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Degree of Spectacle

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Students in Virginia Commonwealth University's coveted School of the Arts M.F.A. program have seen their two-year stints run their course, and their rite of passage has arrived.

Through May, visual arts students must hang their collective schooling on the line with their thesis exhibitions, the first of what may well be a long career of deadline pressures -- and perhaps furrowed brows and blank stares.

For her Round 2 exhibition at Anderson Gallery, Alissa Davis exhibits hand-woven textiles embedded with photographic images. "Since being at VCU I feel I have a much more sophisticated artistic process," she writes in an e-mail. "I think working so close with such a variety of professors in different media really helped change the way I think about my own work, making [it] and after."

VCU seems to emphasize that students fully engage in the act of making things with a variety of materials, even if it means they must get to know the unfamiliar. Lily Cox-Richard, who wanted to take some risks with the size and complexity of her exhibition, constructed a roughly 14-foot-tall tower of metal ladders in her show at 7 W. Broad St. "My work has grown so much during these last two years, it's actually a little unnerving," she writes by e-mail. "This program has an intense combination of support and rigor."

In her "Spark Gap" series, Cox-Richard "brands" a wide range of objects, from skin to a grass lawn, with radiating, jagged lines that simulate the effects of lightning strikes. Her tower, topped with a space-age sphere, suggests a lightning rod from Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory and hovers over a grass-green rug marked with Cox-Richard's signature lightning emblem.

In most cases these artists use nontraditional media or unexpected forms of traditional media. Timothy Dalton, a photography and film student, made a light-and-sound installation requiring a false floor and motorized lights for his Round 2 show. By doing so, he's converted a small gallery room into a sensory capsule.

Several students take the challenge of making things for their shows to an extreme. A few, like Sami Ben Larbi, depend on complex construction and mechanics to realize their ideas. In his installation at 209 N. Foushee St., Larbi's 5-foot-wide rotating drum beckons viewers to peer into it to watch a video of a figure (the artist) rotating within the rattling, spinning object.

Operating on one level like an amusement park attraction, the drum also, according to literature provided at the installation, responds to the artist's interest in film, particularly a scene in François Truffaut's "The 400 Blows." With that information, a viewer, at least one familiar with "The 400 Blows," can take away more than a chuckle from the experience of seeing Larbi's work (confusingly titled "the distinction between a carthaginian and hexadecagon in the subjunctive"). But how often does a viewer make time to look for more information before walking away to find the next thrill?

That's the problem with these shows. They're like amusement park rides. Crowds of people move from one small gallery space to the next, looking for the "wow" factor, and often they get it, albeit short-lived. The extent to which students take artistic risks is impressive, but given space limitations and time constraints, the ideas behind the work sometimes fall silent. The draw to these thesis shows, other than the "wow," is that they represent the beginning of careers spent pushing ideas to physical limits, and there's no lack of pushed ideas here. S



VCU's MFA Thesis Exhibitions Round 2 at the Anderson Gallery, 907 1/2 W. Franklin St., runs through May 18. The shows at the annex galleries, 5-7 W. Broad St. and 209 N. Foushee St., also run through May 18. 828-1522.



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