Visual Arts

Transy exhibit 'The Millennials' highlights work of the generation coming of age now

Offbeat Hinderlands, a large pen on paper by John Haverty, is the centerpiece of The Millennials exhibit at Transylvania University Morlan Gallery.
Offbeat Hinderlands, a large pen on paper by John Haverty, is the centerpiece of The Millennials exhibit at Transylvania University Morlan Gallery. Lexington Herald-Leader

Patrick Smith thought life would be different after graduation from Transylvania University.

He thought he'd get a pretty cool job, generate a decent income and be on his way to a satisfying, creative career. Instead, he's working a retail job, and making art and showing it when he can.

He's like a lot of twentysomethings today: They have degrees but are stuck in a lousy economy and a job market that aren't likely to get much better soon.

That's just one of the characteristics that Andrea Fisher, director of Transylvania's Morlan Gallery, noticed about recent students, members of the so-called Millennial generation, generally defined as those born from 1981 to 2000.

"I thought this was a very interesting generation for a number of reasons," says Fisher, 45. "For one, they're gigantic."

Millennials number about 77 million, about equal to the famously large baby boom generation, according to the Pew Research Center, which has studied the generation for several years. They also are the most ethnically and racially diverse generation in the nation's history, the least religiously observant, and the first generation to regard Internet use and social media not as great innovations but as a part of their daily lives that they've always known.

"They're the most educated population and least employed," Fisher said. "They're the first post-9/11 generation — the generation that grew up with school shootings and workplace violence as commonplace."

It's a generation that views security cameras as safety, not an invasion of privacy, and Millennials buy music as a download, not on a disc — if they buy it at all.

The stark differences between Millennials and previous generations inspired Fisher to form an exhibit, The Millennials, on display in the Morlan Gallery through Feb. 10.

"Because artists are the canaries in the coal mine, perceptive and making observations about society, I wanted to go to the artists and see what they're seeing — let me see the world through the eyes of Millennial generation artists," Fisher says.

Among the eyes were those of Smith, 25, a New Jersey native who lives in Lexington, and Natasha Giles, 26, a Louisville native who also graduated from Transy and is now teaching at the University of Kentucky.

Their work, along with that of other artists from across the country in the juried exhibit, show generational traits both in how they approach their work and in what they represent.

Fisher says Smith's portraits against patterned backgrounds are "social" and show an approach informed by working with computer programs such as PhotoShop.

"It's like hands-on PhotoShop," he says. "You think of painting differently if you work on a computer — the idea that you can manipulate something but maintain the initial lines, which is what you do in PhotoShop."

Similarly, artist Benjamin Cook creates photo-realistic oil-on-canvas portraits and then drops in little red lines around features — eyebrows, for instance — sort of echoing PhotoShop's "lasso" tool, which lets a user cut out or manipulate objects in an image.

"PhotoShop is interesting because it's really changing the way we do things," Giles says. "Even in my smaller paintings where I'm overlapping panels and planning them out, I use PhotoShop sometimes or manipulate images on the computer to see what's happening."

Giles sees her overlaying panels as a way to keep herself and her viewers engaged in her work in an era when people get distracted easily by the many things going on around them, even while sitting at a desk.

"If we're not inundated every 20 seconds, we get bored," Giles says. "So I like overlaying panels because it keeps me engaged in the work and makes the viewer have to engage in a different way. They can't just walk up and so, 'Oh, that's a lovely image of ...' this landscape or this portrait and walk away. They have to walk around it and interact with it, almost like it's sculpture, but in a different way."

That said, Giles and Smith are quick not to oversell the technological aspects of their work, saying neither of them owns an iPad or iPhone or has worked with PhotoShop in years.

Many of the materials used in pieces for The Millennials are distinctly low-fi creations. That includes the centerpiece of the show, Offbeat Hinderlands by John Haverty, an excruciatingly detailed nature scene in ballpoint pen on a 72-inch by 44-inch sheet of paper.

Giles says she creates her images on plain paper to save money, and she sees a lot of fellow artists challenging preconceptions about what is acceptable to use in creating art.

Fisher says the subject and materials frequently come together, as in John Talbott Allen's "bombs" made from glue and craft paper, with red wire leading to pipes.

"People in my generation wouldn't have thought of making bombs as art for a gallery show," Fisher says.

Today, though, that emerges as an issue, as do other topics of particular interest to Millennials.

Giles says one of the reasons social media has grown is that older teens and twentysomethings don't see their concerns addressed elsewhere.

"Social media is a place people can express what isn't being expressed anywhere else," she says.

And then there is The Millennials show.

"It's about time something is about our generation," says Smith, who says issues specific to students and recent graduates are largely ignored by politicians and people in power. "People have master's degrees, and they're working at gas stations, and you don't hear that ever.

"So it's nice to have a show about young people saying, Let's see what's different."

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