Whether it’s striving to elicit a specific emotional reaction, make a statement about society at large, or simply showcase diverse approaches and new media, MFA exhibitions give graduating students the opportunity to share the results of their hard work and to be recognized for their artistic contributions and experiments.
Because these students are creating in a setting where selling or professionally displaying their art isn’t a priority, there can be a tendency for their work to suffer by virtue of existing in an echo chamber. Several recent MFA shows belie that stereotype, however.
PNCA (Pacific Northwest College of Art)
Located in Portland, Oregon, PNCA is home to a graduating class of multimedia artists whose most recent work requires viewers to exert some real mental energy.
Savanna Youngquist’s Being Half and Whole, for example, may seem calm on the surface. Paper folded to look like envelopes addressed to “The Visitor” describe the exhibit as an expression of the artist’s relationship with her boyfriend and her twin sister. But the underlying theme is more complicated, with pillows placed on the gallery’s walls along with two mirrors reflecting phrases at each other: “We don’t hug” on one, and “Because hugging you would be like hugging myself” on the other.
Jenna Reineking has created a similarly serene-on-the-surface-but-troubling-underneath offering called Reconstructing Deconstructed Constructs. Two deceptively plain brown platforms are covered with various objects, including a dustpan and broom covered with mothball-like film. There’s not much to it at first—but there’s an underlying sense of disturbance.
School of the Museum of Fine Arts (Tufts University)
This year, 39 students graduated from Tufts University’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts. Their work—film, video, painting, performance, sculpture, photography, installation, drawing, and more—was recently showcased in an exhibition at the Cyclorama at the Boston Center for the Arts.
Riley Allen’s ACityIsACityIsACity is made up of a series of videos showing what urban environments would look like if some things were removed and others added. This results in a series of shots of places like New York and Chicago strangely bereft of the people and cultures we normally think of as defining these cities. The removal of this energy makes viewers stop and think about what really defines a city.
Rather than focusing on one medium, Isabel Beavers’s Arctic Lab installation uses video, animation, drawing, painting, sculpture, and sound. She draws on her experiences collecting ecological data to present a melancholy piece about the effects of climate change and our cultural responses to it.
Meanwhile, Douglas Breault’s digital print Flowers Don’t Ask to Be Picked uses sculpture and mixed media to draw parallels between the imagination presented on the internet and our concepts of heaven.
University of California, Berkeley Department of Art Practice
Berkeley MFA graduates this past year came together with the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) to celebrate their work. While each of the six graduates’ work is unique, they all look at social norms and their effects on us, including class, race, gender, sexuality, and education.
Takming Chuang’s sculptures, built using his own body, focus on ideas of the physical impermanence. Classmate Lucas DeGiulio uses flora, sticks, branches and even garbage, collected during nature walks, to create sculptures, collages, and assemblages that speak to the human connection with nature. And Behnaz Khaleghi uses a façade of scatological humor and phallic structures to talk about men’s anxieties around female power.
It can be easy to dismiss young artists and their earliest works, particularly when they come out of insular MFA programs. But as these examples show, MFA exhibitions can showcase extremely complicated and important narratives—not to mention the real talents of an up-and-coming set of artists.