LOS ANGELES — Graduating MFA students across the country didn’t have the opportunity to stage their thesis shows as planned this year. Creative as they are, many of the fine art students devised alternate projects, with Instagram in particular becoming a popular forum for them to post their work.
In the greater Los Angeles area, art schools have taken varying approaches. Some MFA programs, such as those at the University of Southern California (USC) Roski and California State University, Long Beach (CSULB), are holding out for the fall, hoping to host physical MFA exhibitions then. Other schools, like the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) and Otis College of Art and Design, have chosen to host their exhibitions online, perhaps responding to the uncertainty of when or how institutions will reopen.
As part of a series on virtual MFA presentations across the country, Hyperallergic has selected standout artworks from the graduating classes of Otis and CalArts, two of Los Angeles’s historic art schools. (You can peruse the Otis exhibition in full here; CalArts students will be presenting their exhibition on Artforum in July.) In reaching out to students, we asked them what it was like to adapt their MFA projects to a virtual setting. We’ve shared some of their answers below, along with excerpts from their artist statements.
* * *
Claire Tianyi Sun, a Chinese interdisciplinary visual artist from the United Kingdom, explains that having grown up “with a discontinuous sense of home and language,” she was “in constant negotiation with my own words, striving to weave them into a continuous narrative.” Sun’s multi-media works — which interweave painting, textiles, calligraphy, embroidery, and words — reflect on what gets lost in translation.
The experience of adapting her thesis work online added yet another layer of translation. “The digital representation is adding an alternative lens in which to view the work, and this changes the way we interpret the contents,” Sun wrote over email. “It is like saying the same words in different dialects or languages, even.”
“As a woman and African American, who grew up in a predominantly Black community, my artistic research involves the history and representation of Black bodies,” Bria Goodall writes in her artist statement. “I use photography to frame the racial hierarchies used to dispel the guilt and responsibility of privilege, meanwhile creating positive representations of African Americans.”
The Polaroids above were included in Goodall’s thesis project Identical. She elaborated on the images over email: “I looked into the history of colorism and how it has shaped the way we think about one another. The brown paper bag test was a form of racial discrimination practiced by White America during the 20th century. The test was used to grant or deny certain privileges; only those who matched or were lighter than the brown paper bag were allowed admittance or membership privileges.”
In the series As Needed, Cassia Davis reflects on mental illness and mood disorders, and how we medicate them. Alluding to “an era when drugs are more readily available than ever before,” the abstracted photos above capture “dissolving substances.” Davis shares: “The series represents my own daily battle with mental illness: some days go by like a bright blur. Others are long, muted. But once in a while, a bubble of optimism ignites my world and everything glows, shimmers, and fills me with light.”
Over email, Davis said that the “strangest part of creating a virtual MFA project really is not knowing who is looking.” She elaborated, “I’m used to the culture of opening nights, where you’re expected to curate not only the artwork but the atmosphere with wine, fancy cheese, hugs, and small talk. Completing the Google forms to submit my artwork for Otis’s virtual show felt a lot like filling out a job application.”
Nefertiti Jenkins’s paintings ruminate on the “impact” of “the mundane and quiet,” in particular the “mood and weight” of domestic interiors. When Jenkins couldn’t show her work in a physical gallery anymore, she decided to live with her artworks in her bedroom and share her installation virtually. She wrote over email: “I look at intimacy, insular worlds, and domesticity, so having the exhibition in my room and sharing it with numerous people seemed a lot more layered and impactful than it would have been in a conventional gallery setting. My work mirrored the environment it was being shown in and I had never gotten to do that previously, let alone think of attempting it.”
Maria Laura Hendrix’s thesis project Hasta La Raiz /To the Roots looks at the citrus industry as its “starting point” to reflect on the precarity of labor. “A virtual show gave me the opportunity to share my work with a broader and potentially more diverse audience. My art would now be housed in a virtual archive which would give it more visibility and longevity,” Hendrix wrote over email. “Yet with this longevity, I have realized that audience engagement is lessened and I am now dependent on their willingness to spark a conversation online with others about my work.”
Jenny Eom has created a website documenting a multi-faceted tea ceremony project that she conducted on the CalArts campus. The experience of clicking through the site is “different for each person traveling through it.”
“It centers around a set of teaware that is abstracted, distorted, and scaled at a much larger size than its efficient reciprocals,” Eom said of the ceremony over email. “The tea server is then asked to negotiate with the obstacle of not being able to operate the tea set by themselves. The objects give opportunities for people to problem solve together and to collaborate physically, verbally, and intellectually while performing at least one synchronized priority: to serve others tea.”
For this series, Evelyn Yin visited places in rural parts of the American West in search of stories from early Chinese immigrants. “One of the most memorable moments was finding a burial ground in the forest of an old mining town in Oregon,” Yin wrote over email. “At the bottom of a hill underneath their white counterparts, Chinese miners were buried, and later dug up, leaving many unmarked body-sized indentations. Their bodies were sent home for proper burial, following the Chinese tradition of bone repatriation and that ‘the fallen leaves will return to their roots.’”
Casey Baden explores the metaphorical quality of textiles — how “a surface emerges” through “warp and weft.” Her work, which she describes as “often of a diaristic nature,” plays with “holding on and letting go, of coming together and moving apart, often memorializing, or making a totem of a particular memory or emotional experience.”
While Baden was “completely disappointed” when she had to host her work online, it also led her to “do a lot of writing around the project which brought forth some clarity of my intentions.”
In performance artist Holly Harrell’s videos, she playfully mocks the tropes of capitalism in order to expose and “exaggerate the grotesque and absurd underbelly of it all.” In her artist statement, Harrell describes the character of the “Product Lady” in the video above: “Selling useless products to an unenthusiastic audience with only a single PA to keep the show afloat, she often sleeps on the job and blames everyone else for her problems. Not to mention the woman that looks really good and smiles and has a nice dress who is supposed to hold the products, has been missing for three days.”