Behind the hand adorned gates of Charles Addams Hall lies a culmination of the 2019 fine arts seniors' sweat and blood, an encapsulation of their semester's worth of work, a visual telos of their past four years at Penn. Bronze hands wave at you as you walk in, reminiscent of metal winged birds in flight all of them beckoning your entrance.
Stepping into the building, muddled voices of conversation gust past you like wind. Unlike the biting cold of a winter gale, this one is warm with the enthusiasm of laughing crowds and the celebration of artistic inspiration made tangible for all to see. The exhibition is a maze of white–washed walls, some showcasing oil paintings, others lined with photography pieces and hanging sculptures. Walk—in exhibits are complemented with audio recordings to heighten the visual experience, while hand drawn animations are projected onto blank plaster, both pushing the traditional boundaries of artistic medium.
All throughout are crowds of people: fellow friends of students showcasing their work, professors, and any aspiring artists intrigued by the work of a senior. They pack the sides of hallways and cluster at corners, greeting each other in excitement, their smiles painting the otherwise stark walls a warmer shade of white.
At an exhibit of paper letters tacked to a wall, a girl tells her friend, "Apparently she made the recycled paper." A nod to the work's central theme, environmental friendliness, no doubt. Created by JaHyun Yang (C '19), "Write to a Tree" showcases a collection of recycled paper letters in varying shades of beige and cream. The paper's rough, almost nibbled edges, frame paragraphs in delicate serif typewriter font, all them written by fellow Penn students and addressed to a tree of their choice. "To the Sapling Across the Street..." one letter begins, reminiscing how lonely it must be to always stand, "...evenly spaced, some thirty feet apart along all the sidewalks of the blocks nearby," close enough to see their brethren but far enough that "your soft rustling speech gets drowned out by the din of the city." Another letter begins, "Dear Norway Maple buddy (Acer plantanoides)..." It is a thank—you note, a recollection of the childhood years spent "hanging out in your branches, swinging from them, until I grew too tall"... "I moved on from climbing your branches to climbing bigger trees and to climbing mountains, and fell in love with being on the top of a mountain."
Another exhibit, Esther Jeon's (C '19) "of displaced memory" is a collection of light boxes, their acrylic surfaces throwing out dappled violet and blue light. In her words, Esther notes, "the frosted light boxes are a visualization of emotions imbedded in memories—the cloudy perception of a memory with its strong evocation of past feelings." Each shade of light is like a ribbon, curled and twisted together, then pulled apart. Crafted from layered prints within boxes, the resulting mix of texture, lighting, and space serves to question why memories seep through our fingers like running water to leave a residue of emotions behind and how these emotions can be articulated.
Michael Ferrin's (C '19) is a jumbled collection of long notched wooden bars. Their smooth dapples of beige against a light creamy grain are punctured with rectangular holes at irregular intervals, making space so another wooden bar might fit through and clasp hands with it. Each bar is interlocked with another: some laid horizontally, a few leaning diagonally, or some standing upright. They remind me of Jenga sticks, except instead of being built together to fall apart, this is a sculpture pulled apart to be put together. Penciled in gangly font on a white wall above the sculpture, a note reads "Don't be shy. This is an interactive sculpture. Make anything you like. Take previous constructions apart. Invite the person next to you. Work together. Have fun." While unadorned with loud color or moving audio, it invites one to step in and contribute their own creativity. Synergy, perhaps, is most moving adornment of any kind.
Having circled through the whole exhibit, I make my way to the entrance. Throwing a final scan across my shoulder, I skim over the crowds, the vibrant strokes of paint, the pixels of color from photographic works, and the outlines of sculptures. Savoring the warmth and bright lights inside the gallery for one final moment, I take a deep breath before splaying my hands against the chilled glass of the door. I push out into the bitter November night.
A previous version of this article misstated the title of the exhibit. Its title is "Then/Now/When." 34th Street regrets the error.