Boston MFA’s ‘Islands of Isolation’ exhibit freezes

Through the Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ (MFA) affiliation with the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA), the museum often takes opportunities to show student work. These are usually not the largest shows, nor are they the most impressive, but they contribute a glimpse of the absolute present of art-making.

“Students Curate Students: Islands of Isolation” is one such show. Installed in the Courtyard Gallery next to the downstairs cafeteria, the exhibition is not exactly in a glorified space, but it succeeds in giving museum-goers a breath of fresh air and a chance to see what the next generation of artists is working on.

The show is made up of work by the students of SMFA’s joint graduate degree program in conjunction with Tufts. The seven artists in the show are gathered together because all of the work deals with isolation or alienation: a single figure in a landscape, a frozen tableau of morning coffee, the artist surrounded by the kitsch of tourism and placelessness.

Another characterizing factor of this work is that is almost entirely digital. Judging from this show, it seems that more and more students are moving away from traditional media such as drawing and painting to work in more innovative ways, less explored by artists of the past. It seems an important step for the Boston area, especially considering the city’s focus on new media like video installation and internet-based artwork. The MFA would certainly do well to bring more of this new work into view in its own space, as “Islands of Isolation” is but a small piece of a greater movement.

One of the most successful and creative pieces is a small video installation by Sarah Williamson. Presented in a frame-like white box, the video is one part still life and one part performance. It depicts the artist sitting still in different situations: with a newspaper in the morning, staring into space. The active surroundings – a fluttering newspaper and cats prancing around the table – all serve to emphasize the meditative stillness of the artist herself. The videos work on the level of paintings, framed as still images, as videos, active and animated, and as photography, a realistic depiction of everyday life – a document. This syncretism of different media is certainly something to watch for in the future.

Sharing Williamson’s stillness, Cathleen Faubert photographs herself in natural landscapes, sometimes alone, sometimes in the midst of others. Instead of using photography as a snapshot, Faubert uses the camera’s time-stopping nature to capture herself floating above the ground, as if in an entirely different world. Visually, the work is striking. Employing a high depth of field, Faubert makes everything in the photo sharp and in focus, but just as the wonder of natural beauty sets in, so creeps in the surreal presence of the artist’s levitating body.

Conceptually, the photographs tell the story of a loneliness or singularity that could very well serve as a metaphor for the role of the artist in our ever-more dynamic society. Who, if not artists, can take a step back from the relentless flow of information and freeze time? Faubert allows us to look upon an ideal solitude, unaffected by time and gravity.

These two artists highlight what the digital age of art is best set to accomplish. Through photography and video, artists can appropriate the reality of our lives and twist it. We look upon photo as truth; what happens when that contract is broken and, though we may not realize it, things we look on as real are actually fabricated? It is a sharp mental twist to realize that the camera lies, but it is one that we make more and more often. The more we acknowledge this, the more we can take back that contemplative stillness captured by parts of “Islands of Isolation.”