The season for MFA graduation shows is upon us and with the run of these shows being so short it’s easy to miss them. I made it to ‘Edge Effect’, the exhibition for the San Francisco Art Institute’s current crop of MFAs on the last day it was up (it was up for less than a week). In fact, as I was finishing up my tour parts of it were already being taken down. This was the second show I saw this year and I must say that I like the venue a lot more than the other one I saw. One reviewer described the show as being displayed in “art-fair style”, I feel this is a total misnomer. While the walls didn’t go all the way to the ceiling, the arrangement of them was nowhere near how they would look at an art fair. There was more room and space given to the artists than would have ever been allowed to a gallery. The relation to an art fair is only in the fact that the sister pavilion at Fort Mason is where one of the annual art fairs is housed each year.
Enough about the venue though, let’s get to the show. With 100 artists on view, this is the largest MFA showing in the Bay Area. The diversity of mediums was wide, including: painting, drawing, sculpture, printmaking, ceramics, photography, film, video, installation, performance, sound, animation, and new genres (media). Considering that I have a low expectation bar for MFA shows, I found this year’s offerings displayed ingenuity, variety, and had pockets of potential awaiting growth.
One of the first bodies of work I looked at was by Daniel Lee Postaer. In his series of photographs, collectively entitled ‘Boomtown’, Postaer has captured the streets of San Francisco as it evolves during the current tech boom. Most striking about them are the similarities they share with the work of the emerging photographer Doug Rickard. All of the shots on view are street shots that seemingly could have been pulled from Google maps, much like Rickard did for his body of work. What sets them apart is the clarity of the images and the nature of the light within them. Postaer’s are pin sharp, display a slightly golden tone to color of the light, and are fully composed by the artist live on the street, as opposed to being captured through older digital cameras and mediated through an automated program for stitching the images together. Their content is different too. Postaer’s look at all socio-economic strata, as opposed to solely areas of poverty, and the figures in them almost seem to be placed into an arranged tableau.
Across the way I found the sculpture and videos of Iranian artist Raheleh (Minoosh) Zomorodinia. Her large scale sculpture of cloth with attached photographs is cut and stitched together to form a small mosque we can enter. Instead of a floor and prayer rug to worship on, however, we find a small trampoline to jump up and down on, turning this into a place of seeming enjoyment instead of solemnity. The outer and inner walls are covered in photographic tiles arranged in grids, each depicting a female figure in full chador moving in front of a black background. Set against the stark white cloth of the walls, the graphic pop of the arrangement is at once severe and ethereal in equality.
Next to this I found the installation of Aaron David Kissman. Diagnosed HIV+ as a young gay man, Kissman has taken this as the subject of his work. His installation includes two wall paper elements, a reproduction of a letter written by Kevin Varner, framed photographs, Polaroids arranged on shelves, a pulsating video, and a eerie sculpture in the form of an MRI scanner with a video waiting inside and a plank on wheels ready to convey us into the black void of its orifice. HIV/AIDS is a global epidemic, with the main battlegrounds and media focus currently on the continent of Africa where the disease has been especially hard to contain. In the US, besides recent news items about an outbreak in Indiana, the disease has fallen largely off the radar screen of public attention. With the advent of powerful suppression drugs, the disease has become a chronic illness and not an immediate death sentence, something to live with. While there are large bodies of work by multiple artists from the 1980s and early 1990s about the height of the epidemic in the US that have been exhibited more and more in recent years, I have yet to see much work or a single show focused on the long term experience of living with the disease. It is not an issue from another period, it is very much still with us.
Around the corner I came upon the drawings/paintings of Scott Welsh. I say drawing/painting since the while the images are on paper, they are created with the use of cosmetics – foundation, blush, eye shadow, etc. – which are used to primarily paint the faces of women. Welsh’s work is about explorations of duality within the human – sexual orientations, psychological states, sociological positions – so this ambiguity between drawing and painting is fitting. His subject matter is the nude male form, where his use of cosmetics adds another layer of duality to our experience of the work, questioning the foundation of male identity in a moment of hyper-masculinization in both mainstream straight and gay cultures.
The sculptures and drawings by Katherine Vetne also challenge sociological norms and cultural roles. Specifically, Vetne is interested in critiquing normative associations of womanhood. Her sculptures manage this in a forceful way. ‘Beloved for Generations’ (2015), at first sight, looks as if it were a pile of melted glass, which in fact it is. But looking closer, we realize that these melted forms were once leaded glass stemware that was simultaneously inherited and rejected by the artist. After being melted down, Vetne then mirrored the forms in silver nitrate, associating them with preciousness and value again, while also making them shine like never before. The passing of certain objects from generation to generation is a long standing human tradition, with certain types of objects assumed to go to certain genders – a father’s watch to his son and the crystal, china, and silver to the daughter. Vetne is drawing attention to and challenging those presumptions within our culture.
Taking a breath from formal work, I spent some time with the drawing installation of Flo Pizarello. Hung on a brightly muraled wall of cotton candy pink graffiti forms are variously prints, drawings, and paintings on various media. In the middle of this is a white wooden sign, like that of Wiley Coyote, with the title of the exhibit ‘FLO’S BRAIN PIKINS’. Her work is variously bright, unpretentious, raw, emotional, and full of humor. It displays a maturity in its lack of an attempt at “seriousness” and reminds us that not everything in the art world has to be buttoned up, slick, and clean.
Returning to the realm of photography, Katie Harwood’s series of photographs both puzzle and intrigue. Documenting the yearly ritual of ‘spring cleaning’ in upper middle-class neighborhoods of suburbia, the images reveal elements of both economic class, the power of consumer culture to alter our beliefs about the value of objects, and raise questions about environmental sustainability. With the thorough establishment of mass production in the post-war US and the high wages it paid, a culture developed that allowed people to afford new, cheap furniture that could be later gotten rid of without any guilt. But, there are darker implications within this, too. The poor did not have the luxury of changing their furniture often, if ever, to keep up with fashion. This disposability culture also allowed people to care less about what they bought, let alone the impact of this culture on the planet, because something new was so cheaply had. These photographs, while appearing sweet and light, betray a darker side to even relative affluence and its cultural practices.
The ceramics of Matthew Goldberg are something of a humorous conundrum for me. Meant to be both familiar, but also not, Goldberg’s amalgamation of forms from disparate sources really lead one to wonder what conclusion can ever really be made about the work. With each viewing we draw our own associations, which allows us to find our own conclusions in a new way. It’s almost like looking at surrealism in clay, with one work made up of a super-sized donut with lobster claws and tail reaching out from underneath it, making me recall canonical works from that movement.
Entering into the enclosed installation by Diran Malatjalian, the first thing the struck me was the smell of the work. Composed of numerous wax figures arranged in groups on pedestals of various heights and accompanies by a low range soundscape, the immersive nature of the work was truly unlike most I have seen. Another important element is the lighting for the piece came from in front of the piece and not the top, allowing the shadows of the figures to stretch our behind them and activating an additional dimension to the piece. Entitled ‘Meds Yeghern’ (2015), the piece is a quiet testament to the Armenian Genocide that occurred 100 years ago this year. The title itself is a synonym for the term ‘Armenian Genocide’, much like ‘Shoah’ is used by Jews to refer to the Holocaust. With the centennial of the massacre has come renewed focus on this long overlooked chapter of 20th century history.
There were several artists who made work that was either film, video, or animation based, or relied on alternating lighting. These pieces cannot really be experienced or represented in a single image, so I took short clips of each one to provide a better idea of their impact (see embedded video). The first of these I came across was the booth containing the paintings of Jevijoe Batac Vitug. Vitug’s chaotic landscapes juxtapose mass consumer items, iconic structures, symbols, and indigenous cultural influences into complex arrangements. Painted in dayglow pigments, the alternating light above the work changes the feeling and perception of the work with each change of color. The video of Ileana Tejada deadlifting a hefty amount of weight is something to behold, but also not. Displaying her strength in a sport nominally associated with men, Tejada moves beyond fixed gender roles. Joanne Easton’s installation ‘Pseudonyms’ is hypnotic to watch. Comprised of a very thick handmade book laying open and two small fans on either side blowing on the pages, we watch as the pages seem to mound up on one side, magically stop, and then flip back to mound up again on the other. There is no pattern in their movements, just total randomness. Deriving meaning or interpretation from this work is an illusive endeavor, but the phenomenological aspect is quite engaging. Lastly, entering the hidden away room where I found the durational installation/film ‘The Catherine Wheel’ by Joseph Dwyer was like entering a portal into the past. The 16mm projector was creaking away as the copied, but unaltered, period film from an unknown early 20th century source was projected in an endless loop on the wall. Dwyer’s work is concern with the growing field of film preservation. He challenges the notion that everything should be preserved and saved, instead positing that it should be left to decay over time. In this work the film only lasted about 35 hours (roughly the duration of the exhibition) before it came apart, thus showing the fragility and inherent entropy of the medium.
‘Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’ is the series title for the photographs on view by Filza Ahmad. Taken entirely through surreptitious means – out of car windows, on a cell phone – they reveal daily life in this foreign land. It is illegal to photograph in public in Saudi Arabia, as we are told by the artist, so there is an element of inherent voyeurism to them. One thing that struck me was the image of a group women, fully covered in black abaya robes and niqab head coverings, waiting at the edge of a sidewalk to be picked up by a male relative. We hear much about the lack of freedom to drive by women in the kingdom, but we do not hear about how women are left on their own to do the shopping. The other work that made me pause was a diptych showing in one image teenage boys in traditional white robes and in the other a European/American man in western clothes working in a store window. Comparisons between them show the differences between and the subtle blending of cultures.
Two shows of drawings that caught my eye were Kathryn Grace Young and Hannah Stahulak, though they couldn’t be further apart from each other in style. Youngs images are expansive, abstract compositions of organic forms that sometimes reference landscapes, while at others are about spatial relationships and differences in density of forms. Stahulak, on the other hand, creates anatomical studies and dissections of figures on the paper, deploying a style that at times echoes the images found in the first books on anatomy and at others the haunting imagery of Francisco Goya. Her works challenge us as to where beauty is found, how it is depicted, and how it is consumed.
Of the small amount of painting on view, one artist who stood out was Christine (Hyung-Jin) Cho. Cho’s paintings of ovular forms in subtle tones of color create delicate atmospheres that leave us feeling suspended in them. Depth is added to through many layers of the forms overlapping each other, while many of them are also translucent, revealing what is behind them. Another painter to consider is Jared Weiss. His painting of a skinned animal carcass strung up on a meat hook recalls the earlier work of Chaim Soutine, both in its subject matter and to some extent the painting style. Weiss is interested is the in making the painted mark echo the psychological mark, using the painting as a container for holding memory in suspension. In his version, the feeling is more ambivalent and the image is less raw than his predecessors.
Lastly, entering the installation by Hadar Kleiman and Xiao Wang is like stepping into another reality. Entitled ’24-Hour Room Service’, it combines Kleinman’s sculptures of iconic tropes of luxury – palm tree, crystal, roses, elaborate carpet patterns – and the sensuous paintings by Xiao Wang to create a simulated reality. Taking their inspiration from “Baudrillard’s simulacrum, where representing the real is the truth” the installation is a critique of the glamorous fantasy put forward by places like Las Vegas, where there is no ‘there’ there.
‘Edge Effect’ – The 2015 SFAI Graduate Exhibition was on view from Thursday, May 14 – Sunday, May 17, 2015 at Fort Mason Center in San Francisco.