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Positively Mesmerizing

Positively Mesmerizing

At last week’s opening reception for RISD’s Graduate Thesis Exhibition, the largest and most-anticipated student show of the year, a crowd of visitors jumped back in surprise as a small wooden table suddenly lit up, shook back and forth, and then zoomed over to Danielle Storm Hoogland MID 15. The graduate student laughed and bent down to pet Pyro – the central component of her thesis project, Autonomous Responsive Furniture: Life with Pyro, A Next Nature Companion. A boxy piece with a mind of its own, it’s outfitted with a motor, wheels and ultrasound motion sensors and is controlled by an Arduino circuit board programmed with custom code.

“Psychological studies show that communication technologies like smart phones, computers and GPS devices are numbing society by reducing the need for face-to-face interaction,” says Hoogland. “I wanted to make a piece of furniture that forces its owners to play and connect.”

Hoogland’s piece is one of hundreds of mesmerizing works on view through Saturday, May 30 at the Rhode Island Convention Center in downtown Providence. Free and open to the public daily from 12-5 pm, this year’s Graduate Thesis Exhibition features work by 178 graduating master’s degree students working in a wide range of media. Visitors can easily spend hours absorbed in looking at delicate glass figures, video installations, large-scale paintings and breathtaking textiles, among other captivating projects.

Crowds at the May 19 opening were also transfixed by Tear Set, an installation by Cynthia Xin Liu MFA 15 DM. With the help of chemists and engineers from Brown University, Liu analyzed the physical properties of her own tears and then produced synthetic replicas composed of water, glucose, ions and proteins.

“It’s hard to confront a person who’s crying,” notes Liu. “The emotional distance created by this technology creates a ‘safe zone’ for people. We might be able to touch a teardrop from a stranger, as long as we’re still far away.”

On the other side of the exhibition hall, several viewers gasped when entering a darkened tent showcasing otherworldly work by Megan Tamas MFA 15 SC – visceral sculptures of organic forms with melting, gooey skin, along with a video featuring models wearing neon-colored crystal protrusions against their bare skin. People inspecting the intriguing pieces flipped through a clipboard with notes about experiments involving the manipulation of alien genetic code.

Wearing a vintage Girl Scout uniform, Raina Belleau MFA 15 SC walked around Leave No Trace, her massive mixed-media installation of a wild turkey perched on top of a dead moose lying on a bed of Astroturf. She made the piece using cedar shingles, fiberglass, nylon rope and other objects typically found in messy garages.

“I’m interested in the ways suburban sprawl affects wildlife,” explains Belleau. “Our country’s natural landscape is so much a part of our identity – yet we’re killing it in the pursuit of the American Dream.”

The loud booms and crashes coming from Neo-Chicano Vista, a series of digital animations designed to resemble arcade games from the 1990s, also attracted plenty of curious viewers. Each of the brilliant works includes imagery inspired by ancient Mayan folktales that touch upon themes of family and religion.

“I'm always building upon stories connected to my Mexican ancestry,” explains Michael Menchaca MFA 15 PR, who’s showing the provocative piece as part of the final body of work he produced at RISD. “To me this work can be interpreted as a fantastical next step – an evolution of Chicano art.”

–Abigail Crocker