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Low Residency MFA Show 2018 Embraces Inquiry and Vulnerability

The show included photography, installation, and performance.

By Arts & Culture

“Public Weigh In”, Jessica Mueller, 2018. Photograph by Maria Emilia Escudero.

Entering SAIC’s Sullivan Galleries for the 2018 Low Residency MFA show, it was easy to fall into a slow walk while following Tim Lancey’s photographs (MFA 2018) spaced evenly along the white wall. The photographs, quiet landscapes, were one of the more solitary moments in the exhibition. Lamey’s light wood frames suggested the images’ origins: log yards, stacks of wooden boards, and barren panoramas. The humble wood at the center of Lamey’s work lends itself to grander questions. In his artist statement, he asks, “If all environments now bear the mark of human influence, what is nature?” The knots of this inquiry were complicated, wound taught as visitors move through the exhibition: the 2018 Low Residency MFA cohort is unafraid of pointed inquiry in their work.

In an evening of activations by four of the twenty-seven artists in the show, Ayo Janeen Jackson (MFA 2018) used a more fantastical narrative to address her questions. Jackson’s film Watch Night accompanied her installation heiress to a vision of forbidden gardens. While her film was steeped in contemporary inside jokes and remarks on race through the narrative of an immortal unicorn bearing the weight of black pain, the accompanying installation was embroiled in art historical ties. AstroTurf, speckled with cotton seeds, hung from the wall. It folded onto the floor of the gallery, and held  a small circular fence containing a cut mirror silhouette in the shape of a female form with a unicorn horn leaping between its posts. The wall text accompanying the piece situated Jackson’s work alongside the medieval tapestry The Hunt of the Unicorn and a documentary photograph of a civil rights era protest. Rather than distance the work from its lineage in art history, the work inserted itself unapologetically and reclaimed a whitewashed past with historical documentation.

Unlike other student shows exhibited in Sullivan, which accommodate student numbers in the hundreds, the Low Residency MFA Show fills the galleries with both artwork and breathing room in between. Guest curator and SAIC graduate Kate Pollasch noted this was both an outcome of the exhibitions’ circumstances and her own curatorial practice.

“Visual space around work is just as important as the work itself,” she said. “Viewers need time to both participate with the work and then process what they’ve just seen.” In the maze that is the Sullivan Galleries, there is ample room for processing, which is particularly necessary in a show spanning topics ranging from phenomenology to disco dancing. Of course, these leaps in content may not be so grand when one considers that the artists’ work arrives at SAIC rather than being produced in studios at the school.

The Low Residency MFA program’s web page describes the unifying theme of the Low Residency MFA  as “acknowledg[ing] that contemporary artists and writers have a fluidity of practice that often adopts strategies that are not specific to any one medium, method, or environment.” Over seven semesters, three of which are spent on campus over the summer, the Low Residency MFA affords working artists the opportunity to engage in academia via online courses and correspondence. And, like the more traditional on-campus MFA, the program concludes with a final group show.

The main puzzle of the show was weighing the spatial concerns with the conceptual, said Pollasch. Though not a unique conundrum in contemporary curatorial practice, a large group show such as the Low Residency MFA show poses a more fearsome challenge in highlighting the relations between what could appear as disparate works. Speaking to this concern, Pollasch noted, “No artist is talking about the same thing, but the context of each work bounces off the other.”

One can imagine the works doing more than simply bouncing off each other. Their contents bleed between installations and performances such that they feel part of the same narrative. In Raquel Mullin’s installation, a worn Velveteen-Rabbit-like stuffed Grover sits atop a pedestal in the corner. And though he is reanimated with patches covered in glittering beads to cover his embarrassing threadbare skin, he is alone. Not to be touched, yet begging for a hug. Such an piece could have belonged to artist Jessica Mueller’s children—who she discusses in her artist book-cum-manifesto for Mother Artists, and who performed with her in the evening of activations.

The range of work contained in the Low Residency MFA show was remarkably tied together, no doubt because of the expansive curatorial work. Alongside Pollasch were three Graduate Curatorial Assistants: Monica Morriss, Sanra Shim, and Lindsay Bell. Shim and Bell produced the Evening of Activations on July 25, while Morriss provided curatorial support through the entire show. Reflecting on the curatorial process, Morriss said that it was immediately apparent in the studio visits with artists, all conducted online via video chat, that there was a thematic of “fearless vulnerability” across the works.

Fearless can mean many things in the context of this show: lifting two elementary-aged children onto your body for a jungle-gym weigh in, as a single mother (as in Jessica Mueller’s Public Weigh In); pin-pricking ditties (“…loves me…loves me not…”) through paper so they are only subtly visible (as in Marika Whitaker’s work across installations and artist books); or declaring, as Morgan Green did in their found poetry performance Spamhearst, “I am finite. I am finite. I am finite.” These simple sentiments, proclamations of the artists’ fearless vulnerability, were made more curious by the necessary proximity between them. Rather than a repetition, these relations felt more like relatives, each living and occupying the same spaces although they may have come from miles and miles apart. Despite the distance between its makers, the work in the show revealed a shared DNA.

The 2018 SAIC Low Residency Show was on view from July 13-29 at the Sullivan Galleries with an Evening of Activations on July 25th.

The artists included in the show were: Kathryn Alder, tosh basco, Marjorie Boyles, Jason Bulluck, C Alex Clark, Laura Drey, Elisabeth Dzuricsko, Margarita Fainshtein, Morris Fox, Brendan Getz, Morgan Harris Green, Ayo Janeen Jackson, Tyler Kirkholm, Natalya Kochak, Tim Lamey, Ambrin Ling, Kera Ling, Tyler Morgan, Jessica Mueller, Raquel Mullins, Yanique Norman, Joanne Tepper Saffren, Kris Schaedig, Galina Shevchenko, Nancy Murphy Spicer, Marika Whitaker, Maggie Wong.

The 2018 Low Residency Show was overseen by the Department of Exhibitions with Guest Curator Kate Pollasch and Graduate Curatorial Assistants Monika Morris, Sandra Shim, and Lindsay Bell, with support from Director of Exhibitions, Kate Zeller.

Note: The author is a Graduate Curatorial Assistant at the Sullivan Galleries but was not involved in the production of the Low Residency Show.

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