Attending the MFA show at one of the Bay Area's large art schools is like getting bludgeoned by art. After about a half-dozen presentations I am full, my critical faculties have been short-circuited and I have been forced into submission. Think about it, at any given group show, you might see one or two pieces from (at the most) twenty artists. Or on any Art Murmur or First Thursday outing, you might visit five or ten solo shows. Now imagine seeing the fully articulated visions of 75 brand new artists all gathered into one place; that's the 2013 California College of the Arts MFA experience.
The show begins with a pile of garbage, all the discards from the installation process gathered by Ilyse Iris Magy and presented in an effort to make the show a "zero waste" event. But this detritus keeps reappearing (smashed car safety glass in Lindsey Lyons' mysterious installation, or photographed collections in Phillip Maisel's Stacked series); the show is populated with whole worlds of stuff. It reminds me of a line from Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds wherein San Francisco is described as an anthill at the foot of a bridge. Many of the exhibits feel like they have been pieced together with bits found at some imaginary excavation site. These artists, these ants, have brought their individual nuggets back to the group and are wildly gesticulating, communicating through scent or the rubbing of antennae about what they have found. There are times when the CCA MFA show feels that primal.
Ilyse Iris Magy
Philip Maisel, Stacked II
Caitlin Terry, Untitled
Or is it that the work seems strangely depopulated? Tim Powers' series Dispatches from an Unfinished Landscape, Christopher Fedorak's suburban photographs, and Elizabeth Moran's staged sets depict something left over, evidence of an activity long since past.
Tim Powers, Dispatches from an Unfinished Landscape
Elizabeth Moran, Light's Shadow
Something here looks like an aftermath -- perhaps it is the knowledge of all the frenzied activity required to mount a show of this size and scale. But also there is a quality inside the work that makes it feel left behind -- a post-apocalyptic vibe to the imagery. I saw it in the combination of Man Yee Lam's shed skins with Carmen Lang's dismembered legs sticking out of the wall in the next room; Aidah Aliyah Rasheed's pile of spent cigarette packs; environments built and then destroyed (Sadie Harmon's Sublime When the Spectre Doesn't); Tiffany Canter's large painting dejectedly displayed on an old, used couch, with a little something extra painted into the shadows; and in Michael Rothfeld's strange rock formations that look like rescues from the set of a cheesy sci-fi TV show.
At one point I was sitting in a chilled, darkened room watching Arash Fayez's There Were Multiple Choices, But We Could Not Decide, a video that was trying to make sense of a terrible public event (I interpreted this as a terrorist bombing), when I got the crazy feeling there might be a bomb planted somewhere inside the screening room. So poignant was the filmmaker's search for understanding and ultimate failure to achieve it, that it made me feel my own life might be in danger.
Man Yee Lam
Aidah Aliyah Rasheed, Strange Fruition
Caroline Hayes Charuk
Michael Rothfeld, We Have Stopped the Ship in Order to Ascertain Why the Ship Does Not Move
Perhaps the artists' titles are partly responsible for communicating this sense of forboding. When you combine Julia Feldman's A Possible or Passing Truth with Lana Dandan's when I am there I am not here you get the feeling of a slippery reality. Similarly, Jordan Reznick's We Wish That We All Have a Wonderful Life meets Leora Lutz's Between Dystopia and Greener Pastures, Fatema Abdoolcarim's I Feel As If She May Be Vanishing, and Kenny Kong's Dance Party of the Millenium to create a bitter nostalgia.
Megan McGaffigan, Elizabethan Cone
Christie Yuri Noh
But these over-arching impressions of a little gloom and a whole lotta doom shouldn't dissuade anyone from attending the proceedings. There are also moments of great joy and humor (Rothfeld's aforementioned sci-fi rocks; Christie Yuri Noh's large slides and her googly-eyed Shakespeare). And, as with any art exhibition, there are also gorgeous grace notes where the materials have been drawn or woven together to create moments of subtle beauty. These included Amber Fawn's pretty poignant Indiscernable Evidence, a collection of small drawings of bruises, and two standouts that happened to be made of cloth -- Margo Wolowiec's hand-woven polyester pieces and Kim Bennett's Mourning Cloaks.
Kim Bennett, Mourning Cloak
The artists may have put their boots to our necks, but they also -- now and again -- ease up and let us breathe, allowing us to luxuriate in their command over us. We can let them force us to look at things we might not want to see and learn to love it, too.
The California College of the Arts MFA Show is on view 10am to 7:30pm through Saturday, May 25, 2013 at 1111 8th Street in San Francisco. For more information visit cca.edu.