Vito Acconci 1940-2017
“Think of this world as a white sheet of paper- a blank page. Get past dreaming and doodling. We can use that page to make fictions on for one thing and to make calculations on for another” and proposing new strategies that stretched far beyond gallery walls and limitations. As a colleague, I knew Vito was hooked when he’d lean over and say, “That one is onto something really interesting, right? I can’t figure it out.”
—Vito Acconci, Research Station, Antarctica, For Your Ears Only, 2004
This spring, as the students in this exhibition prepared their projects, we learned of the death of their beloved professor and our respected colleague Vito Acconci. Many words will be written in the months to come about his prodigious talent and the uniqueness of his vision, but for now, as these students set their own ideas in motion, I want to focus on the present moment and on how Vito’s influence can be seen in the MFA program here today.
An MFA program, if it’s worth anything, is founded on conversations. Often these conversations are a bit of a dance as we try to find common language to describe visual sensations and to fill the gulf between the artist’s intentions and the complicated perceptions of the viewer. For many of us, it will be his constant questioning of existing conditions that comes to mind when we think of a conversation with Vito Acconci. Often he might say, “I just don’t know how to talk about x or y”. And then he would proceed to do just that, all the while asking probing questions about not just the work at hand but about the whole enterprise of art making in the first place. This could be terrifying because he was charming, always, but was asking foundational questions that would not and will not go away. He left nowhere to hide. What would set the student free in this situation, was when they matched Vito’s curiosity with their own. Then the conversation could lead anywhere, breaking down conventions, and proposing new strategies that stretched far beyond gallery walls and limitations. As a colleague, I knew Vito was hooked when he’d lean over and say, “That one is onto something really interesting, right? I can’t figure it out.”
The students graduating in this last year of Vito’s long teaching career are “onto something”. They have drawn a circle around their beliefs and intentions and have thrown in their lot as visual artists. During the last two years of conversation, their work has shifted. Some have changed mediums completely, some have burrowed into their craft, testing it for all its worth. This group has been taught that their ideas, however, are not contained by media categories or any other external boundaries, but only by imaginary lines. Our students have learned that they can choose to move within these boundaries or boldly challenge them but no one in Vito’s orbit can pretend that the boundaries are real limits. They are there to be played with, transgressed, and torn down. All this done in an effort to see clearly, to define our own life’s work, and to determine our place in the future. As this cohort pauses here to examine their collective effort, staged in this space claimed for art, it is hoped that the artists continue to commit fully to exploring the world’s complexities, ambivalences, and incongruities.
—Jennifer McCoy April 30, 2017
After two years of intense focus in their studios, these thirteen artists are embarking on a new beginning—an opportunity to build on their momentum and the direction they have honed through critique, research, and experimentation. Their themes range widely from body politics to power to identity to mythology to the exploration of place. Regardless of specific focus, there are shared undercurrents of cultural and physical anxiety, displeasure with boundaries (in media, gender, and otherwise), and a search for healing. Through various media and thirteen very unique practices, the work in Commencement offers a glimpse into the concerns and preoccupations of our society as a whole. What makes them unique is the humor and beauty with which they approach these difficult subjects. To talk about pain and gender through so sculpture, or identity by repeating the image of a quirky tropical plant, or disease through delicate abstractions on glass, is to take personal, overwhelming subject matter and make it relatable. These artists have taken their passions and experiences as a starting point and distilled them down to aesthetically and conceptually rich work in an effort to create dialogue. Although this exhibition marks the end of formal study, it is the commencement of thirteen promising careers in the arts.
Matthew Benson is a photographer with a complicated relationship to his medium. While his work is grounded in traditional set-up photography, using still-lifes in a studio, his interests in alchemy and mark making thwart expected outcomes, transforming recognizable imagery into painterly washes of color, line, and gesture. Benson uses everyday chemicals such as hand sanitizer to disrupt the documentary and uncover expressive and almost magical possibilities—blurring the lines between media.
Yu Tien Chang critiques power dynamics across cultures. Using clay, he creates masterful figurative sculptures to depict businessmen and employees, “bosses,” politicians, and those of us consumed with technology. Pig, dog, rooster, and rabbit heads replace the human heads on his clothed, ultimately humanoid hybrids. They speak to societal pressure, unequal power dynamics, and a sense of being trapped in a world of money and technology.
Tammi Dow presents a photographic series of portraits that take your breath away. Slathered, smothered, poked, and pierced, the features of Dow’s subjects are obscured and contorted by a variety of restrained, yet arresting materials. Alluding to violence, abuse, bondage, pleasure, and a host of disturbing scenes from the horror movies of her youth, the pieces are at once photographic and psychological studies.
Kenny Faith is an abstract painter who filters his experiences through color, form, and rhythm. His large-scale canvasses envelope the viewer with their map-like qualities, indicating place within an undulating landscape of color and line. Titles denote specific locales and narratives, but the overall experience of the work is visceral.
We’ve all seen the towns in John Harris’s photographs, but exactly where and when is difficult to pinpoint. His documentary images are studies in light, architecture, and the economic realities of America outside of its big cities. Disappearing coal, factory, and agricultural towns begin to take on the same pallor with parallel weariness and arresting beauty. Where the image was shot is secondary to the mystery of what lies within, under, and around the familiar facades.
Clarence Hause’s life-size charcoal drawings of male figures are sexually charged beings, caught in a graphic, white void. A simple read of bondage and homoeroticism is complicated by several factors, including video that brings a version of these characters to life. Mysticism pervades the films as hybrid humans occupy a space of fantasy, spirituality, and a dark unknown. Animals and their signifiers often accompany the humans, offering an alternate reality.
Zachary Lombardi is an inventor of the strange and whimsical. His beautifully crafted wood sculptures are made with use in mind. However, each piece’s utility (a seat for a fruit bat or a chaise for a chimera) is highly improbable. Lombardi considers form and function equally, yet his clients are not likely to appreciate either. The resulting sculptures are manifestations of improbable dreams belonging more to a world of curiosities than a place in the wild.
Cheng Luo’s paintings are inner reflections and personal opportunities to heal. Their color palette and composition o en blur the boundaries between landscape and interior space. Sometimes alluding to the visceral, inner workings of the body, the paintings also call to mind a storm brewing on the ocean, a waterfall, or natural phenomena when swirling winds of a hurricane circle the calm eye of a storm.
Benjamin Lyon engages in a repetitive and meditative practice—from suturing Cheez-It boxes to intricate drawing—all the while embracing anarchy. Most recently, he’s constructed a world of highly organized chance. The surface of one large-scale, floor-based piece is a delicate paper map boasting thousands of hand-drawn circles—a variety of smiley faces, pills, brand logos, and the like. Together, they comprise the maze-like substrata for a city built of discarded lottery tickets. The juxtaposition between the colorful architecture and the black and white ground creates a dizzying effect, mimicking the effects of his subject matter.
Tommy Mavra is a storyteller. By painting in series, he presents narratives that address, among other things, our relationship to nature. In this particular set of paintings, without ever showing a human figure, Mavra relates the dark story of a little girl’s loss and subsequent mistrust of the wild. Eventually, she comes around to find a home in the river. While the story is timeless, hints of contemporary life—a 6-pack ring tangled in the weeds, for example—allude to an overarching exploration of emotional and environmental concerns.
Rose Nestler’s larger-than-life depictions of the body distill us down to parts via loveable soft sculptures of feet, ears, and other o en- sexualized body parts. However, the viewer’s initial attraction to playful fabrics and huggable volume are replaced by awkward, humorous, sometimes painful, always deeply complex performances and resulting videos. When two people—often men—are dressed in these body parts and placed in nature, for instance, the resulting interactions confuse a simple reading of gender and leave the viewer laughing and unnerved.
Joshua Shelstad’s paintings and sculptures are deceiving in their graphic simplicity—
color suspended on glass. Through seemingly monochromatic abstract explorations, he is combining organic and inorganic substances to explore and manipulate life cycles. Shelstad works in the studio to grow mold: to visualize its beauty, its unexpected proliferation, and its decay. His studio practice relates quite poignantly to a world of age-defying products and drugs to cure disease and delay death. This delicate work encapsulates his focus on bodies and their preservation.
Estefania Velez Rodriguez describes herself as a liminal creature lodged between passing and failing at a multicultural, Hispanic-American identity. She examines her awkward relationship to being Puerto Rican, a Floridian, and a New Yorker through art. Often humorous, the images are colorful and raw. Videos show poignant, futile actions such as rowing to nowhere on a makeshi boat; Drawings of house plants speak to the simultaneity of being desired and trapped as the exotic other with tropical fronds licking the edges of the frame, but never breaching the perimeter; Oil paintings explore loss, sexuality, and insecurity. Together, they explore contemporary identity.
Heather Darcy Bhandari