April 17 2013 12:00 AM

MFA student show revs up the buzz at MSU's Broad Museum

A tricked-out 1973 Mercedes, hand-detailed with wicked silver worms and refitted to run on restaurant grease, was parked outside the Broad Art Museum last week. In the sculpture garden.

Move your limo out of the way, Mr. Broad, the kids are here.

For the first time at Michigan State University’s ultra-sleek new art museum, five artists from the Master of Fine Arts program parked their diverse creations, from a serpentine painting to a bed made out of wooden crutches, inside (and outside) the building last week. Over 100 well-wishers and curious art lovers showed up at a reception Friday to inspect the results.

This was no pro forma nod to MSU’s art and design school.

“We are a teaching museum,” curator Alison Gass declared at the reception. Instead of relegating the students to an obscure side gallery, she let them run rampant in several conspicuous spots, including that prime “parking” place at the east entrance.

One painting, “The Business of Decentralization,” snaked up a gallery wall, dangled from the ceiling and snuck along the floor to the emergency exit. Visitors turned their necks in all directions as they kept finding more of Stephen Stradley’s tight ribbon of color and texture. Stradley called his art “site-reactive,” and he had quite a site to react to. 

“This museum is a treasure for Lansing, and to be a part of the inaugural year is nothing but a privilege,” Stradley said.

At the reception, Gass handed Stradley the Broad’s first MFA Prize, a $5,000 scholarship.

Far from being overawed by the privilege, Stradley had no problem messing inventively with the room. (Gass said Stradley works “in the space between painting and architecture.”) His biggest work, a field of open colors with a prism-like focal point, is walled off with a special partition, so the viewer is forced to walk along the painting instead of taking it in as a glance. The partition itself has an embedded, 3-D sculpture-thinglet that subdivides the space even finer.

“The work is a screen, an object, and an activator of space,” Stradley explained.

Meanwhile, the downstairs lobby is dominated by Deborah Alma Wheeler’s compelling “Family Bed,” a full-size bed made entirely of wooden crutches. Zurenko takes found objects and appropriates them to her own “beautiful and disturbing” ends, in Gass’ words. The speculation over the crutch bed Friday was juicy.

“There’s no end of sexual connotations to this,” a man told his friend, who didn’t look eager to hear them all.

Nearby, a wild multimedia tableau by Rebekah Zurenko, based on her obsessive mythology of “ancient lesbian aliens,” buzzed with sexual, political and pop cultural energy. Back upstairs, an absorbing series of paintings by Volodymyr Shcherbak planted tiny red and green figures in fantastic landscapes awash with thick colors and heavy brushwork, with a guest appearance by Godzilla.

At the opening reception, Gass said all the student artists showed “technical skill” and “dialogue with an ongoing issue.” Exhibit A, for both characteristics, was parked outside the museum. Ryan Groendyk stood happily in late evening drizzle, next to his doubly modified Mercedes, explaining his car art to one knot of curious people after another.

“I wanted to do a piece of art that would stay with me,” he said. “I didn’t want to make art that was going to end up in the trash, which actually happens to a lot of stuff.”

(When the exhibit is over April 28, Groendyk said he will drive his magnum opus to Missouri, MFA degree in hand, and “take it easy” for a while.)

“It’s just so goddamn fly,” Groendyk said. “It’s the opposite of most political activism, when you try to shove something down someone’s throat.”

The detailing on the hood forms an infinitely curled up worm that closes upon itself, symbolizing the energy cycle. Groendyk removed all the corporate logos, reducing the famous Mercedes logo to another simple circle.

To back up his symbolism with engineering, Groendyk modified the car’s primary fuel system to run on biodiesel and the secondary system to run on vegetable oil, making the car “as carbon neutral as possible.”

He compared the resulting “ready made” work of art to Marcel Duchamp’s famous urinal, only much more attractive.

What would the museum’s star architect, Zaha Hadid, say if she saw Groendyk’s old school automobile parked outside her paragon of parametricism?

“She’d ask me for a ride,” Groendyk said.

Gallery talks
Ryan Groendyk, Deborah Alma Wheeler, Rebekah Zurenko
3 p.m. April 23
Broad Art Museum, MSU campus, East Lansing