Art & Development, Community, Values

SFAI Graduate Exhibition

I may not be objective about the work of students at a so-called rival school, but a recent visit to the San Francisco Art Institute’s MFA exhibition provided a useful point of reference for my own experiences.

Like CCA’s graduate exhibition, the SFAI show opened with a bang and closed after only a brief week. Eight-day exhibitions seem freakishly short; on the morning of my de-installation, I smothered a petulant whine: “I don’t wanna take it down!” SFAI students enjoyed the benefit of a printed catalog; CCA’s online catalog seemed like an ecological and economical, though under-utilized, alternative.

Understandable criticisms of the CCA show were that the number of artists was overwhelming, and the space was too difficult to navigate. I can see how a show of CCA’s 50 MFAs could be daunting–and I could relate to the sentiment when I attempted to view the work of SFAI’s 98 artists.

The exhibition was held at the Herbst Pavilion at Fort Mason. The gallery set-up was provisional: clamp lights snaked across the tops of false walls held up by makeshift shims. At times I found the installation earnest (The numerous artists were accommodated in a huge space, so what more could you ask for?), but more often, I found installation decisions baffling and distracting. In one extreme case, decent landscape paintings about environmental destruction were hung above horrendous pumpkin-orange floor molding. Later, I enjoyed some confident paintings and a video about the sea, however, a borrowed wooden pier and taxidermied sea gull impinged on the physical space and seemed like clunky, redundant buttresses to ideas that stood on their own. Finally, confident works by two artists with gay male perspectives were adjacent, but the pairing was formally disadvantageous and curatorially marginalizing.

OK, enough with the nitpicking. My subjective highlights:

Whitney Lynn‘s bunker of canvas cushions was the only work that directly addressed the Herbst Pavilion’s military history. This site-specific work was unassuming, and it was my favorite piece in the sprawling show. Employing only a small pencil drawing and a sculpture of uncolored fabric and soft texture, the artist pulled off a political statement that was more evocative than the agitprop at the front of the exhibition.

Michele Carollo makes room-sized installations that look like modernist paintings. Photos of the installations appear to be expressive two-dimensional works, but in reality the installations are a little bit goofy, reminiscent of a funhouse. Her investigation seems original and fun, and I’m excited to see where it goes.

Jana Rumberger’s birdcages made of calendar pages and cellophane tape were pretty and poetic.

J. Kristen Van Patten exhibited a well-executed wall-based installation composed of wires, abstracted prosthetics and tiny magnets. It was reminiscent of Miro and Calder, but less whimsical and more formal.

Alan Disparte’s paintings verge a little too close to Clayton Brothers cuteness for me, but the one-minute video was a refreshing, if bite-sized, take on graphic design and nostalgia.

(On another note, I’ve been thinking about cuteness a lot lately, picturing a parent’s warning that misbehavior is “not cute.” Cuteness seems indicative of novelty and bemused consumption, and its widespread adoration seems dangerous or at least dismal, signalling relationships built upon simplistic visual appeal. In place of cuteness, what about that old-fashioned value of character? Strength and morality may not be hip or ironic, but that’s the point.)

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