Every year across the country during May and June, art schools and universities graduate a new class of MFA graduates. Going to an MFA exhibition is a bit like opening birthday gifts in that you don’t know what you are going to get and it is guaranteed that there will be a wide variety of work to look at. The ‘2015 MFA Thesis Show’ at the California College of the Arts (CCA) has highlights, pitfalls, and works in the middle, but this is par for the course as this these things go. I encountered everything from social practice, to investigations of urban evolution, to works dealing with race and identity, to cross-cultural investigations in this year’s show, but nothing that reached beyond the established fields of artistic inquiry. This lack of a surprise has come to be the prevailing trend of late, unfortunately. However, knowing that this is the usual scenario didn’t keep me from looking anyway.
Walking through the long corridor that is the spine of the graduate studios building, I headed to the back of the building to begin my viewing. I do this so that I don’t have a long walk back at the end, and it is also where there are usually really big installations or works on view. The first piece I came upon was the large painting of what looks like a traditional Chinese landscape ‘Land-Skating Series: Blood-Land-Line’ by artist Haisu Tian. This large scale work was not made with ink and brush, rather with inline skates and ink in a breaking of traditional modes of painting from the east. The results, however, are very traditional in their visual representation, so the might miss this aspect of the work simply from looking at it.
Haisu Tian 'Land-Skating Series: Blood-Land-Line', 2015; inline skates, ink, xuan paper (480 x 216 inches) (Photo by Greg Flood)
To the left, I found a large wall installation by Megan Reed called ‘Rock Mountain’. Reed explores in her work the level of information bombardment that we encounter on a daily basis, specifically the bright colors used in corporate branding and consumer culture. She re-interprets those colors into abstract shapes that are then collaged into larger abstract forms (sometimes as landscapes too) that call into question the language of colors in consumer culture. While the scale of the work is apropos the title, I am not entirely sure of the ties between the conceptual underpinning and the work on display.
Megan Reed 'Rock Mountain', 2015; collage, flashe, acrylic, paper, foamboard on panel, and linen (dimensions variable) (Photo by Greg Flood)
Continuing on, I headed into the labyrinth of studio spaces that have been converted into exhibition venues for the show. Here I found the photographs of Georgina Reskala. These are not ordinary photographs, however. They are three dimensional, stretching out into the space before us, or curling up, as if the heat were making them pull away from their faming. The effect warps our view of the image itself, bring more depth and at times reality to it. They are also welcome shake up of the staid presentation of the photographic image we see nearly everywhere around us.
Georgina Reskala (title unknown), 2015; inkjet print on paper (16 x 16 x 3 inches) (Photo by Greg Flood)
Coming into a narrow passage way, I discovered the translucent photographs of Danielle Genzel. Genzel is interested in comparing how digital errors deny the output of a correct reading of a file with the retention, processing and perception of human moments in our memories. Through the use of family photographs, the artist both recalls and distorts events from her life and family, while the layered transparencies of the images combine to visualize the nature of how we remember. The finished pieces are beautiful light boxes with the transparencies suspended in front of a lit background.
Danielle Genzel 'Family Dinner in Sequence of Red', 2015; inkjet transparencies mounted on plexiglass, in birch wood frame with LEDs (30 x 30 x 6 inches) (Photo by Greg Flood)
Rounding the corner, I found the paintings of Micah Wood. While there are traditional looking paintings on canvas, it was the three dimensional pieces that I spent my time with. There are five of them and there are arranged in groups of two and three. While their labeling implies that they are separate works, their close placement on the walls led me to read the groupings as single works. (see attached video) They are individually made of steel sheets that jut out of the wall at an angle, with a silhouetted image cut in the interiors of the sheets. Wood’s work comes from both an exploration of materials, but also from inside jokes the artist has with himself, with the finished work providing the punch line. Their success in providing the humor I am not so sure of.
Micah wood paintings at CCA MFA Exhibition 2015
Turning around, my eyes focused on the large scale installation by sculptor Adriana Rabinovitch. Her work stems from the artist’s fear of increased urbanization coupled with a nostalgia for the layered histories within historic structures. Her forms mimic facades and other elements of urban life in a manner that highlights the synthetic nature of new construction and while drawing allusions to the histories that have been erased in the process. Some of the works are more literal than others in their referencing of historic urban forms, though that does not matter. The roughly wrapped textures that encase all of the elements, along with garishly color combinations, draws out attention to their imperfections while commenting on the sloppy manner in which so much everyday contemporary construction is done.
Adriana Rabinovitch 'The final disorder of all forms', 2015; mixed media (dimensions variable) (Photo by Greg Flood)
Adriana Rabinovitch 'The final disorder of all forms', 2015; mixed media (dimensions variable) (Photo by Greg Flood)
In another bay I discovered the paintings of Chiyomi McKibbin. McKbibbin’s paintings stem from the artist’s obsession with collecting images of luxury interiors from magazines and imagining living in them. McKibbin then takes these images and simplifies them into their general abstract compositional shapes and paints them in varying color pallets on wood panels. The flatness of the panels is important in mimicking the flatness of the image. In transforming the images into paint, the artist’s perception of the spaces the images represent has ironically changed from one of desire to not only absurdity, but the contradictions that stem from retaining the desire to collect them in this new state of perception. These works are very good in their use of color and execution, however there are raised areas of paint (sometimes depressions) that interrupt the smooth surface the artist attempts to achieve, which raises the question of how important flatness truly is in the stated goals of the artist.
Chiyomi McKibbon 'Untitled (Large Window), 2015; oil on floated panel (48.5 x 48 x 1.25 inches) (Photo by Greg Flood)
In a back area of the studios I found the sculptural installation of Jessica Hubbard called ‘Neoteric Augmentation’. Composed of a series of six forms that loosely resemble ocean buoys (made from concrete, garbage, and steel), there is poetry in its presentation that makes it beautiful. Above it is another work called ‘Clouds’ (made of plastic), where the cloud like forms are created from oversized plastic shopping bags. Combined as they are, they recall a land or seascape we could easily encounter at some point in our lives. The intent of the work, beyond perhaps a comment on human waste and a society of over production, I am not sure of as there was no evident statement of intent that I could find in person or online.
Passing through several passages and bays, I came upon the photographs of Hannah Olivia Nelson. The starkness of her images is quite impressive, where the whites singe the inky blacks of the backgrounds. About her work Nelson has written “I don't trust this light that reveals everything, lays it all before me like death. It's in sleep, without eyes, that we know the faceless ghosts of lovers and other soundless things that change just before waking, that hide themselves, little secrets that we don't know and that make us and that give us our names.” The enigmatic nature of this statement is easily read into the work, leaving us to stare in eternal wonder at the images before us.
Hannah Olivia Nelson (unknown title), 2015; inkjet print on paper, mounted (20 x 24 inches) (Photo by Greg Flood)
Another MFA graduate in love with deep blacks is Gillian Bostock. Her photograms and conté drawings of comets and lunar surfaces, are so realistic that one could easily be fooled into believing they were traditional photographs. About them she writes, “Under the full moon, I create haunting impressions of the night, a time associated with mortality and the primordial. Here, I capture that which is both immaterial and eternal.” Haunting indeed, with their severe surfaces of contrasting tones and desolate subject matter.
Gillian Bostock 'Comet 67P on 3 January, 2015', 2015; conté, gesso, wood (48 x 72 inches) (Photo by Greg Flood)
With an abrupt change of pace, I encountered the large grouping of works by Chelsea Hill. Hill’s work is of a more low-brow nature, with drawings and collages of characters from the street, patterned backgrounds, and instances of appropriated imagery. There is a dark humor throughout the work, with one drawing having the words ‘You’re too bitter and you hate every thing” as an example. Seeing these was a refreshing rest from the rest of the work, as there was no one else with work like it this year.
Chelsea Hill (unknown title), 2015; installation - drawing, collage, painting (dimensions variable) (Photo by Greg Flood)
Chelsea Hill detail of (unknown title), 2015; installation - drawing, collage, painting (dimensions variable) (Photo by Greg Flood)
Heading back towards the main corridor of the building, I made one last stop to see the work of Channing Morgan. Morgan has personally lived a life outside of the racial structures that we commonly understand, since while she identifies as black, her body type and skin color is racially ambiguous. With this unique perspective on life, Morgan has created works that challenge our notions of race while also exploring the contradictions that exist within the social constructs of race in our society, employing language and semiotics as tools for discourse and dissection.
Channing Morgan 'I Love My Girlfriend', 2015; glitter, paint on panel (60 x 30)
Channing Morgan 'Who I Definitively Am (After Rebecca Walker), 2015; gel transfer on panel (80 x 48 inches) (Photo by Greg Flood)
Back in the center of things, I took a few moments to look at works that I had passed by previously. A group of these, made up of two works in neon and a painted triptych, were by Hasmik Aga-Sarkisian. The most stunning of these was the painted triptych, entitled ‘Female YPJ soldiers accepting death as a sacrifice to rid the world of this filth [ISIS], of the Kobani region, Syria’, that is entirely made with lambs blood on stretched canvas. The potency of the source of pigment, with its historic association with sacrifice in western religions, and its application to the current crisis in the Middle East, arrests the viewer in their tracks.
Hasmik Aga-Sarkisian 'Female YPJ soldiers accepting death as a sacrifice to rid the world of this filth [ISIS], of the Kobani region, Syria', 2014; lambs blood on canvas stretched panels (48 x 144 inches) (Photo by Greg Flood)
On the other side of the corridor I found two more artists of interest. The first of these is a series of small to medium sized paintings by Brandon Shimmel. No information was provided about the works that I could find, but the work alone is compellingly enough to keep one engaged without it. The painted surfaces are more sculptural topographies than paintings, with their raised areas of impasto and subtle gradations of color that mimic shadows on the surface of a barren planet. To this, Shimmel has added either patterned or illuminated pieces of neon plexiglass to the sides of the paintings, with the lit elements separated from the sides by two metal rods. The combined effect brings a mood of nostalgia to the work, but for which recent era I’m not exactly sure.
Brandon Shimmel 'Leisure Destination, No. 7', 2015; acrylic, acrylic sheet, aluminum, chameleon pigment on panel (16 x 12 inches) (Photo by Greg Flood)
Lastly, across from the paintings I came across the work of Austin Boe. All of the pieces are screen prints on highly polished mirrors, with the exception of a related video work on the right, and in them we see the artist himself dressed in leather bondage gear in various positions. On one mirror he has screen printed “Je Vous Aimais” (‘I Loved You’). I took all of the panels together as one work, as they all combined to make a statement about love, lust, and desire. There is also the element of the tragic in that the love is now in the past, with Boe shackled and unable to reach us. In the mirrors we see ourselves, thus the artist is implicating us in the dialogue of desire. In the video beside the mirrors we find Boe seductively undressing for the camera, luring us into his world either for the first time or to come back.
Austin Boe 'Waiting', 2014; screen print and clear shellac on mirror (24 x 36 inches) (Image courtesy of the artist)
As I headed back down the long hall to the street, I began reflecting, sorting, and compiling in my mind what I liked and what I didn’t. With such a diverse field, there was much to absorb and consider. However, I am looking for something new – something more than there was before. I didn’t find it that day. I mentioned to a friend earlier in the week that I was going to see the show. His response was, “I’ve stopped going to see the MFA shows. It used to be that you could see the people who would become stars when you went, but now…” While I empathize I still haven’t stopped looking, at least not yet…
2015 MFA Thesis Exhibition is on view at the San Francisco campus of the California College of the Arts (CCA) until May 23, 2015. 1111 Eighth Street, San Francisco, CA 94107. Hours: 10am – 7pm daily.