3.16 / Review

The 42nd Annual UC Berkeley Master of Fine Arts Graduate Exhibition

By Jessica Brier May 31, 2012

Thumbnail: Brett Walker. Fridge Scene, 2011; archival inkjet print; 17 × 22 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Although an MFA exhibition is by definition a culminating showcase of artists who may only have a degree and alma mater in common, the 42nd Annual University of California, Berkeley Master of Fine Arts Graduate Exhibition tells a particular story. Much of the work riffs off Berkeley Art Museum (BAM) both as a physical site and an institutional space, with a particular eye toward the neighboring hulk of an exhibition, State of Mind, which showcases alternative artistic practices in California circa 1970. The pairing is not merely coincidental (State of Mind literally looms above the MFA show’s gallery): the work in both shows is largely predicated on absence, contingency, and the ephemeral.

The most direct example is Amy Rathbone’s cocoon-like hanging sculptural installation, This, That and The Other (2012), made from packaging materials salvaged from State of Mind’s installation. Rathbone’s artist statement situates her work as a manifestation of the shifting formlessness of perception but overlooks the more significant fact that her sculpture is made from the packaging detritus of an exhibition focused on Minimalist and Conceptual strategies from more than forty years ago. Although this material repurposing may allude to the importance of non-precious materials and the anti-market ethos of much of the work in State of Mind, it unfortunately contributes little to concepts of post-Minimal or conceptual sculpture.

Brett Walker’s work also directly references State of Mind. Getting the Big Picture (2011-12), his whimsical, salon-style installation of inkjet prints, interspersed with a broken disco ball and stacks of artist statement-like texts, includes a photograph in which Walker comically strides through Barbara T. Smith’s Field Piece (1968–72), an interactive sculptural installation included in the neighboring exhibition. Walker’s photographs are narcissistic and performative, depicting the artist and his friends and family in sometimes-staged, sometimes-candid moments of everyday life. In one of his take-away texts, Walker describes photography’s contemporary role as that of a “co-conspirator in creating an existence” whereas it was formerly used as a means to document.1 Walker’s statements propose to reflect the messiness of life in his work, but in light of his overly staged and aestheticized images, they ring false. Walker’s depiction of himself is comically quirky but one-dimensional; it is difficult to believe it as anything more than a performance for the camera.

More successful in capturing the messiness of everyday experience as relived through memory is Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck’s Phantom Rides (2011), a video installation for which the artist edited home-movie footage from the 1950s and 1960s of a family in Anaheim, California. Physically isolating different moments on small, dispersed monitors, Phantom Rides imitates the way the remembered past becomes fragmented, making for a loosely narrative and wholly cinematic experience.

Kari Orvik’s Exercises for moving in between (2012), a series of large polyester-printed photographs overlaid with video projections hung at varying heights and encountered while a viewer moves into or out of the gallery, similarly visualizes the imperfections of memory and representation. Orvik projects upside-down moving images onto printed photographs, creating an effect like a camera obscura and making porous the boundary between moving and still images. The interior and exterior spaces in the source imagery meld into one another and hauntingly capture the slippages that occur in memory’s recall.

Amy Rathbone: This, That and Other, 2012; mixed media; dimensions variable. Courtesy of the Artist.
Jennie Smith. Untitled, 2012; watercolor, woodless graphite pencil on paper; 48 × 144 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Also in dialogue with State of Mind is the work of Kari Marboe, which makes poetic, textual interventions into public spaces via billboards and other outdoor signage as well as ads in the East Bay Express. The texts themselves are oblique and faintly melancholic, marked by absence and a clearly conflicted relationship to telling the truth. Marboe’s series of waist-high stacks of East Bay Express back issues, entitled Newspaper Pieces #1-7 and produced collaboratively with artist Erin Johnson, gives a sense of the extent to which the artist was able to insert herself into the publication, and the gesture is reminiscent of Stephen Kaltenbach’s 1970s Artforum ad interventions, on view elsewhere in BAM. The photo documentation of Marboe’s billboard is far less successful as a work in the gallery. The single, close-cropped image of the billboard doesn’t allow for a sense of its true scale, downplaying its significance as a public intervention.

[Editor's note: The original article erroneously omitted Erin Johnson as a collaborator in creating Newspaper Pieces #1-7.]

Frank Marquez-Leonard’s esoteric installation, An Allegory (2012), also borrows something from 1960s and ’70s Conceptualism: according to the wall label, the piece consists of “space, persistence, expectation.” Dematerialized in the truest sense, save for the squares of blue tape on the ceiling and floor, An Allegory recalls the early, barely-there gestures of Michael Asher, such as a work in State of Mind that simply consists of pressed air blowing softly in a museum corridor. The squares invite speculation towards potential actions or content that could fill them, like a stage, recalling Bruce Nauman’s Walking in an Exaggerated Manner Around the Perimeter of a Square (1967–68). The piece’s title, An Allegory, reveals an undercurrent of sarcasm: Marquez-Leonard uses “space, persistence, [and] expectation” to illustrate the tired dance between artist, object, and viewer in post-Conceptual art. As an allegory for immaterial gestures like Asher’s or Nauman’s and a viewer’s potentially frustrated encounter with them, the piece succeeds in demonstrating that—at least in 2012—the radical aesthetic potential of space, persistence, and expectation is more difficult to configure.

Jennie Smith’s scroll-like works on paper have a more comfortable relationship to the Berkeley Art Museum’s collection of Asian works on paper than its Conceptual holdings. Smith mixes abstraction and figuration, creating a stunning hurricane of recognizable forms and undulating lines with pencil and watercolor. The large scale of the untitled piece, the contrasting minute, meticulous forms, and different textures created with graphite and watercolor (not unlike gilding on a Chinese scroll painting) are fascinating and fresh.

In curating an exhibition, it is difficult to strike the perfect balance between excess and sparseness. Too many shows suffer from a severe lack of editing. However, this exhibition goes too far in the other direction. There’s too little evidence of the messiness and abundant productivity that are as much the products of this kind of arts education as are finished pieces. While some artists are well represented by several works, others rely on only one work, which in some cases feels insufficient. However, the unevenness of the exhibition as a whole reflects the exploration of “space, persistence, [and] expectation” that characterizes much of the work on view. Such an atmosphere of absence and ghostly presences befits the uneasy, even ironic relationship many of these younger artists have to the now-canonized alternative practices of the 1960s and ’70s and to the museum as an institution.

 

The 42nd Annual University of California, Berkeley Master of Fine Arts Graduate Exhibition is on view at the UC Berkeley Art Museum, in Berkeley, through June 10.

Notes

  1. Brett Walker, artist statement, 2012.

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