School of Visual Arts MFA Thesis Catalog 2012
The School of Visual Arts MFA class of 2012 impressed me right out of the gate. What struck me first was their across-the-board refrain from graduate school lingo, those torturously trendy sound bytes that serve as verbal crutches for many art students. They are also extremely down-to-earth considering the school’s location mere blocks from West Chelsea, the largest center of art and commerce in the world. Their lack of empty didactics is, of course, a testament to the SVA faculty and staff, but whether a group of MFA students gels as a class is a roll of the dice. Every group has its own tenor, its alpha students, its cliques, and its weak links. I was excited to discover a palpable synergy among the students at SVA—a real sharing of ideas rather than mere stylistic cross-pollination—as well as a consistently high level of investigation in their studios.
Perhaps it’s because of their proximity to such a volume of galleries that the students have a seen-every-show level of confidence that, in turn, obviates a reliance on artspeak. They’ve already internalized the fact that while certain mediums, tactics, and trends rise to prominence at any given time, our multi-faceted contemporary climate demands the individual artist’s touch. They know to trust their instincts, and that invariably results in stronger, more personal work. They grasp the importance of inventing their own terminology to describe what they make—in this generation’s case, new words for a complex image culture. While the work I saw in their studios spanned a wide range of materials and disciplines, a few conceptual threads stood out.
Distrust of Images
How ideas are filtered and remixed through different processes, techniques, and technologies is a prominent theme in contemporary art. The black-and-white, mixed media works of Jonas Lara exude the subtle image quality of a Polaroid or Xerox, yet are tempered by the tactility of brush on canvas. Augustus Nazzaro’s subjects, rendered in subtle tonal shifts, read first as abstract then ride the line between ocular revelation and evocative memorial. Steven Chapman’s paintings of tattooed bodies in cinematic formats suggest the contemporary paradox of permanence/impermanence as it relates to film, photography, and Photoshop. Aken Wahl’s untitled image of a blank, dog-eared piece of paper is decidedly anti-image. Shrouded constructions and photographs by James Brendan Williams explore notions of concealment, asking the pertinent questions of what to show, how to show it, and how much to give away.
The inundation of images from all aspects of contemporary culture requires that artists find new methods—perhaps new reasons, even—for parsing references. Snippets of typography, graphic design and modernist symbols are re-contextualized in Andrew Brischler’s quasi-abstract paintings. Eli Gabriel Halpern’s portraits and still lives collapse symbols and styles that are high, low, and everything in between. Paul Hunter Speagle’s pop/porn hybrids, Sharon Kirby’s videogame culture-inspired wall paintings and videos, Victoria Batey’s quirky portraits of friends and celebrities, and Chie Araki’s large scale, cartoonesque charcoal drawings all suggest the synthesis and dissemination of sources by way of television and the Internet.
The Stuff of Painting
Painting as a metaphor for artistic process is being explored in several studios at SVA, often manifesting as symbolic references to painting’s core materials—stretcher and canvas. Kim Smith’s disembodied, pelt-like wall works expand on the dialog of artists like Sam Gilliam and Dona Nelson, adding notions of futility and entropy to the act of draping and the double-sided canvas. In Amelia Midori Miller’s careful renderings of fence and barrier fragments, the physical structure of painting is challenged by, and in, photographic space. Eric Mistretta’s assemblages, half-found object/half-dollar store chic, suggest that while anything can be structure or substrate, materials themselves carry embedded meaning that is both personal and universal.
Artists have forever attempted to record, display and make visible that which isn’t. David Ostro’s complex digital models of musical structures are studies in sensory translation—improbable sculptures of invisible architecture. Élan Jurado’s visceral, task-driven performances underscore the malleable sense of trust and compliance between artist and viewer. Eleni Beristianou’s nods to her native Greek landscape, Her Hsuan Hsieh’s delicate merging of Eastern and Western cultural symbols, Peter Neu’s clean, concise photographs juxtaposed with objects made from repurposed materials, and Christina J. Wang’s fetish for painting baked goods all relate to the viewer on an unfettered, emotional level. Fantasy-based paintings by Heewon Seo, which are at once poetic and bizarre, Kacie Lees’ sculptures and prints that seek to communicate via transmissions, and Nicholas Bakita’s description of his abstract paintings as “foundation and interior” all focus on psychological, perhaps even subconscious, space as the site where ideas are fleshed out.
Architectural vs. site-specific, public vs. private, psychological vs. physical—several studios at SVA are filled with residuals and remnants of ambitious, installation-based projects. Suspended fragments are all that physically remain of Hyun Soon Kim’s room-sized watercolor and light installation. A hole high on the wall evokes the aggressive energy of environment-altering works by Jenny Santos. Rebecca Ward’s geometric tape installations, which can only exist in giant scale, transform existing spaces into optical intricacies informed by, and dependent on, existing architecture. Eun Jung Kim’s padded fabric installation is at once an encompassing, otherworldly environment and a wholly organic, emotional shelter. Miryana Todorova explores performative space in site-specific works that address notions of futility, risk, and human potential.
Even when open-ended, thematic categories never fully describe the reach of an artist’s work, as relevance is always subject to overlapping and shifting context. However, conceptual exchange and the resulting commonalities are what make graduate school an immersive, collaborative experience. Essentially there are three learning spaces: the individual studio, the social arena, and the shared space of class discussions and critiques, and each of these facets is crucial. Graduate school can also be the place where artists establish a ground floor community, a group of peers whom they know (and hopefully respect) on both a personal and professional level. These hard-won relationships help forge a path into the art world and, more importantly, have the potential to collectively describe a cultural moment. Every now and again, the question arises of whether graduate school is truly worth it for artists, and I believe it is. In addition to critical rigor, it demands that students figure out how to create and maintain momentum in the studio. This, to me, is key. Once out of school, to perpetuate a high level of personal ambition is paramount—it is the foundation and manifestation of intellectual curiosity. It’s what makes us go to the private space of the studio and attempt to communicate with the world.