery was the way in which it seemed to take notably careful consideration of the room itself. The warm wooden floorboards and white walls of the gallery almost match the wood and stark white paper of the works themselves. While making art “match” a room might normally call to mind visions of interior decorators, here it allows the viewer to be totally absorbed in the exhibition space. Like the anonymity, it removes distractions. In one piece, inkworms squirm around and begin to encroach upon a gaping white hole of negative space. The boundary between the paper and the wall is seamless, making it appear as though the work is drawn directly onto the wall and that this gaping hole is the wall itself. This work is the most eye-catching, perhaps the most likely to be Instagrammed. However, because of the two dimensional illusionism, the viewer must look at it closely and alertly—in the flesh—in order to even realize what it is materially.
Similarly striking are the clouds. In the main, larger gallery space, these four formations hang. The room is dark, and each cloud is illuminated from within. The space seems meditative or religious. There is nothing to pay attention to except these floating shapes. Their intricacy also requires close looking. Such close looking reveals that they might not quite be considered as sculptures, but perhaps as shaped works on paper. Three of the four clouds show similarly intricate ink patterns drawn on paper; however, these markings are wider and have straighter edges. One cloud is made of blank white paper. Also apparent upon close viewing is that the paper is sewn with thread and needle at the seams. Between the stiches, pockets of bright light shine through. While the shapes appear to be simple and minimalist, there is a delicate handcrafted-ness to them.
Other works elude photography. The works on glass are perhaps the most impossible to capture in image or in words. They are composed of glass plates clamped tightly together at the base by a wooden pedestal. Each plate is drawn on with ink, so that when they are layered over one another, there is a three-dimensional image composed of several two-dimensional layers. One has the concentric tree ring markings. The other uses the wormlike marks and appears almost like an insect-like organism petrified in a single thick piece of glass. In photographs, the three-dimensional image of these two works is almost entirely lost. This is reason enough to go see this exhibition in person.
But there are many reasons. This artist does not want to reveal him or herself to you. He or she does not want to explain. The exhibition’s anonymity brings up the notion of what it might mean to have an anonymous voice. In the context of achievement-focused Princeton, this kind of anonymity seems especially singular. This is the artist’s senior thesis—his or her final mark as an undergraduate at Princeton. The senior thesis, in many ways, is an expression of a student’s individuality. What does it mean if the individual’s identity is never revealed? Has anyone ever turned in an anonymous thesis? Based on the “post thesis life” photos of seniors holding their finished theses that have flooded my Facebook news feed this past month, I find it unlikely. The lack of identity attached to the exhibition is also startling in an environment and within a generation where identity politics often seem to hold reign over the dialogue.
Perhaps the artist’s reticence transfers ownership of the art onto the viewer. Or maybe it merely draws further attention to him or her. Either way, the exhibition’s wordlessness transforms the gallery into a quiet space for contemplating quiet, thoughtful, engaging works. It is a rare experience to have here, where we seem to be in constant, loud dialogue.
On view in Lucas Gallery through Friday, April 24
Gallery hours: 10:00 AM – 4:30 PM
Opening Reception: Thursday, April 23, 8:00 – 9:00 PM