Plan A: Just say all the work is good. Most of it is. Besides, the artists/students practically killed themselves making it, and they're all in so much debt now, it would be cruel to point out any shortcomings. Plan B: Be brutally honest. The space is too big and there are too many artists to take in (forty-seven) and some of their work was nearly hidden, hung or displayed in corners and hallways of the building. Some of the work was utterly baffling. Pray that none of the people you know who are involved with California College of the Arts and/or are included in the show ever read the review. Plan C: Just talk about what you liked best.
Every year, the CCA MFA Exhibition celebrates and shows off the work of the graduating class. And every year it's kind of the same and kind of different. The big sculptures march down the center of the building's nave, the photography is featured in the first two rooms on the left, and at least one artist makes something that involves a pile of cardboard on the ground. There's one more perennial guarantee: As you make your way through the large building, digesting the overwhelming size and scope of it all, you are certain to find myriad gems -- stuff you want to know more about, work you can't stop thinking about, and objects that are just cool to look at. Here's what I found.
Alicia Escott paints endangered animals on disposable packaging, marrying good technique with a smart concept. Her work draws attention to the things we throw away -- objects and animals -- and the absurdity of the two sharing the same fate. Using translucent backgrounds, Escott's animals appear as specters midway through the act of disappearance. On clear plastic from Ikea, she paints a grizzly bear. On the plastic lid of a sushi container, a group of smiling fishermen hold a prize fish. Unfortunately, the white walls of the space caused the clear canvases to blend into the background. The work glows in other settings. Check it out.
Matthew Rana's work made the world seem bigger than CCA, no small feat. For his thesis, Rana conducted extensive interviews with a man named Ernest Patrick Butler. Butler sleeps at the MacArthur BART station and also sells his crocheted hats there. Rana presents Butler's story in a hand-drawn comic book; the "superhero" implications of the form contrast with the gritty humility of the content. For his installation, he displayed several of Butler's hats and set out the comic books on a spinning display, the latter free for the taking.
The work draws attention to the disadvantaged, but it doesn't just operate on the level of social justice. It functions critically. Rana engages with the larger social dynamics of the Bay Area, something that doesn't happen enough within most art schools. Through its difference from the other work on display, Rana's piece (intentionally or not) points out the school's insularity. He reminds us that we are in a privileged environment by highlighting someone we pass by and usually ignore on our way there.
There's more, of course. Conrad Ruiz's bright paintings are exuberant collages of pop culture and childhood wonder, capturing the duality of our culture's oversaturation with media images and the appeal of such diversions. "Overload" is a charming confluence of serious matters and innocence. Ruiz paints the President of the United States riding through the air on a giant fox in tones similar to those found on Trapper Keeper folders of the 1980s.
Pablo Cristi's low-rider burrito cart, tucked away in the PLAySPACE Gallery upstairs, is filled with ceramic burritos. It references two of the most visible (to the dominant culture) vehicles of Latino commerce and culture. The hybridized, confused cart also highlights the way disparate aspects of the Latino-American experience are condensed into one stereotype. Plus it's painted a really cool glittery blue color.
Klea McKenna's photographs of simulated nature feel both artificial and hauntingly primitive. Plump flies hang from strings in "Flight Patterns". We know it's a set-up, but somehow that doesn't matter. Aren't all our experiences of "nature" mediated, anyway?
Jason Hanasik's portraits of young men either in or recently returned from the military are both raw and gentle. They capture the subjects' vulnerability, tenderness, and even fear¸ qualities not usually seen in situations also involving camouflage.
You should go see the exhibition during its short run. For all its overstimulating effects, it's well worth it. For orientation, check out the graduate thesis Web site prior to your visit to identify the artists you are interested in.
The California College of the Arts Master of Fine Arts exhibition is on display at the school's San Francisco campus at 1111 Eighth Street, 10am to 7:30pm daily through Saturday, May 16, 2009.