April 22, 2014

Message to the MFA class of 2014


This year I curated "Possible as a Pair of Shoes," the Brooklyn College MFA thesis exhibition, which opens this Friday at Show Room in Gowanus. On Saturday, May 3, 3-6 pm, I'll be hosting a Curator's Afternoon at the gallery, so please stop by and join the conversation. The exhibition title is borrowed from "Description," a 2012 poem by Christopher Stackhouse:


Uniformity, radicality, fundamental tools of
Communication, language, argument, parameter
Balance, composition, status quo, modesty
Economical, economy, gravity and its opposite
Re-orienting, the historicity of human narrative
Af-am contribution to Abstraction, variation
Pattern making, smallness versus the typified
‘Grand gesture’, to write as one draws, geometric
lines, subsets confined and confirmed by points
Beauford Delaney, Edward Bannister, Gerhard Richter
Ellsworth Kelly’s yellow square, infinities of touch
Direction, dimension, germinal, caterwauling
Subjunctive, possible as a pair of shoes, vernacular
Viewing conditions, talent as an elitist construction
If you believe that, some sense of struggle, the pleasure
Of making things, disporting orders, a balustrade of indices
Any number of any particular series or random singular
Selection, an out of place pubic hair, centipede scurrying
On the wall, wind, sirens, a shadow cast in many directions
Some preoccupation with, falling, startled, a commensurate wish
Looking hard enough, or not looking at all, but through will
Paling contrast, tempting the dark, a phenomenal asterisk
In his poem, a manifesto of sorts, Stackhouse compiles an evocative list of the preoccupations he had concerning a particular series of drawings in the studio. He lists the work of Beauford Delaney, Edward Bannister, and Gerhard Richter along with Ellsworth Kelly ’s yellow square as important touchstones, as well as: “…an out of place pubic hair, centipede scurrying/On the wall, wind, sirens, a shadow cast in many directions.”

Anyone who has ever attempted to write an artist’s statement knows that motivations are elusive, aesthetic concerns constantly shifting. Nevertheless, the artist continues his/her work and, through the process of making it, develops a deeper understanding of what makes it sing.


The remarkable work completed by the students in the Brooklyn College MFA program over the last two year (and by MFA students whose work is on display throughout the city in the coming weeks) is, as Stackhouse would say, germinal. The artist statements each artist composed about his or her work, however tentative and mutable, will likely provide a foundation for future work. In time, the “caterwauling subjunctive” that has gotten the students this far – that is, a fervent but inchoate wish to make work that illuminates what’s in their hearts and minds – will resolve itself into a more authoritative focus that enables them to impart to their work just what they want to say.

Looking at the diverse work in "Possible as a Pair of Shoes," several promising directions emerge. They range from political activism, biology, and the tension between physical presence and online space, to more personal approaches that explore memory, process, and emotional experience. Not surprisingly, given our trying economic times and the early point at which we meet these young artists’ on their respective creative arcs, themes of doubt and uncertainty are embedded throughout.

In their sculptural installations, Dallas George Owens and Kate Ostler plumb the urgent political issues facing our nation today, particularly wealth inequality and global corporations’ abuse of power. While Owens decries human folly, the seductiveness of artificial distractions, and our acceptance of “immoral governance,” Ostler is inspired by workers’ ability to organize and affect change.

For Emily Johnson and A.S. (Stephanie) Mastroianni, process is paramount. Johnson’s involves shredding pages from romance novels and knotting hemp to make large wall pieces that reflect how studio rituals speak to loneliness and isolation. Mastroianni explores the tension between control and chance in her brightly-colored pour paintings. Julie S. Paveglio’s paintings also incorporate a highly-saturated palette, using imagery from children’s toys and stories to evoke the wonder and unqualified emotions of childhood.

Memory looms large in this exhibition, with Yeimi Salazar, Fernando Pintado, Christina Malfitano, Veronika Golova, and Daniel Rivera-Cruz each using remembered experiences, emotional history, and pop-culture references from childhood in their work. For use during a performance during the exhibition opening, Salazar has crafted a festival piƱata using letters that spell “lorando,” or, in English, “crying,” which, paradoxically, can be a response to both suffering and happiness.

Rivera-Cruz mines his family’s record collection, latching onto Latino pop stars to examine notions of machismo and male identity. Pintado combines poetry, printmaking, performance, and video in a conversation about memory and the random, perhaps poetic, thoughts that run through our minds. Malfitano pilfers memories from her friends, crafting plaster objects to memorialize each. Golova paints dark, oozing landscape images that hazily straddle the line between what is known and what can never be known.

Caitlin Clifford is also drawn to shifting perceptions. In her multi-material installations, she considers the personal narratives we develop about specific places and images, both in real life and online, and how the stories (and places) inevitably change over time. Photographer Lisa Stack finds resonant content in her family’s neighborhood, documenting the odd combination of collections assembled by her mother’s friend Pinky Aber. These include naughty phallic-themed objects and figurines inside her house, and, in contrast, rather innocent, predominantly pink children’s tableaux arranged around the yard.

Ariana Foote, Linda Lee Nicholas, and Steve Yancar find meaning in enlargements, outtakes, and details. Foote has selected frames from film noir as the basis for an enigmatic series of moody monoprints that may or may not be related. Yancar, who recreates sections of conversations found in foreign films, has placed dueling video monitors opposite each other in a claustrophobic, cube-like space. Nicholas renders images on mylar that seem like biological samples seen through a microscope.


In “Possible as a Pair of Shoes” we see artists at the starting point of their creative lives, in the process of discovering what their work is about. I asked Christopher Stackhouse whether his poem was indeed a manifesto. “The poem is about looking beyond looking, thinking, among other things,” he told me. “The poem is really about a range of things, but it situates 'the maker' as being in constant state of thoughtful address to the process, to the object being made in the presence of all of the things that have been and are being made.”

And that is what I hope for the MFA class of 2014. As they move forward, they must remember to be mindful about the relationship between object (or action) and meaning. Keep making, keep looking, keep thinking.

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"Possible as a Pair of Shoes," curated by Sharon Butler. Show Room, Gowanus, Brooklyn, NY. April 25 through May 5, 2014. Stay tuned for installation shots of the show.

NOTE: All images are courtesy of Christopher Stackhouse. "Description" was originally published in Plural, a book of Stackhouse's poems published by Counterpath Press in 2012.

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