<b>FIRE AND SMOKE: </b> Tom Pazderka's "Falling Twilight" (2014) depicts a burning building in charcoal on burned book paper.

For those of us who consider ourselves art lovers, but who generally cannot claim any artistic ambitions of our own, getting to visit an artist’s studio has an air of mystery and intrigue akin to encountering something utterly foreign. On top of that, there is often a sense of great privilege to be allowed to enter a space that feels intensely private, where the sacred act of creation takes place.

These are just a couple of reasons why UCSB’s MFA open studio night (which took place November 7) is so exciting. With 15 studios all crammed awkwardly under the bleachers of the university’s Harder Stadium, it’s like having a backstage pass at Coachella — except in this case, the artists have yet to hit the big stage. The event brings with it a sense of excited exploration and malleability to the work on display. These are emerging artists, and in Santa Barbara, this is one of the few places to see this kind of work. And for adventurous souls who aren’t intimidated by a certain level of chaos, it is a very rewarding experience. The opportunity to step into these spaces, often to be witness to the origin story of a work of art that has yet to be completed, is fascinating.

In this academic setting, performance, conceptual, and installation art is common. Unfortunately, this kind of work is also frequently ill-suited to the close-quartered studio experience. There were quite a few exceptions, however, including Emily Baker’s two-dimensional renderings of data collected during various routines on the uneven bars. Below each drawing, the corresponding routine was spelled out with shorthand symbols representing each particular move, like some kind of ancient hieroglyph. Shannon Willis’s interactive installation, “Sexnology 2.0,” was another highlight. Inside an amorphous silicone blob, Willis has placed an array of LEDs that change color when the piece is touched. The beauty of the object is inviting, but the experience is complicated by the unsettlingly fleshy feeling of the silicone.

In comparison to a previous visit to this event, there were a surprising number of pieces that one might envision on a wall at home. Rebecca Kerlin’s oil-painting series “Diagrams,” utilizing previously discarded conceptual sketches, were standouts, as were her “Drone Flowers,” which turned photographic imagery from drones into beautiful three-dimensional blossoms. Vanesa Gingold’s series of exquisitely detailed surrealistic ink drawings and Emily Thomas’s hypersexual, psychedelic painting served as a reminder just how rare it is these days to see work that demonstrates such skilled draftsmanship.

But possibly the most jaw-dropping work on display was found in the studio of Tom Pazderka. The first of Pazderka’s two large pieces was a large rectangle made of innumerable one-inch cubes of wood onto which had been burned the image of a lone figure raising a flag before a background of fire and smoke. It is a hauntingly beautiful piece that impresses for its inventiveness and stunning execution. Adjacent to this is a series of slightly charred pages from a book, mounted together into a four-foot-by-10-foot grid. Onto this Pazderka has created a large charcoal drawing of a burning building, presumably the target of armed conflict. In both cases, the artist’s decision to go to such great lengths in the creation of his surface is juxtaposed with the upheaval, violence, and destruction of the image depicted. And both are genuinely moving.


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