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They say that context is everything. To test this notion, I visited a student show at a museum. While the artwork certainly benefited from its handsome setting and thoughtful installation, many pieces also stood easily on their own. This year’s Annual School of Art Student Exhibition at the Blaffer Museum includes some strong painting, playful materiality, stand-out photography, and lots of floor-based sculpture by University of Houston graduate and undergraduate students.

The most imposing floor piece is Healing the Believer’s Chest by first year graduate student Trey Duvall. By imposing, I mostly mean that it’s a bit of an imposition to have to walk around it to get to the other side of the gallery. Some visitors had to be told several times by the guard that no matter how integral they are to the history and fabric of Houston’s art scene, they still have to walk around it.

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Duvall’s materials are listed on the wall label as sawdust and gasoline. Perhaps he’s referencing the tragic fire at the Glasgow School of Art, this time last year, caused by flammable materials used in student work for the end-of-year show.

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Other, less flammable (and more playful) floor-based sculptures by undergrad Clay Zapalac were also being diligently guarded throughout the opening reception.

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When you look up from the floor you will find that some promising painting is also being made at U of H. One stand-out canvas by graduate student Jennifer McClish reminded me of that time I saw Phillip Guston vomiting outside of a Luby’s. That may or may not have happened, but if it did, it looked a lot like this painting. And Jennifer: if you’re reading this, that’s high praise.

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Another painting that caught my attention is Unholy Affection by undergrad Rafaelo Gamero. The title, along with the imagery, made me think that the artist was drawing some sort of inconceivable parallel between primate orgies and interracial human relations. That alone was enough for me to pull out my smart-phone for a photograph, but upon closer inspection there is (thankfully) a lot going on in the paint as well.

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The most conceptually interesting work in the show is a photo triptych by Angel Lartigue titled Selfies as I were Muertex/asesinadx. First of all, he nailed the title. The weird inconsistencies in grammar and spelling (no ‘if’; extra x’s) create the same uneasy feeling as the photos themselves, which are so well conceived and executed for such a young artist, it’s almost scary.

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Almost every art student incorporates odd or unexpected materials into their work at some point, so much so that nobody really bats an eyelid anymore when it happens. But first year MFA candidate Tracey Keller’s small yet monolithic painting Eyelash (oil paint and fake eyelashes on canvas) succeeds where many others fail. There is a strong sense of intentionality in this piece and also something very pleasing in the way Keller manages to be at once delicate and brutal.

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The exhibition is on view through May 9.

also by Bryan Miller
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