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Liz Rywelski's Exhibition at UB Anderson Gallery

Note the acrostic formed by the first letters of the purchased items.

Ideal Shopping

Buffalo’s arts community is extremely multifaceted and the artists that make up that community—broadly referred to as “Western New York artists”—create artwork in our region for time periods that range from the length of time it takes for them to complete their art degree to a lifetime. The “categories” of these Western New York artists include, but are not limited to: lifelong residents of the region, transplants who become longtime art educators here, and others who are here for a period of at least two years to earn their Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree at the University at Buffalo. It’s that third category that can be the most challenging group to get a handle on. The best way to do that, and it is well worth the effort, is to see the UB MFA candidates’ thesis exhibitions when they are presented around this time of the year at various exhibition venues in the region. The downside:Some of those exhibitions are short term, and if they are performance-based, ideally you would need to be at the opening to fully experience the work. The upside: A number of galleries and museums (principally Big Orbit Gallery, Carnegie Art Center, Castellani Art Museum, CEPA Gallery, and UB Anderson Gallery) have wisely committed to include at least one thesis exhibition in their annual programming. So, for the artists selected for those locations, access to their work is easier and it is generally up for a longer duration.

Return Policy by Liz Rywelski, on view through May 24 at the UB Anderson Gallery, is an extraordinary example of one those MFA thesis exhibitions that you should make a point to see. This exceptionally well conceived, diverse body of work occupies the entire second floor of the gallery. Rywelski is a native of Long Island who studied and worked in Philadelphia before coming to UB in 2010. The focus of her work over several years is deceptively simple. All of her photographs, large-scale prints, web-based media, games and performances reference shopping, or more accurately, the “culture of consumerism.”

What is so fascinating about the artist’s multi-disciplinary investigation into this subject is how Rywelski has thoroughly analyzed the strategies and “visual language” of consumerism and used that language to introduce a dialogue about how we construct our own identities. The notion that “buying makes us who we imagine ourselves to be” is a very fertile subject and Rywelski explores that concept with insight and wit.

The exhibition begins with the most ubiquitous artifacts of the shopping experience—cash register receipts. Rywelski has made these lowly scraps of creased and folded paper into grandiose objects by enlarging them several hundred times their actual size. Shifting their scale elevates their importance and reveals (to the careful observer) their real relevance to the exhibition. They are each intentionally crafted documents created by the artist as she purchased and then returned products to various big-box stores. The first letter of each item on the receipt spells out a word, vertically, on the receipt. This is called an acrostic, which is a form of literary entertainment that dates to ancient times. The receipts are divided into three series, each with a different question. For example, the Yellow Series answers the question “Why am I shopping?” Answers: CHOICE, LIFE, SAFETY, etc.

Ironically, despite their huge size, the imbedded meaning may easily be lost if you don’t read the exhibition label and look for it—the concept of these works is cleverly hidden in plain sight. There are multiple levels and layers of meaning throughout all of Rywelski’s work and viewing it becomes more engaging as you are sensitized to her methodolo`gy of repurposing the visual devices that have become commonplace in the world of retail and merchandising.

At first glance, a series of banners titled Checkout that are hanging in the atrium are the sort of images—attractive models wearing garments available for purchase—that you would expect to see in malls or boutiques. Upon closer inspection, you can see that simple graphic alterations of the images such as strategically placed zoom details have made the models seem disfigured and decidedly unattractive. Visions of idealized beauty that pervade the retail environments we frequent are thus transformed by Rywelski into potent commentaries on body image.

The idea behind her series of images of flower bouquets titled Flower One is simple. offers a floral arrangement named “How Sweet It Is” that you can order anywhere in the world, and presumably they all look the same. In practice, as Rywelski found out when she ordered the arrangement from six different florists who used the same visual reference, the results were surprisingly very different. The metaphor and its connection to our lives are hard to miss. The retail world’s illusions of perfection are flawed realties that are subject to interpretation and change.

Two performance pieces, Hand Held Shoppers and Social Services Merchandise, which the artist debuted at art events in recent years, have been reconfigured and installed in the gallery’s atrium. This is an instance where you had to be at the opening when they were operating as interactive performances to fully appreciate them. Nevertheless, you should examine all the components of these installations, especially the Buffalo-centric merchandise catalog that the artist produced to aid visitors in the creation of their own personalized “Point-of-Sale Acrostic” on a register receipt. The materials, artifacts, and brochures give you a good sense of Rywelski’s wry gaming skills.

The exhibition wraps up with a photographic suite of self portraits that are part of an ongoing series for the artist. Putting her clothing choices in the hands of helpful store employees, Rywelski poses in the store aisle amidst the garment racks and shelves of K-Mart stores in Los Angeles. The act of trying to capture an image of style and fashion in an inelegant setting is a thoughtful way to raise questions about our pursuit of beauty and the role of merchandising in that pursuit. For more detail on the works in the exhibition and a number of other equally engaging bodies of work, visit

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