Works by Dani Kwan | Credit: Josef Woodard

If the Santa Barbara art landscape might seem a bit quiet or too comfortable, we can always count on the annual UCSB MFA shows to upset norms and deliver jolts of creative extremism. Although these emerging artists likely have no direct intention of responding to the local art scene, the public MFA shows toward the end of the academic year manage to afflict the comfortable while plugging into larger art-world concerns and issues. 

This year’s show takes its title, Chaotic Good, from an 1883 Friedrich Nietzsche quote, related to the necessity of embracing and grappling with unknown factors — the “chaos” principle — as a means to artistic ends: “I tell you: One must still have chaos within oneself in order to give birth to a dancing star.”

‘Hidden in the Breadbasket – An Offering’ by Eka Gren | Credit: Josef Woodard

A certain transformative chaos theory, with startling but elegant results, greets us in the first gallery space, where the collective known as eka.gren presents the looming “Hidden in the Breadbasket: an offering.” A tall, monolithic structure and ritualistic enclosure consumes much of the space, surrounded by lengths of gauzy fabric and such natural elements as deer hides and jawbones and a red fabric spine suitable for climbing/dancing. On a separate screen, video elements recount performances of semi-nude dancers in the space, which takes on juxtaposed thematic references to both a womb and a cage.

Intriguing sound aspects pull us into the adjacent smaller gallery, where Maja Skjøth Hegelund has created a surreal audio-visual installation scenario called “Elantra Is Almost a Life.” Amid a cozy yet creepy setting of digitally printed fabric and fragments of candy-colored set design, the artist is seen on video, wallowing in curious makeup and hermetic scenery. Generally, we sense the piece aiming at the contemporary ideal of “better living through meds and self-invented internet identity.”

Artistic life beyond the norms of wall pieces or standard floored sculpture is mostly the MO with this selection of work, leaning more toward compact installation concepts and detours into video. One exception is the elaborate yet irrational collage work of the artist known as Johnny Onionseed. Sealed and delivered beneath a layer of lacquer, his dense image mash-ups touch on pop culture, the vicissitudes of the real world, and the fine art realm. His art-world allusions extend to the wry use of price tags as titles, between $3,000 to 5,000, the largest dubbed “Price Upon Request.”

An installation at the UCSB Lagoon, Matthew Robert Johnson’s “Paranoia, The Destroyer” (after the Kinks song) unsettles the viewer from his camouflaged watchtower which emanates strange sounds, putting into question quotidian warfare tactics, surveillance, and paranoia. | Photo: Courtesy

Kate Saubestre takes to the road — and road-related iconography — with her large, rough fabric construction “Triple A,” made to appear like a vanishing-point view of the proverbial wide-open road. She deals with the ostensible lure and promise of taking to the road, and its attached, romantic American ideal, in contrast to the dark side of impermanence and escapist tendencies. 

‘Screen Time Paradox’ by Kevin Clancy | Credit: Josef Woodard

Moving out into the cosmos and into the earthly loam, with technology in the mix, artist and geologist Dani Kwan’s work ventures into the fragile cleaving of art and science. Petrified (Anthropic Rocks) is a series of stone-like sculptures, given personalities beyond their geological models, while “DREAM — Words of Wisdom” comes equipped with its own Spotify playlist, located by the click of a QR code.

Head into UCSB’s art department complex behind the museum and you run into the ancillary show that is Kevin Clancy’s Screen Time Paradox. Here, he effectively transforms the small but enclosed Glass Box Gallery space with reflection on smartphones and laptops, and the hands that knead and need them. One paradoxical aspect of his collection of sculptures relates to the love-hate-umbilical relationship we have to screens, here fossilized and frozen in time and usefulness, rendered into art objects sans charge (in the power sense).

Living up to a historic reputation, this year’s MFA brigade has engineered a mostly benevolent takeover of the University’s Art, Design & Architecture Museum. It’s a short run, guerilla theatre–style, through June 4. Don’t miss it.


‘Triple A’ by Kate Saubestre | Credit: Josef Woodard


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