In promotional materials, Comma And…, the new undergraduate exhibition in the Coulter Art Gallery in Stanford’s new McMurtry Building, is described as “an introspective meditation on self identity.” As I sat in the building’s atrium, waiting for the gallery to open for the day, I wondered, what does that mean, other than that the theme is there is no theme? The artists featured in the exhibition have the automatic link of time and place, but “self-identity” is a fairly broad throughline. And because Comma And… is such a diverse exhibition, with works from 20 students across 16 majors, in media from oil to Arduino to performance, it is able to provide a picture of the broader Stanford visual arts scene.
Maybe it’s my own narcissism speaking, but I was immediately drawn to the works in the gallery simply due my own identity as a Stanford student that I share with the artists represented. I recognized the places in the photographs, the names on the walls, the theme of self-discovery so characteristic of young adulthood. Because the works displayed are the products of our peers, any Stanford student who visits Comma And… can easily project their thoughts, emotions, and anxieties onto the works exhibited. But with permission to project comes the imperative to empathize. Yes, the artists exhibited in Comma And… are all Stanford students.They are also each individuals, and their art demands to be understood as the products of such.
Dan Guo’s painted diptych Time In China conjures nostalgia, depicting an urban sunset in two styles. The left panel is realistically rendered, while the right depicts the same scene in a more impressionistic lens. It speaks to the fading of memories, the golden haze we apply to our past, muddling the details but enhancing the tone. This piece transported me into my own halcyon memories, walking down a street while the sunset warms me and feeling just a touch more optimistic than perhaps I should. Even more immediately evocative are the four photographs taken by Karen Wang, depicting scenes from campus: Meyer’s demolition, a dancer at Powwow, and a pair of synchronized swimmers. Having stood in the same spaces as the photographer, I am able to bring my own physical memories into my viewing of these images. This spatial empathy mirrors and enhances the emotional and intellectual empathy vital to any meaningful engagement with art objects.
Chase Porter’s photograph “Before the News,” a highlight of the exhibition, compels this type of engagement. A young woman stares out at the viewer, presumably preparing herself for the upcoming announcement. She looks nervous. Like photographer Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills series, this image begs for context, and I instinctively began to theorize about the subject’s situation from the moment I approached the photograph.
The most immediate form of empathy I experienced while viewing Comma And… came when viewing works by artists I know. This is a simultaneously intimate and alienating experience, seeing an object that sprung out of the soul of a friend, but not having this friend around to discuss the work. Instead of a conversation with someone, in which both sides communicate to reach a mutual understanding, the dialogue becomes a strange, dual monologue. Everything the artist communicates is immediately colored by the lenses of the gallery structure and the viewer’s interpretation. There’s no room for true conversation, only a one-sided search for connection, with the work, with the artist, with oneself. Why did she make this? How does his art enhance my understanding of him, and by extension, of myself? A connection with an artist automatically connects one with this person’s art. The initial relationship is already present, but in order to deepen one’s understanding of the artist and the art, active listening is vital.
These two strategies for viewing art, giving our own life to the works we see, and remaining open to being changed by them, are crucial to understanding any exhibition, but this balance of self and other is acutely noticeable in this student show. Our proximity to the artists shown in the gallery compels us to collaborate with the work, giving to and taking from it in an aesthetic and spiritual communion. By nature of its intimacy to our situation as Stanford students, Comma And… is an exercise in empathy.
Comma And. September 28-December 6. 12 p.m.-6 p.m. More info here.