The Learning Curve 

Student art on display.

At first glance, the precariously tilted table tops on spindly legs in Dwayne Butcher's ArtLab installation, "Beauty Terrorist in 3D," look like dinette sets morphing into hordes of insects in some macabre comedy. Butcher is a poet, blogger, activist, and established artist as well as a Memphis College of Art graduate student. Like his wobbly tabletops, this gutsy, self-described "Arkansas redneck with fine art aspirations" sometimes falls on his face. And sometimes he succeeds brilliantly, as he does here, with the simplest of materials suggesting simultaneously 3D recreations of his signature line drawings, alien insects, and AT AT's, those Star Wars animal/artillery hybrids as rapid-fire as Butcher's imagination.

At ArtLab, University of Memphis, through May 21st

With Styrofoam and bits of colored paper, Tim Kinard sculpts life-size clowns, jugglers, lion tamers, tightrope walkers, and acrobats for "Final Acts," his master's thesis exhibition at the Art Museum of the University of Memphis.

One of Kinard's most powerful acts takes place in a small side show (aka the New Media Room) where the World's Strongest Man flexes his muscles, hoists a can of beer in the air, and towers over the World's Smallest Man, a laid-back senior citizen dressed in a '50s-style Mexican wedding shirt and who smokes a pipe, walks with a cane, and sports a bald head and a Buddha belly. Kinard's dramatic contrasts between body types and mindsets suggest, in part, what we become when overdeveloped biceps and braggadocio diminish the gentle, measured wisdom of the elders.

All of Kinard's circus performers are carefully observed and psychologically complex. From the high-dive artist on the platform just below AMUM's 25-foot ceiling and the tight-rope walkers balancing above our heads to the trapeze artist who soars over the partition separating AMUM from the museum offices, Kinard satisfyingly fills one of the most cavernous art spaces in Memphis.

On the museum walls surrounding Kinard's circus performers, you'll find another unique exploration of self in Melissa Rackham's digital images of a stuffed rabbit. Left out in the snow, under a bed, in the middle of a highway, and at a yard sale, Rackham's emblem of childhood serves as poignant comment regarding the parts of ourselves we anesthetize, forget, put at risk, and sell for too low a price.

At AMUM through May 10th

In "Solitary Tracks Stretched Out Upon the World," Memphis College of Art's MFA thesis exhibition at On the Street Gallery, John Gutierrez uses Bic ink and the lightest possible flicks of his wrist to create drawings that range from almost indiscernible wisps of energy to impenetrable black holes that glow with the purple iridescence of the inexpensive ink.

For her Memphis College of Art MFA thesis, Catherine Blackwell-Pena's digital images of new subdivisions remind us that urban landscaping often razes the earth. In the digital image Viewers of Views, a man standing on a slab of concrete, his back to the viewer, looks out at beautiful uninterrupted expanses of sky, mountains, and forests.

click to enlarge Drawing by John Gutierrez, from "Solitary Tracks Stretched Out Upon the World"
  • Drawing by John Gutierrez, from "Solitary Tracks Stretched Out Upon the World"

Blackwell-Pena places this same hand-poured concrete slab on the floor of the gallery in front of the photograph. Step onto the concrete, but be forewarned: At this point, ecological agenda becomes epiphany that may entice you to trade denuded earth and concrete highways for mossy paths and fine old trees not yet sacrificed to urban sprawl.

On the Street Gallery through May 10th

Other Works Worth Noting

At the University of Memphis Jones Hall Gallery, there's not a trace of macho posing or narcissism in Melissa Farris' nearly nude paintings, Brad's Ass and Brad's Crotch. With a warm palette and flowing lines, Farris' BFA thesis records the glow of youth in a svelte young man undressing with the grace of a dancer.

Line and form become even more fluid in Danielle Zuckerman's Rhodes College senior thesis, Harry, Frodo, and Self. Zuckerman's face dissolves and re-forms as Harry Potter and Frodo the Hobbit in a digital video that suggests how deeply stories seep into consciousness and shape who we are.

click to enlarge Life-size tightrope walkers by Tim Kinard at AMUM
  • Life-size tightrope walkers by Tim Kinard at AMUM

For her Rhodes College senior thesis, Elizabeth Mann portrays a world where nothing is sacrosanct. In her most poignant painting, Grip, deep burgundy shadows play across the gaunt face of a man whose expression is a mix of anguish and angst. Neither fantasy nor psychedelic color nor cartoon flowers have prepared him for the world he sees when he removes the still smiling and wide-eyed Teletubbie helmet from his head.

MCA senior, Judith Stevens sums up this year's student art with the wildly imaginative mixed-media altar Hermetic Nomad, in which defecating babies, roaring lions, hand-stitched fabrics, fine-art paintings, and Eastern sages pay homage to the whole of creation.

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