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'Small Refusals' shows art through a pandemic perspective at University of Texas

Michael Barnes
Austin 360
Magdalena Jarkowiec's video "This Here Us Now" stands out in the "Small Refusals" show at University of Texas' Visual Arts Center.

"Small Refusals" is a perfect title. Short, elegant and evocative, it graces a new show at the University of Texas Visual Arts Center.

The exhibition is remarkable for several reasons. For one, it showcases just three student artists — Ania Mininkova, Heather Canterbury and Magdalena Jarkowiec — and serves as their MFA thesis project in studio art.

Perhaps because of the pandemic, the 2001 MFA class seems unusually small. COVID-19 certainly affects how the viewer understands the works of these very different yet related artists, even if some of the pieces were completed before March 2020.

Mininkova's art, mostly video and photography, deals to a certain extent with road trips into the American West. Without wall texts, the pieces are displayed in a separate gallery, a spare, deep, white room with two low, black, cushioned viewing benches positioned at the room's center. Despite the overwhelming whiteness of the room, yellow-green light filters into the space through two large windows and two dark mesh shades.

Ania Mininkova's video of a snowy road on the plains also reveals shadows of people elsewhere.

The eye immediately zooms to a very large video being screened on the eastern wall that shows a snowy open road, a scene that could be set in the Texas Panhandle, among other places on the plains. Objects, mundane and poetic, roll by. They include telephone poles, fences and a windmill, as well as farm or ranch structures. Barely detectable shadows of people from another place show up at times.

I found myself looking into the whiteness for clues as to the actual location, an old habit. 

That video — and another on the western wall that combines home movies, novelty footage and glimpses of dark creatures — is accompanied by a soundtrack that mixes seemingly random spoken sentences with the slow, low music.

Another piece stands out: a narrow horizontal box that displays the phrase "Forget the Future," blinking red on black as if a highway warning sign.

For her part, Canterbury split her work between two galleries. In fact, one piece, "A Drop in the Landscape (Twilight)," is hung back to back on a wall that separates the two rooms.

Trees and paper attract Canterbury. We see photos of a small tree or brush being pulped, also discs from a real tree trunk that has been sawn into pieces. Two of the large composite works position inkjet prints on paper of photographed personal journals.

"It Seems So Long, It Seems So Short" combines pages from a 1974 journal penned in a refined longhand. The writer's insights loop back and forth among what seemed to me youthful impressions of the world. "A Drop in the Landscape (Twilight)" is taken from a 2015 journal executed in neat, capitalized print. A good deal of it is a record of an adult's self-help regimen, and Canterbury suggests the difficulty that person experienced by including blank pages, some of them strewn on the floor like leaves.

While Canterbury and Mininkova tightly control their subjects, materials and stagings, Jarkowiec seems at first wonderfully all over the place. Her art is curious, active, inventive, crammed with colors, shapes and textures.

Heather Canterbury's works often return to themes of trees and what is made of them.

Some lovely pieces are made from shaped metal mesh. Another work combines a chain-link gate with dismembered brush branches, as if torn apart and jammed up by a storm. Yet another grouping pulls together tools with the remains of a tree.

Jarkowiec likes fabric. Some of it hangs. She also wraps it around lumber or soft sculptures.

Yet her centerpiece is a deeply odd and hypnotizing video, which can be seen either projected on a wide wall, or inside a tapered wooden box. An orange stretchy material, sometimes pulled over heads, sometimes over an arm, connect three dancers.

Linked and yet separated in this manner, the performers move in all sorts of ways, some of them incorporating tap or modern dance. Their performance space is a meadow by a creek or river with limestone cliffs in the background — a natural theater. Two additional onstage elements: a cinder block and a 2-by-4 piece of lumber, both wrapped in red fabric.

After seeing it four or five times, it was impossible to get this video out of my mind.

I mentioned COVID-19 as a possible perceptual frame: All three artists treat human figures from a distance. They are beguiled by the natural world, but also call attention to the ways that people manipulate it. While this art all makes sense visually, the exact meanings are, thankfully, always tantalizingly out of reach.

If you go: "Small Refusals"

"Small Refusals" continues through May 23 at the University of Texas Visual Arts Center, 2300 Trinity St., 512-471-3713, utvac.org. Call in advance for hours. Also now at the center: "The Space in Between: 2021 Senior Art Exhibition."

Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at mbarnes@statesman.com. Check in advance for hours.