Shotgun Review Archive
2009 CCA MFA Exhibition
May 25, 2009
"Do you think," said Candide, ''that men have always massacred each other, as they do today? Have they always been liars, cheats, traitors, brigands, weak, flighty, cowardly, envious, gluttonous, drunken, grasping, and vicious, bloody, backbiting, debauched, fanatical, hypocritical, and silly?"
- from Candide, ou l'Optimisme (1759) by Voltaire
The 2009 California College Of the Arts' MFA exhibition was both optimistic and sober. In a post-9/11 world wracked by war and ecological disaster, increasingly depersonalized by state surveillance and the pervasive influence of the Internet, making art becomes a way to both confirm one's humanity and to make sense of it. Navigating the path between artistic expression and the institutionalized art school experience can be disorienting or even treacherous, but there is always the joy of meeting like-minded people to share the journey. Walking through the exhibition--one culmination of that process--I felt rewarded by the physicality of the paintings, drawings, prints and installations in the show and by the Fluxist flavor of the work.
The Fluxus movement of the 1960's arose from an international network of artists, composers, and designers blending different artistic media and disciplines. Fluxus was an attitude more than a movement or style, the playful outcome when different media intersected. Not unrelated, John Locke, in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), refers to a neurologically based phenomenon--synaesthesia--in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. (One example is a blind man who claimed to experience the color scarlet whenever he heard the sound of a trumpet.)
Evocative of both Fluxus and synaesthetic events is Brindalyn Webster's collaboration with musician Alexander Chen, in which they created 46 two-minute songs for each of the graduating artists as a soundtrack for the MFA show. The songs were available on iPods and headsets during the exhibition, as well as the website www.studiomasters.us for downloading. Alexander Chen told me he did not necessarily see the work of the individual artists beforehand. Instead, he worked from a set of notes and a short score that Webster developed after she interviewed each artist. The final musical outcome was collaboration between all the MFA artists, Webster, and Chen.
Alicia Escott. Installation view, 2009 CCA MFA exhibition. Photo: Lani Asher.
Artists Julia Goodman and Alicia Escott created work using recycled consumer waste. In Certain is Nothing New, Goodman enlisted her friends and family to collect recycled blue junk mail that she subsequently formed into dynamic concentric paper rings. They hung from the ceiling in the shape of a cornucopia, the mythological "Horn of Plenty" that magically supplies its owners with endless food and drink. Pulping all this wasted paper seemed like a good-humored jab at advertising and its corresponding offers of abundance. Escott painted images of animals on biodegradable and non-biodegradable plastic. She said that she was "interested in how the materials I use move through the consumer economy and how words and concepts like 'sustainability', 'ecological', 'recyclable' and 'nature' move through the information economy." I would not be surprised if her paintings--including of the California brown pelican and large-scale brown bears--ended up as window displays or on environmentally friendly biodegradable shopping bags at Barney's.
Anna Adair. Installation view, 2009 CCA MFA exhibition. Photo: Lani Asher.
Matthew B. Crawford wrote in the recent New York Times Magazine article "The Case for Working With Your Hands:"
"...confrontations with material reality have become exotically unfamiliar. Many of us do work that feels more surreal than real. Working in an office, you often find it difficult to see any tangible result from your efforts. What exactly have you accomplished at the end of any given day?"1
When Anna Adair found an unfinished sewing project in a box in her apartment building, she began a series of investigations. Her background as a metalsmith, led her to wonder about things that are handmade, as well as the time and personal investment needed to complete them. Adair's installation explored the contents of the found box, asking why the coat was being made, why it was left unfinished, and if it should it remain so. She didn't complete the project. Instead, she created a kind of natural history museum display from the box's contents, transforming it into several works, including a pleasing and tender display of small handmade buttons, and a mural-sized photograph of the pattern pieces.
Patrick Gillespie. Installation view, 2009 CCA MFA exhibition. Photo: Lani Asher.
The installation by Patrick Gillespie included a convincing-looking pipe bomb--accurate except for the absence of incendiary materials inside--and lead-covered books that elude x-ray screening. I liked the pieces as sculptures and wondered if Patrick Gillespie was not an artist he might be a secret agent. In his accompanying performance-based work, he packed these objects in hand-luggage and twice passed through San Francisco airport security--once with long hair and another time with a shaved head--to test the potential for profiling by TSA agents. He also performed in a cozy sheepskin suit, in which his ability to see or hear is dramatically reduced. He said "I develop prosthetics and 'second skins' to augment the translation of the senses to my body...that greatly affects my ability to navigate public space." The installation provoked questions around the reasons why a young artist would deliberately put himself in harm's way by trying to pass through airport security with a simulated pipe bomb. Was his purpose to push boundaries and to test the security of the state? Or was making absurdist propositions one way of dealing with despair?
I was intrigued by the small paintings/objects/altars by Brandon Olsen placed on found objects behind a curtain. As he describes them,
"the small paintings are abstractions that have no outside references. The images are found through the process of making and canceling out physical actions or tasks. I think about them as a kind of game...The large curtain was made mostly to deal with the space in which the paintings were going to be placed...One could decide if they wanted to view the paintings better by crouching or pushing the curtain back."
I saw them as a series of nonsense altars, although I thought the paintings would have worked just fine on the wall. The installation was playful yet confusing, but there was something intimate and personal in his work that I found touching.
Throughout the exhibit, the artists explored many different media, and their work addressed a variety of the senses. Using found and everyday objects, sounds, images, and texts, in combination with their humorous impulses and serious intent, took me on a journey of synaesthetic and thought-provoking experiences.
The 2009 California College of the Arts MFA Exhibition was on view at the San Francisco campus of the California College of the Arts from May 7 to 16, 2009.
An archive of the exhibition can be found at: http://sites.cca.edu/gradthesisevents/2009/index.html