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Megan Enderschmidt (from right to left), <i>Anyone can be the A in Ally in LGBTQIA2-S</i>, 2015; <i>Her Column</i>, 2015;
<i>Core Sample of Missing Ancient Appendages</i>, 2014. (Photo by Phil Bond)
Megan Enderschmidt (from right to left), Anyone can be the A in Ally in LGBTQIA2-S, 2015; Her Column, 2015; Core Sample of Missing Ancient Appendages, 2014. (Photo by Phil Bond)

The Terrible Truth about MFA Shows

The Terrible Truth about MFA Shows

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Ah, the MFA show.

The culmination of two years (or, in the case of SF State, three years) of existential questions, all-nighters and periodic epiphanies. For visual artists about to graduate from Bay Area MFA programs, the thesis show is a type of coming-out party, a formal announcement of their imminent arrival on the scene.

But to viewers, MFA shows can look more like free-for-alls than prim and proper affairs. Some schools attempt to assign organizing principles to their exhibitions, relying on vague, ultimately say-nothing titles. If the graduating class is too large to fit in an elevator together, the end result is usually a giant rambling conflagration of student practices too disparate to gather into coherency.

Which is all to say, MFA shows are notoriously bad.

Artists are pressured to either represent their entire grad school trajectory in one confused display, or to outshine their peers, producing “look at me” spectacles verging on disaster. But every now and then, amid the fracas, truly eye-catching or thought-provoking practices emerge that make the whole thing worthwhile.


Can’t get to all the MFA-season offerings, but still wonder what this crop of graduates will bring to the Bay Area art scene?

Join me for a shambling dance through the fine art departments of UC Berkeley, California College of the Arts, Mills College, the San Francisco Art Institute and San Francisco State University. (Sorry, Stanford, San Jose and Davis, there’s just one of me.)

UC Berkeley Graduate MFA Exhibition

May 15–Jun. 14, 2015
Berkeley Art Center

Berkeley’s graduating class is just six students strong, fitting nicely inside the octagonal walls of the Berkeley Art Center. While the methods, materials and aesthetic sensibilities of the featured artists couldn’t be more discrete, the exhibition achieves a kind of cohesion through thoughtful pairings. Michelle Ott and Tanja Geis investigate relationships between humans and the natural world; in Geis’ work, this means delving into the contents of the San Francisco Bay. Ott presents photographs of nearly-invisible plastic trash, altered with thin cuts through the print surface, and angled slightly on the wall to catch the light. The result is delicate and entrancing.

Lee Lavy and Sofie Ramos use their studios as staging grounds for the accumulation, reordering and dismantling of physical stuff. In Ramos’ mesmerizing stop motion video decorate/defecate, colorful objects rearrange within a white room, gaining coats of paint and sprouting polka dots seemingly of their own accord. The tools of these transformations (a stool, a paint bucket) appear sporadically in a nod to the artist’s presence between frames. Matt Smith Chavez’s muted inkjet prints and works on muslin explore the familiar territory of reproduction and the proliferation of images. And finally, Leslie Dreyer offers the most timely work of the bunch, presenting the props and documentation of interventions at a Google bus stop and tech conference, disrupting the idyll of the Berkeley Art Center with a reminder of the “everyday injustices” in danger of being classified as old news.

CCA 2015 MFA Thesis Show

May 14–23, 2015
California College of the Arts

If you think CCA’s MFA exhibition is unwieldy with 50 artists, just wait till we get to SFAI. Arranged within the nave and adjoining classrooms of CCA’s San Francisco campus, the grads showcase everything from video and performance work to kinetic sculpture and ceramics. Aesthetic standouts include Micah Wood’s paintings and colorful wall-mounted steel cut-outs, Hannah Olivia Nelson’s illusionistic photograph Kindling the Lode, Maria Capron’s ceramics-based installation and Beryl Bevilacque’s tight arrangement of packing materials as sculptural objects. Josh Stulen’s ongoing investigation into the history and future of Candlestick Park is obsessive and expansive, yielding unexpectedly beautiful moments like the jumbled sounds of a Beatles concert on a cast red wax record. And in an “art about the art world” moment, Monte Masi provides a drily narrated tour of 155 e-flux emails in his inbox.

Terra Incognita: Mills 2015 MFA Exhibition

May 2–31, 2015
Mills College Art Museum

Mills offers its ten graduate students by far the finest exhibition space, with a museum setting, professional lighting, fully-darkened screening spaces and walls that go all the way to the ceiling. Megan Enderschmidt’s wonderful stacked sculptures greet visitors outside the museum as radical alternatives to monumental architecture. In Malena Lopez-Maggi’s video, Best of Beasts Vol. 1: Ziggy Stardust, Martha Stewart, Judy Chicago, a POV camera records the artist’s gloved hands peeling away layers of plastic, foam and glitter in an engrossing examination of gooey materials with a soundtrack of muffled breathing. Nearby, in luxurious darkness, Jess Smith’s outsourced video project tells the disjointed and often hilarious story of people using the UDTEE pet carrier (think Baby Bjorn for your chihuahua). The award for the most magical display goes to Sara Kerr, whose water clock, installed in the museum’s darkened tower up a flight of steep stairs, marks the exhibition’s run with accumulated drops of water falling from a suspended scrim into a plastic cylinder below.

SFAI MFA Exhibition: Edge Effect

May 14–17, 2015
Pier 2, Fort Mason Center

Leaving behind the Old Mint, SFAI’s MFA show is installed art-fair style within Fort Mason Center’s Pier 2. Weighing in at 95 participating artists, the display is akin to CCA’s. But it’s twice the size and more provisional, given the exhibition’s abbreviated time frame. It’s a shame the SFAI grads don’t get more time to show off all their hard work, but a few students made lasting impressions. Raheleh “Minoosh” Zomorodinia’s videos show a canny knack for self-reflexive humor. Sam Spano’s installation of pattern-filled paintings and Matthew Goldberg’s ceramics combine sculpture with real-life objects — tennis balls and canned tomatoes, to name just two — in surreal and amusing tableaux. And Skye Bennet’s three-channel video piece, Accelerated Sensation, captures every exquisite detail as four figures move in slow motion through a desaturated desert landscape.

San Francisco State University

Apr. 25–May 16, 2015
Fine Arts Building, Fine Arts Gallery

Staged earlier than the rest, the SF State MFA show features just four artists, giving them a fair amount of real estate and three whole weeks on view. The star of the show is Alexandra Lederer, with a four-part installation concerning memories of her late father. In one piece, the full back-end of a Camaro convertible juts out of a gallery wall with a boom and sail hanging above it, positioned as if the front of the car has driven through to the “other side.” A U2 album plays on a continuous loop from the car’s speakers. In a gesture she calls “filling his bucket,” Lederer’s installation gives shape to the epic around-the-world journey she and her father intended to take upon his retirement.


Further into the exhibition, Centa Schumacher shows a three-channel video made by augmenting the lens of her camera with a crystal “selected for its mystical properties.” Viewed from the scratchy seat of a church pew, Shcumacher’s installation is chapel-like and ethereal. Brittany M. Powell investigates the faces of American debt through formal portraiture, video and handwritten testimonials. And Randy Sarafan rounds out the show with a group of domestic objects engineered into sexualized semi-functionality: a bed that chases people, a clear plastic chair with a camera mounted below, a guitar made into a cousin of the Fleshlight.

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