In Review: The Roderick MacKillop Memorial Alumni Art Exhibition 2018

April 12, 2018

By Linda Luise Brown

A sense of genuine camaraderie was palpable on the stage and in the auditorium during the March 15 reception for the inaugural Roderick MacKillop Memorial Alumni Art Exhibition, which honors “the legacy of the beloved art professor” at UNC Charlotte. And in the galleries at Rowe Arts Building, the work of talented alums was strong and well crafted. Some of it glowed with accomplishment.

This Alumni Exhibition ran from March 15-30, 2018, and showed work by 32 alumni at the Department of Art & Art History. This event also formed a major part of the 10th anniversary celebration of the founding of the College of Arts + Architecture.  

A group show of this nature is bound to be varied, and this eclecticism reflects the breadth of the faculty who guided the alumni artists through their undergraduate years.  The variety of media spans from traditional oil and acrylic painting to photography and video; to diverse freestanding sculpture along with 2-D and 3-D  mixed media wall pieces -- prints, etchings, and “tradigital” blending traditional and computer-generated techniques.   Also in evidence are realistic figural approaches to portraiture, expressionism, Abstract Expressionism, contemporary fiber-based work and quilts. This panoply of creative production adds up to something worthy of serious study.

At a short introductory program, Eldred Hudson, Chair of the Department of Art & Art History and Professor of Graphic Design at UNC-Charlotte, described Professor MacKillop as being “…a prolific artist and dedicated teacher,” who believed in connecting to alumni. It was fitting that in honor and memory of Rod MacKillop, four of his former students in the Alumni Exhibition were also on stage. All had fond memories and personal responses to their studio experience.

Sharon Dowell, well-known locally and beyond for her public art installations, including the brand-new installation on the Blue Line Extension of CATS light rail, and whose eye-catching canvas “Truss II” 2015 a/c, is displayed on the staircase in the show, described her initial frustration working with Rod until she realized that he was teaching her very successfully, albeit in an indirect way. Professor MacKillop found it very important for art students to develop critical thinking skills, and to be able to talk and write about their work intelligently. He clearly passed this along to painter Dowell.

Nathaniel Lancaster was enrolled in a figure-painting studio with Rod, and he paraphrased a comment Rod made when critiquing his work about some brushstrokes looking “like you’re trying to make art marks,” – that is, trying too hard to look like art by adding unnecessary elements --. This is something that many a former art student can relate to! Some ten or 15 years along in his career today, Lancaster, who sometimes dares to leave his painting looking unfinished, is now producing large, layered paintings that often have a realistically rendered figural base beneath a layer of scribbled writing in black or white. In Frame 1348, 1349,” (2017 oil, acrylic, spray paint and graphite on canvas) Lancaster combines figurative elements that obviously have personal meaning into a layered and painted collage with a foreground image with the look of a blurry photo. The painting “Re/liv/veal/vil/ing Your Youth” is another combination of drawing, photography, layered, visceral, and mysterious. There is narrative content here, but its meaning is open for interpretation.

In his figurative painting, Jeremy Okai Davis, whose acrylic-on-canvas portraits of African-Americans are rendered in a loose, painterly and neo-Impressionist style that’s expressive and textured. Davis’ “Inside” features a disconcerting head and shoulders image with the top and bottom halves of the head rotated in different directions, inviting multiple interpretations. Davis said that Rod led by example and had a “steady hand.” He described seeing an exhibition of MacKillop’s work at a commercial gallery that made him “want to be able to fill a gallery like that.”

Ceramic sculptor Margaret McAdams, professor emerita of art at Ohio University, Chillicothe, received a Bachelor of Creative Arts from UNC Charlotte in 1977, and her two narrative painted ceramic table-top sized sculptures in the show, “he remembers,” and “he journeys,” both from 2017, contain folk elements. “he journeys,” which adds tassels to the camel-centric sculpture, features a small wood house atop a cast ceramic camel. Influenced by Margaret’s recent travels to India, these works are  based on her reflections about Rod as painting professor and former colleague.

 In 2017, Ms. McAdams received the CoA+A Distinguished Alumni Award from the Department of Art & Art History, and acknowledged how Professor MacKillop’s guidance during her first year as an art student at UNC-Charlotte led her toward painting.

There is always a hazard of an eclectic show becoming too scattershot in approach, but this one avoids that pitfall with apparent ease.  For an eclectic show to really “hang together,” some continuity builds when a few individual artists display more than a single work. Carla Rokes, for example, shows two pieces, entitled “CB#1” and CB#2”, elegant pieces designated as “tradigital-acrylic prints”. Some other gorgeous, “decorative,” well-handled pieces by Brandon David Henrie, show good graphic capabilities, resulting in sophisticated imagery.      

Assemblage artist, Shelley Sloan Ellis also shows two recent pieces, both using “tailors’ dummies” torsos. “Prozac,” and “Roofies” utilize porcelain shoulder pads and other attachments depicting large pills and capsules incorporated into “monotype assemblages” as soliloquies on drug use.

One of the most exquisite examples of wonderful craftsmanship is Ali Wieboldt’s 3-d mixed media piece, “Cherry Blossoms for Abe-San”, 2013, which combines different elements into a small jewel-like, sculptural form. Delicate leaves rendered with acrylic paint and graphite on faux bone, this pin-cum-pendant is embellished with sterling silver, “fireworks obsidian,” and garnet.

Beverly Y. Smith’s mixed media quilt “Cherry Picking,” 2017, contains an undercurrent of bottled-up protest in the explicitly rendered face of an African-American woman’s portrait.  Smith’s excellent craftsmanship is also vital to the success of this work, and is visible in her earlier piece, “White Plains”, from 2005.

Using mixed media cotton and acrylic, another fine quilt artist, Margaret James, shows “Gladys,” 2016, an illustrative portrait of a woman.

This critic wishes she could describe all of the works in the show. As always, in a group of individuals this large it’s difficult to generalize and impossible to give each artist their due. Worthy of much longer discussions are Elizabeth Arzani’s constructivist, 3-d collages and Lydia Goldbeck’s challenging “Lover Song (Receiving), from 2017. And paragraphs could be written about Sapun Ngoensritong’s teeming shapes and colors that energize the surface of “A Manuscript from Value Village,” 2016, that incorporates lithography and mixed media on panel.

Thomas Cornell’s weaving of uncountable small bits of wood into a dense panel is inviting and warm. Amanda Britton’s delicate 3-part 3-d wall piece, “Recollections” from 2016 utilizes vinyl, silk, organza and hand-woven remnants, and contrasts beautifully with Laura Alma McCarthy’s sturdy mixed media canvas “Maybe the Dead Weight of my Arm is a Wing,” 2017, that utilizes tar, oil, and mixed media in her signature “natural” palette of ivory and ochers.

This fascinating show is eclectic though somewhat on the conservative side. There is worthy and exemplary craftsmanship in large measure, and it may seem contrary to wish that the show’s well-balanced presentation would be enhanced by something a bit more confrontational and non-traditional. Myself, I like calm settings, but to get closer to the bone of what young artists are thinking about in 2018, the show might have welcomed some active “disruption”.  While art that is deeply experimental, or takes on the active presence of performance art is obviously hard to stage in the Rowe galleries, it’s not impossible. Dare I suggest that from this solid, attractive, and professional foundation future alumni shows explore more avant-garde boundaries?

For the faculty at UNC Charlotte, one of the most important questions they seek answers to is: are these alumni undergraduate students still making art? This is especially interesting if a significant number of years have passed since their graduation. Other questions follow: are they still living and working in the area? Have they furthered their study to include an M.F.A., regionally or otherwise?

This show provides the answer to all these questions: a resounding Yes! Continuing one’s practice is the single most important focus of an artist’s career. And these alumni, without exception, speak both to the excellent grounding they received from Rod MacKillop and his colleagues over many years and to their own rigorous, successful professional development. A fitting testament and tribute to all involved.

Linda Luise Brown is a studio painter and freelance arts writer and critic who lives in Charlotte. Learn more at www.lindaluisebrown.com/.