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Art Review

Debauchery and David Lynch: SFAI's 2012 MFA Exhibition

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Jon Gourley

It's always hard to wrap my brain around the San Francisco Art Institute MFA show. Among all the art schools in the Bay Area, SFAI's graduating class tends to be the largest, the most diverse and -- often -- the most unruly. It usually takes a couple of visits to fully consider what's on offer. This year's show, the college's 134th spring exhibition, was held last weekend at the Phoenix Hotel.

On the whole, the exhibition had a strong, subterranean, "after the after-party" vibe, which may be a comment on our post-crash times or a more immediate response to the Phoenix, a small hotel situated between Polk Gulch and the Tenderloin. The hotel regularly hosts mid-level rock bands on their way through town, and is also the site for ArtPadSF, one of three art fairs coming to the city this weekend. I can see some advantages to showing at this particular venue -- students were provided an opportunity to create any kind of dialogue they wished with a site that would shortly become an art market. And out in the real world, artists are often asked to translate their work into unusual and often inconvenient spaces. The only beef I have with SFAI is the length of the exhibition. I spent a couple of hours at the show on Saturday, but when comparing notes with a friend who checked out the exhibition on Sunday, I realized that I had overlooked some of the works he felt were the strongest. The paltry three-day schedule precluded a return visit for another, deeper and thereby more well-informed look.

Though I am assured that many of the students really enjoyed the venue (and in some cases that enthusiasm shined through), a couple artists (Li Chen and Bingjie Li) got together to create a protest piece reacting against it. Blackening out the windows of their room with newspaper and using scrawled notes, snapshots of Occupy actions and blue painter's tape, the artists outlined the piece they would have made if: the space didn't suck, they had more money, they had more time, etc. I can appreciate the installation as a set of instructions encouraging the viewer to participate, and, in a sense, finish the art for themselves. I have been wondering how the Occupy movement might inflect young artists grappling with mounting student loan debt and welcomed the institutional critique. On the other hand, the "work" also made me think, "Suck it up! It is your job as an artist to make something out of nothing." Then again, the artists did provoke a reaction...

So, here I am, sucking it up and trying to work within the limitations outlined above. There is no way I can do justice to the work of 96 artists on view in the hotel's 41 rooms and internal courtyard. What I can do is provide a small glimpse of the pieces that provoked the most thought (at least for me).

I'm Good for Whenever, Bro by Ryland Cook; Photo by Leon Borensztein.

When I was an undergrad at SF State in the late eighties, I spent a good deal of time working with friends at the Art Institute and have always felt the place was haunted by a dark, edgy and somewhat dangerous mystique. This year's show did little to dispel that impression. Images of sex and drug use recur regularly throughout the exhibition; there is even an entire installation (Ryland Cook's I'm Good for Whenever, Bro) of what looks like a surf shack or a cabin in the woods decked out with spent beer bottles and a bong. At night I am sure it looks like a scene straight out of Twin Peaks, perhaps the cabin where Laura Palmer met her violent, drug-fuelled end. But what works is the level of detail.

Is That All There Is? by Rebecca Levitan

That same immersive feeling permeates Rebecca Levitan's installation. I think this piece is the one that stayed with me the most vividly. There is something pure genius about writing "Is that all there is?" in cake. For one thing, when you first enter the room, the sickening sweet smell of frosting hits your nostrils, generating a disorienting nausea. The block letters are carefully constructed on the wall, but the cake is crumbling and almost gone. The party is over; someone else has already eaten most of the cake and we are left to consider the crumbs.

Gurney by Carrie Sinclair Katz

Carrie Sinclair Katz reinforces this feeling with the simple gesture of a hospital gurney thrown into the hotel pool. It glints silver and beautific in the sun, light reflections bounce around in the water, but -- submerged -- the equipment reminds me of medical waste, an argument over health care drowned.

Pete Hickok

Pete Hickok's installation of what I called the "Happy Mattress" in one of the hotel's bathrooms follows along these lines. It calls to mind those terrible TV documentaries where investigative "journalists" take black lights into hotel rooms to reveal the sorry state of the bedding. For me, though it is the angle of the afterglow smile that seals the deal.

It Hasn't Happened Since by James Mitchell Perley

Artists Eliane Lima and James Mitchell Perley constructed a room, which can still be viewed this weekend during ArtPadSF, in honor of filmmaker George Kuchar, who taught at SFAI for decades and passed away last September. The beloved San Francisco filmmaker made great, wacky and very kinky films with his brother, Mike, in the 1960s, inspiring a young John Waters to pick up his own camera. Perley's piece (spookily echoing a scene from David Lynch's Lost Highway) takes full advantage of the setting, reproducing a hotel room within the room and populating it with a video camera pointed at the bed and a television that plays back this surveillance footage. Lima projects videos onto the toilet and into the shower. Both pieces generate a lurid sense of shady goings on, with images that could be considered graphic, but are actually just usually hidden or unseen parts of ordinary life.

To George Kuchar by Eliane Lima

Catherine U-Thasoonthorn; Photo by Leon Borensztein.

I really liked Catherine U-Thasoonthorn's giant clipboard sculptures. I loved the level of detail put into making monumental a mundane -- and probably increasingly obsolete (in the age of computer tablets) -- piece of office equipment. Also, I enjoy feeling like the Incredible Shrinking Man, and only wish there had been an accompanying large pencil.

Carolyn Jean Martin

It was nice to see the students take full advantage of the spaces provided. In one, the bathroom was populated with golden army men (by Carolyn Jean Martin) that seemed to be exploding out of the plumbing. I have no idea what this means, and when discussing it with a friend, his interpretation was that the army men were going DOWN the drain, rather than coming up out of it.

Jon Gourley

I also enjoyed Jon Gourley' notes, lovely little text nuggets pinned to the wall. I could have missed these with all the louder art about, but I'm glad I didn't; the writing is great.

History by Dara Lorenzo

Dara Lorenzo's litho prints of underpasses and particularly mottled squares of sidewalk made me really happy. I love to concentrate on patterns of use, on the evidence people leave as they go about their daily lives.

Oren Lukatz

I noticed a few photographers who seemed to be in dialogue with Bechtle, Hido, Friedlander and Sugimoto (see above for Lukatz's cinematic imagery of mundane settings). But how could you pick up a camera and not have something to add to that conversation?

Any number of other paths, themes and stories could have been constructed to describe the work in this exhibition, so perhaps I have revealed too much about myself through what I have chosen to concentrate on. But isn't that always the truth?

What follows is a slideshow (including photos by Leon Borensztein) of EVEN MORE art from the San Francisco Art Institute's MFA Exhibition, which took place May 11-13, 2012 at the Phoenix Hotel in San Francisco.

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