The Monochrome M.F.A. Shows at Stanford and Berkeley

On Thursday, May 21, we took a field trip to visit the 2012 U.C. Berkeley and Stanford MFA exhibitions. Both schools featured relatively small graduating classes (7 students at Berkeley; 5 at Stanford) in comparison to the mondo exhibitions at other Bay Area art schools (see reviews of this year's San Francisco Art Institute, California College of the Arts and Mills College shows). Perhaps this relative sparseness is what contributed to the quiet we found at each exhibition. Works in both shows lacked color and were unassuming even when they took up a good deal of space. What these shows had -- that other locals lacked -- was breathing room, which may have created the impression that each artist was turned inward, inhabiting his or her own corner without engaging one another and with little need for the viewer.

Installation at the Berkeley Art Museum

This feeling may have come in part from the exhibitions' settings; Stanford's students take over the very staid Thomas Welton Stanford Art Gallery, while Berkeley's graduates were slipped into one of the Berkeley Art Museum's bays, between an exhibition of Himalayan artifacts and an overview of California conceptual art from the early 1970s. In the bottom floor of the B.A.M., panels were being installed for the upcoming Barry McGee retrospective. What we love about the Berkeley Art Museum, its severe modernist concrete structure, may also have been the thing that was working against the students there. The architecture overwhelms with its concrete coldness and the art has to work hard to be heard. But Berkeley's students seemed content to be tucked into their corner. Their gestures were simple and easily overwhelmed, which was touching -- a quiet space separated from a loud and overwhelming world.

Kari Marboe's one image (it really is a bold move to end your college career by presenting just one thing) reinforced this idea. Her piece was a large, glossy photograph of a building topped by a marquee that read, "I love you is such an enormous gift that I need to house it here for a week so that we can use the apartment." It was a sweet gesture that could be appreciated by almost anyone who has ever been overwhelmed by a love that is too big to contain.

Amy Rathbone, This, That and Other, 2012; courtesy of the artist.

Amy Rathbone's hanging plastic bag sculptures and Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck's perplexing home videos sat in one gallery, along with Brett Walker's cheeky installation about... himself? photography? The work is a series of 47 photographs of various shapes, sizes and orientations spread out across two gallery walls. It reminded us of a fold-out double-album record sleeve depicting the touring exploits of a seventies rock band à la The Allmann Brothers or better yet -- given the subjects' propensity for sporting unusual facial hair, a growing concern among the young, white and "indie" -- ZZ Top.


Brett Walker, Getting the Big Picture, 2012.

Is the artist creating some kind of narrative? Are his subjects characters populating a fictional world that is also part of the artwork, similar to the way Marboe creates text to inhabit a specific environment? Or perhaps they are snapshots from an extended party (see SFAI's 2012 exhibition), the characters caught in mid-activity surrounded by empty bottles and other assorted paraphernalia. One image was a close up of a Bic lighter and three juicy buds, which made us wonder at the modern (most likely Facebook-inspired) phenomenon of the overshare, a breakdown between what should be public and what should remain private.

Brett Walker, Getting the Big Picture, 2012.

On a table in the middle of the room, lying face down, Walker included a stack of artist statements in which he expresses his discomfort with defining (and therefore limiting) his practice. In this statement, Walker argues that a photograph should function rhizomatically, as a part of a performance, a link in a "chain of moments beyond the current moment within which the picture is made." We were not sure this collection of images functioned that way, they depicted such a determined existence, but we like the idea of an artwork being about the space outside itself.

Frank Emilio Marquez-Leonard, 20/20, 2012.

This idea was taken to an -- "extreme" is the wrong word, given the minimalist gesture -- by Frank Emilio Marquez-Leonard, whose piece, 20/20 consisted of two taped off squares, one on the floor and the other matching it on the ceiling, which suggested the volume of a large object -- the space in between these two marks. We contemplated that blank space against the cement slab museum infrastructure. What it spoke was subtle and quiet, making what was absent suddenly present.

Kari Orvik, Excercises for moving in between, 2012.

We did a quick tour of the museum, then jumped in the car and headed south to Stanford.

Andrew Chapman, (Sorry, we could not figure out how to reproduce the name of this piece, which is essentially a bunch of arrows), 2012.

Stanford had even fewer grads this year, and to us, some of the works reflected the influence of Trevor Paglen and Sean McFarland, two mid-career Bay Area artists currently on the rise. A third piece by Andrew Chapman, an installation of seemingly random objects, reminded us of Jessica Stockholder. Chapman's materials were arranged along the gallery's floor and walls to create an intricate abstract sculptural work composed mainly of 2-D painted elements. All of which were reflected in the glass covering over Adam Katseff's series of almost completely black landscape photographs. They were reminiscent of Sean McFarland photos, but even darker, and once behind glass they reflected the rest of the artwork in the gallery, which was distracting to a fault.

Rhonda Holberton, Holes, 2012.

Rhonda Holberton created an installation involving metaphorical objects, and a bisected video projection that looked like a lunar landscape. After reading more about the work, we discovered the artist's interest in surveillance footage and secret military installations, much like the artist, geographer, and recent SECA award winner, Trevor Paglen.

Yulia Pinkusevich, Installation, 2012.

On our way out, we met a student named Yulia Pinkusevich, who was putting some final touches on a reflecting pool that held her figure-sized sculpture made of salt licks with textures carved by water pressure. The sculpture related to the artist's drawings of skyscrapers on G10, a well-selected epoxy laminate material that is sure to survive the apocalypse. The material was cut and installed to, in one case, simulate a view of the sky through an urban canyon. The artist explained how she envisioned the history of skyscrapers and their purpose relating to the way people carry themselves in the world.

The MFA shows at Stanford and U.C. Berkeley both seemed to address this idea -- ways of being in an increasingly crowded world. Each artist created something solid on which to stand, like a soap box at a demonstration, but in most cases it appeared that they were still trying to figure out what they were going to say and modulating how they will choose to say it. A wise artist once said, "for the first ten years after grad school, you're still a beginner." These beginners appear confident, if unassuming.


Never Odd or Even, Stanford's MFA Thesis Exhibition is on view through June 17, 2012 at the Thomas Welton Stanford Art Gallery in Palo Alto, CA. For more information visit The 42nd Annual U.C. Berkeley MFA Exhibition is on view through June 10 at the Berkeley Art Museum in Berkeley, CA. For more information visit