This month the Humboldt State University graduating class takes over the Reese Bullen gallery space on campus for the annual grad exhibition, curated by the HSU Museum and Gallery Practices class under the direction of lecturer Ian Carey, gallery director Britt Sheldon and gallery assistant Brittany Britton. Artworks of every stripe and medium pack into the space. The room crackles with creative energy.
It's a fun exhibition, visually on the verge of overwhelming in this intimate space; there is a lot to look at and a lot of it is very good. Standouts include the blazing woodcut "Alpine Glow" by Xochiyolotl Harbison and a digitally interpellated portrait in chartreuse by Dominique Birdsong, as well as Nathan Liam's engagingly trippy painting "Pink Jungle" and Luciano Duran's beautiful photograph "Microcosm," with its dimly luminous forms that appear to be twirling slowly in the dusk.
Alexandra Gonzàlez's painting "Let's Get Decadent" offers a candy-colored contemporary take on decline and fall. Roman muralists and Victorian moralists used to paint banquets and the occasional orgy this way, using landscape format to take full advantage of the possibilities represented by the couch-oriented Roman banquet hall. To her credit, Gonzàlez makes the players in this ancient set piece look excruciatingly contemporary. Isn't that the clean-cut heartthrob who used to have his own YouTube channel?
Sebastian Wiggins's steel sculpture "Catalyst" extends like a wiry asterisk in three dimensions. "Jörmungandr" by Meyer Grave, is a line in steel that goes squiggling through space like an angry snake — as befits the vast Norse serpent that, according to Viking myth, is supposed to lap all of Midgard in its coils.
Video makes a welcome addition to the usual materials roster. A small monitor plays clever shorts in digital, hand-drawn and stop-motion animation by Sergio M. Coelho, Jesse Nelson, Taylor Lee Macias and Ann Valdés.
A dark, striated stoneware vessel by Myung Ahn possesses a gravitas that justifies the title "Primordial Birth." Ahn, who also has another vessel on display, is the winner of this year's Reese Bullen Award.
In front of the artwork that won the prize that, like the gallery itself, bears Reese Bullen's name, it was impossible not to think about the namesake. An esteemed professor and accomplished painter and ceramicist, Bullen founded the HSU art department and played an important role in guiding its development. In the 1970s and '80s, the department was tiny compared to its present size. But under Bullen's direction it punched above its weight, bringing work by cutting-edge contemporary artists like Carl Andre to campus in 1979 and shows by Vito Acconci, Chris Burden and Hans Haacke in 1982, throwing the campus wide open to avant-garde tendencies from the world beyond its borders. When Third Street (then First Street) Gallery opened in 1998, Bullen had retired but the aspiration toward excellence implicit in the decision to open an independently funded, professional gallery for HSU art and artists was a continuation of his legacy.
If you make your way to the Reese Bullen Gallery for this exhibition (the gallery is not the easiest to access, especially given the ongoing HSU parking crisis), your effort will be rewarded. If the uphill hike seems like a bridge too far, know that the show will be more accessible when it travels to Third Street Gallery in Old Town Eureka this summer, for what's scheduled to be the last exhibition before the location is permanently shuttered as a cost-cutting measure. (Editor's note: In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that Gabrielle Gopinath filed a grievance against HSU with the California Faculty Association and received a settlement in 2017.)
Numerous letters of support from alumni, artists, art students and community members advocating the gallery's preservation have been posted to its Facebook page. As eloquent as they are, they make for dismal reading now because they clarify exactly what is to be lost when Third Street closes — a place where town and gown come together in boisterous, loquacious numbers once a month on Arts Alive, a one-of-a-kind resource for the many HSU art alumni who live, make art and exhibit their work locally, a publicly supported space that brought together the work of artists from local, national and international backgrounds. What would Bullen make of current priorities at the institution where he committed so much of his energies?
The "2018 Art Graduates' Exhibition" runs through May 12 at Humboldt State University's Reese Bullen Gallery in Arcata. The gallery is located inside the Art B Building. Take the pedestrian walkway leading past the Art A Building at B Street and Laurel Drive, and go up the staircase. When you reach the quad, the gallery is on your right.
Gabrielle Gopinath is an art writer, critic and curator based in Arcata.