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Classes at University of Michigan’s Stamps School of Art & Design are racing toward the end of a busy academic year, while the administration prepares for changes that will impact the coming one. The recently opened Stamps Gallery, situated in a pedestrian-friendly location on the first floor of the McKinley Towne Center at 201 S. Division St., creates new exhibition options. With nearly 8,000 square feet of exhibition space, the downtown location replaces the Stamps School's Work Gallery (306 S. State St.) and Slusser Gallery (2000 Bonisteel Blvd.). The Slusser Gallery has been converted into fresh studio space, referred to as the "Work Commons,” for Stamps undergraduates—and is already abuzz with a variety of colorful final projects for sophomore studio students, and others. 

SG2Stamps Gallery, street view. Image courtesy of Stamps School of Art & Design.A vision for the new gallery space is forthcoming, as Srimoyee Mitra, who comes to Stamps from her previous position as curator of Contemporary Art at the Art Gallery of Windsor, Ontario, assumed the role of inaugural director of the new gallery as of April 3rd.

SG1Stamps Gallery Curator Srimoyee Mitra. Image courtesy of Stamps School of Art & Design."Since the gallery is new and there is no established culture, I see this as an opportunity to develop a framework that is solid, robust, inclusive and deep enough that we can keep mining," Mitra said, quoted in a press release from Stamps. "There is a sense of lightness, risk and possibility that we can create with this new space that is really meaningful, not just for students, staff and faculty, but for the wider community—locally, regionally, nationally and internationally." 

In the interest of keeping these options open, Stamps faculty is unwilling to comment on the future prospects of the gallery, but the tone has been set, at least initially, by Pathways—the space’s inaugural show and thesis exhibition by Stamps second-year MFA in Art and MDes Integrative Design graduate students, as well as Close Encounters: The 2017 Stamps Senior Show. In a broad sense, Pathways, featuring 3 MFA candidates and 6 Integrative Design candidates, underscores the Stamps approach, which strives to apply design in an interdisciplinary way, affect society through systems design, as much as fine art ideals. 

As the title suggests, the fine art side provides three multi-media journeys through space, society, and relationships. The MFA candidates each seem to have created miniature obstacle courses, taking the viewer on exploratory sojourns through the banal and fantastical. 

From the gallery’s main entrance, visitors were first greeted by an adventure laid out by artist Ruth K. Burke—Ruminant is a multi-sensory examination of the artist’s relationship with a cow named Shy-anne. Five pieces anchor the evolving relationship between woman and bovine, which includes a sound piece detailing the ritual of milking, an experimental cow’s-eye-perspective video, photographs from a performance wherein Burke transformed herself from the neck up into an edible buffet for Shy-anne, and several sculptural works. The final work in the series, Closer to Closure, is mostly comprised of Shy-anne’s hide—fleshing and tanning the cow’s remains became part of Burke’s grieving process, after Shy-anne escaped her enclosure in the middle of the night and was accidentally killed by a passing car. Burke’s work reflects a deep sense of connection and effort to truly empathize with her subject, and stands as a powerful exploration of vulnerability in intimacy. 

Adjacent to the paddock housing Burke’s exhibition, Shane Darwent’s The Wilds of Washtenaw created a more formal aesthetic journey, shuffling the common materials and configurations of strip-mall suburbia. Following pathways created by floor works of materials including landscape edging and gravel, and using as a legend photographs overlaid with mazes constructed from wood stripping, Darwent’s mini-course led the intrepid viewer to that mecca of suburbia: the Taco Bell grotto, staged in the atrium-facing side gallery.

“The grotto has seen use from Grecco-Roman antiquity, through the Renaissance, to contemporary Catholicism,” says Darwent’s gallery guide. “Its history is one of reflection. Taco bel Grotto explores the possibility of pedestrian contemplation in our car fueled landscape. Can such innocuous sites like fast food alcoves by space for individual reclamation?”

SG6 From The Wilds of Washtenaw by Shane Darwent. Image courtesy of Sarah Rose Sharp.From the pastoral to the suburban, we made our final jump into a land of history and imagination, within a multimedia exhibition titled Searching for What Isn’t There, by Carolyn Gennari. Gennari’s presentation is mostly comprised of a 45-minute loop of original videos, screened in a faux-Arctic viewing room, but her multicultural survey of cold-sea fishing and whaling culture is introduced by the physical artifacts of a giant coiled rope sculpture (which features in her video works) and a series of photographs of enlarged biological specimens. Just outside the screening room, a floor piece which combines aesthetics of pre-modern square dance and Inuit recreational culture, as well as a maplike gallery guide, suggest that Gennari’s imperative is to offer navigational tools to assist the viewer in an exploration and synthesis of the near and distant past. 

These eye-catching and dynamic projects certainly draw focus, compared to the more graphic and informational offerings by the MDes students, but despite coming from their separate angles of study, all the projects seek to interpret and critically examine systems of the world. The methodology for representing may look radically different, but overall Stamps is producing graduate students who are dedicated in their understanding and engagement with design as a tool to understand and subsequently reshape society, which can now be seen in the culminating senior thesis show, on view through April 29th. Though its direction, for the time being, remains undefined, it is likely that as the new gallery space takes shape, we can look forward to seeing more manifestations of that integrative future vision!

Close Encounters: The Senior Thesis Show, is on view from April 14-29. The Stamps Gallery will be open noon-7 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and will house rotating exhibitions of contemporary art and design, including work by Stamps students, faculty and alumni.