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What could be more exciting than talented new artists? Not much, which is why the annual Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) student portfolio reviews drew high interest from Boston museums and galleries last week. One of the premier art schools in America, RISD always offers some enticing discoveries. I conducted a quick poll of the photography portfolios that my colleagues and I thought were especially promising. Here are some highlights.
When she arrived at RISD, Nicole Buchanan discovered that only 4% of the entire student body identified themselves as African American and from the African Diaspora. That gave rise to her project “The Skin I’m In”, a series of luscious headshots of her fellow students. The textural emphasis on hair and skin, along with soft directional lighting, recall classical portraiture techniques but, ironically, also police blotter headshots. Buchanan’s clear empathy for her subjects and her instructions for uniformly neutral facial expressions and direct gaze allow each one to be a proclamation of individual worth, absent of peril and full of poignancy. (http://portfolios.risd.edu/gallery/15950549/The-Skin-Im-In)
Andre Bradley’s approach to the African American experience is as hard-edged and graphically bold as Buchanan’s is naturalistic. His colorfully manipulated portraits in the project “How To Be Good” are a symbolic exploration of “the interior lives of African American families and the circumstances shaping their ability to love one another in the 21st century.” Bradley’s treatment of positive and negative space parallel the psychological conflicts in attitude and feeling that are at once positive and negative, internal and external, good and bad. (http://portfolios.risd.edu/gallery/24638027/Bad-Selections-from-How-To-Be-Good-)
In Sakura Kelley’s project “in/around/about japan” multiple images create incongruities designed to “incite internal dialog”. The visual paradoxes of a traditionally clean and simple Japanese aesthetic paired with sometimes repulsive or perverse subject matter involving decaying and dead animals “embody contradictory experiences and association jumps”. Capitalizing on atmospheric colors and capturing moments of fragility, Kelley invites viewers to build their own narratives. (http://sakurakelley.com/work-three.html)
Paolo Morales explores themes of human connection and disconnection in “These Days I Feel Like a Snail Without a Shell”, his documentary style color portraits (http://paolomorales.com/). Engaging both family members and strangers on the street, Morales employs strong visual elements like fences and shadows to invoke the desire for social contact. In her series “Mid”, Elise Kirk’s panoramic mid-western natural landscapes and narrative portraits are nuanced musings on the crux between East and West, natural and built environments and, perhaps most movingly, between coming and going (http://www.elisekirk.com/).
Classmates Ke Peng and Justine Chang found that their imagery exploring identity and culture had so many common elements that they have mounted an inventive two-woman showing of their work. In her series “Primal Planet”, Peng searches for a sense of belonging in her ancestral hometown in China with the curiosity and yearning of having grown up elsewhere (http://www.kepeng.org/primal-planet/).
Justine Chang ponders the conflicting currents of “too much” and “not enough” that plague her immigrant family. Using her home and symbolic cultural artifacts as a springboard, Chang ponders her own identity as a woman bridging two cultures (http://portfolios.risd.edu/justinechang).
Some of the most intriguing photography we saw juxtaposed or integrated multiple media. Soo-Yeon Han’s series “Bodyscaping” uses low light and low contrast to transform nudes into serene dawn landscapes. Employing that same graphic sensibility and edgy style under the name “Hansyart”, Han has developed an inspired online presence in the creation of pieces like “Collage for a Month”, her fast-paced, dreamlike sequence of images constructed on Instagram over the course of a month (http://hansyart.com/Bodyscaping and http://hansyart.com/Instagram-collageforamonth).
Several of the photographers whose work we viewed incorporated some form of poetry or written narrative into their portfolios, to great effect. However Jasphy Zheng brought her storytelling to another level, creating a 200-page handmade book. “The Unfinished Letter” is a captivating mystery of Zheng’s search for the truth behind her mentor’s untimely death in China. Accompanied by lovely prose and actual correspondence, Zheng’s imagery is filled with mystifying clues, dead–ends and a sense of futility and powerlessness. Absent of people, the subdued compositions and visual suggestions of “evidence” in her photographs serve not only as an allegory for life under Chinese communist rule but also as a powerful commentary on its secretive cultural norms (http://www.jasphyzheng.com/the-unfinished-letter/).
Feature Image: From the series “The Skin I’m In” by Nicole Buchanan (courtesy of the artist)