Outstanding MFA Work from Columbia, Cornell, and SVA

Paula Lycan, “You Make Blue Warm” (2020) (image courtesy the artist)

As summer winds down, Hyperallergic is continuing to highlight some of the superb work produced by recent MFA graduates from around the country. For this edition, we turn our sights on three New York schools: Columbia University, Cornell University, and the School of Visual Arts (SVA).

To offer its students some spotlight, Columbia partnered with ArtForum and Art & Education to present work by its first-year and graduating classes, with each presentation introduced by filmmaker and artist Matthew Buckingham, chair of the university’s Visual Arts program.

Meanwhile, Cornell also took a combined approach, presenting the work of its first-year and graduating students in a virtual presentation with Jack Hanley gallery, featuring an introductory text by artist Wendy White, who served as the university’s Teiger Mentor in the Arts for the fall 2019 semester.

SVA, on the other hand, has presented a series of curated exhibitions of student work. *We Interrupt This Program…, curated by Regine Basha, presents a selection of projects by the school’s Fine Arts MFA graduates.

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Mónica Félix, Columbia University

Mónica Félix is no stranger to detective work. Her film Romance Tropical (2020) marks the most recent stage of a many-years-long project based on the 1934 film of the same name, long presumed lost. Rediscovered by the UCLA Film & Television Archive in 2017, it is thought to be the first Puerto Rican feature film with sound. Like many films of its era, its plot hinges on a colonial fantasy that filters the island through a fetishizing, Eurocentric gaze. This struck a chord with Félix, given her interests in analyzing representations of migration and colonialism, particularly when it comes to women. (She herself was born in raised in Cayey, Puerto Rico, and moved to the US 10 years ago.)

After researching Romance Tropical in the island’s National Archive in 2013, Félix created a series of black-and-white self portraits based on the information she was able to uncover about its plot and aesthetics, thus reframing a story so rooted in environmental and sexual conquest. Her latest phase of this project acts as an epilogue of sorts, isolating, recoloring, and reframing key scenes extracted from the original film.

Beyond Columbia’s platforms, Félix is presenting this body of work in an online exhibition, featuring archival material and critical texts on a website designed by Ben Gillin. While the format is not what she’d originally imagined, she hopes the presentation will still have it benefits: “I want visitors to know that from the start this was meant to bring a critical view to this part of Puerto Rican film history […] I hope it brings attention to the importance of the island’s saga with colonialism.” She will be presenting her work and research tonight, August 19, via an online public program with NYU’s CineCLACS Film Club.

Clare Koury, Columbia University

Clare Koury, “Feast of the Ascension (installation view and detail)” (2020), track light heads, corn kernels, double cherry tokens, Cosmic Brownies (image courtesy the artist)

If you peer closely at Clare Koury’s work, you might notice a few familiar materials. Cosmic brownies, corn kernels, and bits of old breakfast cereal are just as likely to appear as more traditional metallics and vinyl. Take her 2019 work “Time Capsule (Long Time),” which stuffs everything from abacus stones to a parking ticket into a oddly beguiling 55-foot-long PVC tube, preserving these various bits and bobs of detritus in a state of suspended entropy. (They can be examined more closely via an accompanying video, shot by affixing a camera to a drain snake.)

Koury’s sculpture “Feast of the Ascension” likewise pairs materials both domestic and industrial, while also nodding to her Catholic upbringing. It incorporates discarded track light heads, which she reworked into a piece that sits somewhere “between a file cabinet, farm feeder, and display structure — all containers which need filling,” as she noted via email. Like many students, Koury is less excited about the way her works translate to a virtual format:

When you present a work through a screen that wasn’t explicitly made for screen viewing, I think something is always lost. I’d say this is especially true with sculpture, which traffics in space and has the power to heighten a viewer’s awareness of their surroundings and their own body in relation to the thing in front of them.

While she acknowledges the immediacy of still images, she remains skeptical  of their aptitude: “You digest it quicker but it’s less filling.”

Paula Lycan, Columbia University

Paula Lycan, “As the Shadows Lengthen” (2020) (image courtesy the artist)

For Paula Lycan, photography offers a means of visualizing intimacy. Alternating between cool blues and stark monochrome, her breathtaking portraits often feature the people closest to her, including friends and her partner Cedar (pictured above). As she explained via email:

I’m often documenting our time together, photographing moments of stillness, vulnerability, or just playing in light in our environment. By photographing those I’m close to I’m photographing an image they see themselves and identify with. It’s important to me that their visions are or how they think of themselves as being portrayed.

When asked about her experience presenting her work virtually, Lycan noted the challenges of shifting away from more tactile, in-person presentations: “We’re constantly looking at a flood of digital images on a screen and are often desensitized to what we’re even looking at. […] I’m interested in exploring supplementing work with other aspects of art-making, like writing, audio, notebook scraps, anything to be more personal and closer.”

Yi Sa-Ra, Columbia University

When I began my current work, I reflected upon my situation of not having a safety net, both financially and socially,” explained filmmaker and video artist Yi Sa-Ra. Her forthcoming film, when stretched too thin, is part of a trilogy about women “confronted with the difficulties of immigration, unemployment, and alienation.” The trailer for when stretched too thin (a work in progress) offers a rhythmically shot sneak peek at a project attuned to small acts of rebellion, from the perspective of a woman who is struggling to chart her next steps. Faced with a crushing slew of disappointments after she moves from South Korea to New York, Yi’s protagonist is working to locate her own autonomy: “Even when I get rejected, I can take something away.”

Reflecting on the challenges of the shift to virtual presentations, Yi hit on an aspect I think often goes under-recognized with video work: “Our perception of time in relation to a moving image changes depending on the scale of the work and the condition of the space. […] I think artists, curators and staff can design the online platform more specific to each exhibition so that viewers can enter into a new space.”

Yasmeen Abedifard, Cornell University

Yasmeen Abedifard, Weeds (2020), digital comic, 8.5 x 11 inches (image courtesy the artist)

With her comic Weeds, Yasmeen Abedifard has injected some fresh humor into the recent surge in popularity of houseplants and home gardening amid the pandemic. Focused on “how the sometimes magical properties of plant life become an easily manipulative storytelling and worldbuilding device,” her digital comic playfully skewers an obsession with growth, teasing out the existential anxieties that often underpin such fixations.

While Abedifard’s work often begins digitally, she’s missed the experience of bringing it to a final physical form, “like a risograph printed book you can hold in your hands and interact with intimately,” as well as sharing her work with audiences at openings. She’s cautiously optimistic about the possibilities afforded by virtual platforms, which she recognizes come with their own formatting limitations: “I hope that times like these put older site formats, like Tumblr, back on the map, where multiple mediums can be shared in one space without conforming to the layout of the website.”

Emma Ulen-Klees, Cornell University

Emma Ulen-Klees, “Survey Studies – #14” (2020), Tusche on Watercolor paper, 16×20” (image courtesy the artist)

Scrolling through Cornell’s Jack Hanley presentation, Emma Ulen-Klees’s stark Survey Studies stuck with me thanks to their emphasis on highlighting the myriad flattening effects of cartography. This series is part of her larger thesis project, Bearing Objects, which “problematizes the lingering effects of the almost universal application of the Rectangular Survey System to an incredibly varied set of landscapes, ecosystems, and cultures.” Ulen-Klees’s straight lines and precise incisions emphasize the alienating effects of mapmaking.

“This series of work is so much about how we orient ourselves, both physically and psychologically, to landscape, and really trying to problematize the flattening effects of various forms of mapping, so not being able to create those same spatial relationships has been really hard,” the artist explained. She remains hopeful about the increased accessibility offered by virtual platforms. “Hopefully, this small selection of images will lead to further curiosity.”

Daniel Arturo Almeida, SVA

Daniel Arturo Almeida, “Matriarcas (Lilo)” (2020), inkjet photographic transfer on acrylic polymer, aluminum wire, wood, zip-ties and cart wheels, 42 x 54 x 19 inches (image courtesy La Salita)

Daniel Arturo Almeida’s thesis project Saludos a Nadie is intended as a “portrait of nostalgia, a nostalgia particular to Caracas, a city of vestiges, broken bonds and sudden goodbyes.”  The project was meant to be experienced as an immersive, unguided installation. Almeida describes his work as “centered on the mythology of personal and cultural stories that inform his experience as an itinerant queer Venezuelan creator.” Saludos a Nadie utilizes archival images and sculptures to trace the migration of generations of the artist’s own family, from their flight to Latin America from Spain at the end of the Franco regime through being forced to migrate yet again amid Venezuela’s ongoing political crises. Formal portraits sit alongside angularly cropped, leisurely images, dislocating the viewer’s understanding of time, place, and subject.

While presenting this project online has posed its challenges, Almeida has also figured out other ways to adapt his work to this sphere. With “Events on the Democratic Image,” he has debuted a selection “digitally reconfigured images that play with the idea of visual information, glitch poetry and recollection” — all of which would have been tricky to incorporate into his previous, physical installation plans. Likewise, he notes, “Virtual openings and panel conversations have been instrumental in creating meaningful yet informal exchanges with audiences […] no matter where they are located geographically.”

Maximilian Juliá, SVA

Maximilian Juliá, “Marco Telúrico” (2020), inkjet print, dirt pigments, fern leaves, acrylic polymer, root, 24 in x 36 inches (image courtesy the artist)

For his thesis project, Diarios del Fango (2020), Maximilian Juliá turned his sights to Puerto Rico, where he was raised and where much of his family still lives. His relationship to the island is complicated; growing up, he often felt disconnected from Puerto Rican culture, yet as an adult, his relationship to the continental US remained uneasy, tinged with a sense of exile and a lack of belonging. “Ni de aquí ni de allá,” he explains, invoking the common nomadic metaphor of being from neither here nor there. “My work is very much about self-discovery, an attempt to fill a void of disconnect, to overflow space in between nature and me,” Juliá notes in his project statement. He has channeled such dynamics into a diaristic seven-chapter project focused on reaffirming his relationship to his family’s farm in Puerto Rico — a site he has grown increasingly fascinated with from a distance, via care packages sent to him in the US by family members.

Presented as a website in lieu of a traditional catalog, Diarios del Fango documents Juliá’s process-based works composed of plant life, dirt, package scraps, and other materials connected to his family in Aguadilla. He had been on the brink of his annual review when the school shut down in March, and like many students, he experienced some emotional whiplash amid the sudden turn of events. While initially frustrated, he eventually found creating a video presentation of his project to be gratifying: “In a way, the virtual platform offered an opportunity to express those under the hood layers and complexities that might be meaningful. […] Perhaps that is something that is not entirely possible to grasp in a gallery setting.”

Tarah Rhoda, SVA

Tarah Rhoda, “Tear Apart Here: 2020 Vision” (2020) [Public event at Knockdown Center on NYE] Vanity mirrors, funnels, vinyl, inflatable globes, tubing, menthol (image courtesy the artist)

There’s something almost astonishing about the aptness of Tarah Rhoda’s thesis project, “Tear Apart Here,” given the times we’re living in. Intended to “exploit the feedback loop of embodied emotion by inducing tears in the user” via wearable prototypes or multi-user kiosks that emit minty vapors, the work compels users to take the first step toward reckoning with grief and the myriad other emotions we might be suppressing. In describing the project, which also includes an installation called “MournHub,” Rhoda hit the nail on its emotional head: “While watching ourselves cry fake tears may not be entirely convincing, seeing the streaks on another’s face is much more likely to cause an empathic and aroused reaction, regardless of the authenticity.” She asks, “What if people gathered in public places for emotional exercise, like we do physical workouts?”

Given the pandemic, such gatherings to emit bodily fluids are likely a long way off, but Rhoda’s project nonetheless gestures toward an acute societal need for catharsis. Beyond drawing attention to the absurdity of the fact that such complex mechanisms may actually be quite necessary to loosen the numbing grip of the news cycle, Rhoda’s project feels doubly resonant as we continue to contend with the grave circumstances of the present. She explains:

The psychosomatic intervention functions both as a speculative technology and as a satirical reflection on the psychological resistance of the climate crisis, the potency of tears, and the commodification of grief. […] it was designed for a very different reality than the one it woke up to: a fast paced society that had recently come to a halt, an apathetic culture that suddenly had an abundance of tears. 

Though this a particularly tricky project to adapt to a virtual setting, Rhoda already has a few ideas, including prototypes that can be reconfigured for individual at-home use. Cleverly, she notes that “The accessory can be employed for anything from wellness exercises to enriched theater experiences, like emotional dumbbells or 3D glasses.” Here’s to exercising our emotional muscles as much as our abs.

As summer winds down, Hyperallergic is continuing to highlight some of the superb work produced by recent MFA graduates from around the country.Read MoreArticles, 2020 Virtual MFAs, columbia university, Cornell University, New York, School of Visual ArtsHyperallergicRead More

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