MFA Thesis Shows: Columbia & Parsons

by Charlie Schultz


The crucial factor that distinguishes the graduate thesis exhibition from any other group show is this: the participants know one another’s work intimately. Such nearness has interesting consequences for an audience whose familiarity with the artists is most likely naught. We encounter a panoply of individualism built out of the communal urge to develop personal visions, and within this we find sophisticated webs of thought worked out amidst issues that have been felt deeply, be they political, social, sexual, environmental, or as is often the case, an admixture. It’s exciting. Everything you see in these exhibitions you are seeing for the first time and none of it is less than the artists’ best effort.

Additionally, these graduate programs strive for diversity, matriculating an international student body that corresponds to the global appeal of the institutions’ programs. Consequentially the intimacy engendered through two years of communal critical engagement is made relative by the actual cultural and social distances such heterogeneous groups always embody. This makes for a good exhibition, though venues play a key role in how the dynamic works out for an audience.

In all I’ve observed the work of forty-eight new Masters of Fine Art, twenty-six from Columbia University whose work filled all three floors of the Fisher Landau Center, and twenty-two from Parsonswho did an admirable job utilizing the Kitchen’s modestly sized gallery to the best of their advantage. I liked most of what I saw, a few projects I liked a lot. But it wasn’t until I wandered around the spacious Landau Center that I realized just how cramped the exhibition at the Kitchen had felt.

Given the choice I’d like to see multiple works by an artist I’m encountering for the first time and that’s something the space restrictions of the Kitchen simply didn’t allow. The Columbia grads not only had ample room to exhibit more work—some of it impressively large—but it was also intermixed in a manner that felt guided by relationships between the artworks, rather than merely allotting each artist his or her own wall. These shows aren’t about celebrating the graduating class; they’re about showcasing their work, and when that job is done well it is a genuine honor to the class.

No single medium dominated the spread of artwork in these two shows, though there was a particularly interesting vein of performative pieces. Dalal Ani and Molly Lowe both created full body costumes that they used to act out occult scenarios in natural environments such as a desert or the wilderness. Jordan Rathus filmed a meta-narrative about filming the opening scene to a fictional game show (in which she is the star) hilariously called, “Which Dick is Which.” Similarly playing off questions of identity and sexuality, Ian Warren produced a video wherein he poses like a model for a skin magazine atop the trunk of a tree in the middle of an active logging site. All of the works have a DIY feel, though none more so than Summer Shiffman’s dual projections. Working within a domestic setting Shiffman fills the shoes of an ex-lover with concrete, bitches on the phone, and takes a bath. Each of these acts possesses a neo-ritualistic character that implicates a broad realm of invention, paradox, and possibility.

Another sort of ritualization occurs on a more metaphysical level in the work of Aron Louis Cohen andLeah Raintree. What’s fascinating about these artists’ work is that it deals with abstract issues of time and consumption with the remaining anchored in the artists’ physical efforts. Cohen pulps the paper and cardboard he accumulates into an ever-growing coil of grey matter while Raintree’s large-scale drawing, heavily marked with all manner of abrasions, is the result of the artist scraping the page with chunks of shale (a rock whose public associations are now connected most visibly with the controversial environmental issue of hydraulic fracturing).

Quite a few artists worked with found objects, which for me often boils down to a question of presentation and on this front I found the work of Ben Hall and Alexandra Lerman especially astute though completely different. Rebecca Volinsky is the first artist I’ve seen to use lint as a central element in her sculptural practice; she combines it with leaves and bits of tree bark to produce elegant arrangements which she deems a form of self-portraiture.

In our age of flat screens and touch technology, using traditional mediums almost feels radical. Nathan Catlin’s woodblock prints and Corey Riddell’s photogravures—both featuring nature scenes—offer resistance to high definition imagery in favor of sensuality and touch. By contrast, Matthew Watson’s small oil on copper paintings approach photo-realism. Every blister and broken capillary in the faces of the people he portrays seems to pulse and emit heat.

This year was a special one for visiting MFA exhibitions in NYC insofar as they came right on the heels of the generation-defining extravaganzas at the Whitney Biennial and the New Museum Triennial. What I found encouraging was how much post-grad art was on par with the work in these major museum shows. Perhaps next year, which will be without a biennial or a triennial in New York, some intrepid curators will take it upon themselves to put something together that recognizes significant confluences and the requisite turbulence within these ambitious exhibitions.