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OnlineApr 16, 2024

BU MFA Exhibition “Sculpturecore” Takes to an Abandoned CVS to Probe at What Lies Beneath the Surface

In the off-campus show in Allston, Boston University sculpture students have created a haven that is both nostalgic and surreal.

Review by Shira Laucharoen

A white picket fence emerges in a patch of green grass in the indoor exhibition space.

Helena Abdelnasser, I think it’s dead, 2024, on display at Boston University’s “Sculpturecore” show. Photo courtesy of the artist.

An abandoned space on Commonwealth Avenue once occupied by a CVS pharmacy has been transformed into something of a refuge and landing spot for young artists. Fluorescent lights and dark gray carpet intact, the former storefront has become the temporary site for Boston University’s MFA sculpture students holding their thesis exhibition. Organized by a tenacious and scrappy group of candidates, the exhibition reflects the residence it occupies—there are through lines of experimentation and trying to find one’s place in the world. In the off-campus show in Allston, the students have created a haven that is both nostalgic and surreal, offering spectral commentary on what it means to inhabit modern life.

The MFA Sculpture Thesis Exhibition, “Sculpturecore,” will be on display through April 20, asking visitors to engage with questions about consciousness. The show features the works of five students—Helena Abdelnasser, Liam Coughlin, Alyssa Grey, Mae-Chu Lin O’Connell, and Yolanda He Yang—who created installations under the guidance of David Snyder, chair of graduate studies in sculpture at BU. The students come from a range of backgrounds, hailing from as far away as North China and Egypt, but their pieces are unified by a valuing of that which has been overlooked or forgotten in some way, things that have escaped notice. The exhibit, which spans two floors, including an underground basement level, carves out a display for those memories.

Mae-Chu Lin O’Connell, Boxmaker, 2024. Photo courtesy of the artist.

O’Connell’s Boxmaker features a large wooden chest of drawers, meant to enclose a set of items. Instead, there are ephemera—envelopes, prayer booklets, and a snow globe—scattered across the floor in front, relics from O’Connell’s childhood and experiences growing up. Her father, she explained, is a contractor, and in many ways, she wishes she had been able to absorb his skills. This piece, like others within the exhibit, plays with the notion of containing and confinement, while asking the viewer, what do we keep with us as we journey from one stage to another? What do we lose when we choose to let those things go? Meanwhile, Coughlin’s work r/decks, which features a rectangular structure, preserves found objects, like the Spirit Halloween shopping bags integrated in the cracks between the piece. These call attention to his upbringing in suburban New England, while critiquing the consumerism figuring so prominently in that culture. In later works by Coughlin, he probes at what lies beneath that façade.

 Liam Coughlin, r/decks, 2024 . Photo courtesy of the artist.

The space is accented with two towers of Diet Coke cans, an installation by Grey called Columns. Like Coughlin, Grey uses a popular element of American society as material foundation for a statement. Drawing inspiration from the idea of pedestals, her work leads the viewer to interrogate what it means when our support systems are not more stable than a beam constructed from recycled cans. Can we really control our worlds, like the steeples Grey has created from a symbol of commercialization? Or maybe there are some things that we can’t, as represented by the works from Abdelnasser. Throughout the first floor, she has planted patches of grass grounded in soil embedded in the carpet. In pieces like I think it’s dead, a white picket fence emerges from the earth. Nature is a force that we do not have power over, despite our attempts to harness it or rein it in through the things that we build. Surveillance, a modern-day effort to control, figures into Abdelnasser’s work as well: multiple cameras hang from the ceiling above one of her installations, while in a back room, presumably used by the pharmacy as a break room, a monitor offers spectators a view of one of her pieces that remains concealed, difficult to observe. Yang’s work every raindrop is a punishment interrupts this spell for a moment—a structure symbolizing a lighthouse and made from a black crate and a shard of mirror is illuminated by the projection of light. While the sculpture is made from something broken, it remains a symbol of hope.

Yolanda He Yang, every raindrop is a punishment, 2024 . Photo courtesy of the artist.

Stepping through a doorway, visitors enter a back area of the building, where they are invited to enter dimly lit rooms. The feeling is claustrophobic, particularly in works like Coughlin’s Me and Tommy Silva built this in a dream once. A green light shines on a five-gallon bucket propped on its side against the wall, held in place by a strap. In Redbox, viewers once again enter a darkened space, taking in a wooden construct with a churning audio track emanating from within. In this way, works from the show explore the concept of concealment—what we are able to see and what remains hidden. The monitors positioned throughout an office, filled with works by Abdelnasser, offer a contrast. We live in a world where we are constantly surveilled, and yet, beneath that, people occupy their own, private levels of consciousness, even if we don’t see them right away.

Alyssa Grey, Coke Can Alley, 2024 . Photo courtesy of the artist.

A staircase leads guests to the basement for the final portion of the show—they first enter  a kind of fairyland created by Yang, called then memories turn into fire, hungry hearts laying on the soft pillows. Colorful green and yellow lights shine against an unlikely setting: a fan spins, plants appear in front of an arrangement of mirrors, and a plastic cube is suspended by wires. For Yang, this scene seems to be a hideaway from space and time. The adjoining room is more brightly lit, featuring works like Grey’s It Takes Two, in which tanks of Diet Coke are connected symbiotically by tubes. Alongside this work is O’Connell’s Retroactive Exposure Therapy for Childhood Cowardices. In the open, concrete space, scooters, a skip-it toy, an electric bicycle and more are displayed, while a sign cautions visitors that they may play at their own risk. The installation harkens back to a time, perhaps, of more freedom, while also serving as an escape from the outside and a place for holding memories.

“Sculpturecore” represents the first time that BU’s MFA sculpture thesis show has been held in an off-campus site. This year’s class—perhaps the largest cohort the department has had, at least in the six years Snyder has taught at BU—knew they wanted to create large-scale installations, necessitating a space that could accommodate their visions. The artists brainstormed alternate venues, thinking they might find an unused commercial space, and the idea of the building that formerly housed a CVS arose. They reached out to the spot’s parent company and worked with the school to coordinate insurance issues, supported by Snyder and Dana Clancy, the School of Visual Arts Director. Along the way, they worked with the BU Risk Management team, to make sure the space was safe and up to code. When they encountered obstacles, such as damaged carpeting and ceiling leaks, they strategically adapted their installations: for example, Abdelnasser planted grass directly below the drips of water so that the plant life could thrive. 

Across the works represented in the exhibition, the artists examine how to understand or grapple with the world we live in. Some, like the sculptures from Grey and Coughlin, ask us to come to terms with the banalities of everyday life, which is replete with icons of consumerism. On the other hand, installations from Yang explore dimensions that are completely beyond these things, seeking to capture the underlying qualities of metaphysical spaces. Are these realms, when boundaries disappear, more real than what we see on the surface? The artists seem to be addressing what the nature of modern life is, asking if it’s made from Target shopping bags and Beanie Baby tags, or if there’s something more, when we look beyond the quotidian. Can we control it, like a pillar of precariously stacked soda cans, or are there some things that exist outside of our power?

I don’t know if anyone really has an answer. I do know, though, that the sculptures spark questions—and provoke you to look closer.

“Sculpturecore” will remain on view at 1270 Commonwealth Ave. through April 20.

Shira Laucharoen


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