Columbia University MFA Show: Growing Pains

May 10th, 2007

With a cluttered presentation sprawled over two floors of Midtown space, the Columbia University MFA show comes across as energetic, adventurous, but undeniably student-y work; heck, at times it’s slightly muddled, unfinished, and, yes, even downright messy. Who’d ever have thought this would amount to a good thing? But, I must admit, it was all surprisingly refreshing. Over the last couple of years, Columbia has consistently met the challenge of its increasingly high profile, pumping out art stars in the making with graduate presentations as smoothed and polished as anything Chelsea might throw at you. Last year’s class’ offering in Dumbo was no exception: a cavernous space, filled with pristine pieces, thoughtfully arranged into a compelling exhibition which gave the Whitney Biennial “Day for Night” (on view at the same time) more than a run for its money. As expected, a new set of rising stars was ushered in, such as Tamy Ben-Tor and Julieta Aranda, who have already garnered pretty major accolades (and with good cause).

This is fine and dandy, after all what else does one expect from a prominent program? But somewhere along the way, it seems Columbia had snuffed some of the fun out of it—or perhaps more accurately, our own expectations, both positive and negative, had begun fueling an unfair skepticism that may have been unspoken, but was definitely felt. And also, true to suspicions, the market was creeping in too soon, bringing with it certain pressures—not as dramatically as the press might have it, with dealers and gallerists skulking Prentis Hall in search of the next Dana or Banks. It was simply an unmistakable sense of premature professionalizing—much like that experienced by child stars.

But under the guiding hand of artist and chief curator Daniel Bozhkov, this has changed to pleasant results. The current show reflects key tenets of his own artistic practice: heavy on ideas and overarching concepts, with a looser relation to object making. And the result is a surprisingly fresh-faced, smorgasbord of student experiments, which recapture that feeling of messy possibility that’s crucial for artists early in their careers. It’s about letting the art go where it must, for better or worse. All the while, the program proved it nurtures diverging talents, and doesn’t simply function as an assembly line for the next bankable commodity as some would have it.

This is not to say there weren’t some notable up and comers. At the top of this year’s list is painter Elizabeth Neel (granddaughter of Alice Neel). The sheer confidence of her pastoral abstraction more than justifies all early buzz (and her inclusion in Deitch Project’s Garden Party exhibition last spring). Thoughtful and assured, Elizabeth’s oil canvases demonstrate an intimate understanding of the medium, it’s parameters and history. Clearly, this is someone who knows where she’s going and how to get there.

Davis Rhodes is another noteworthy ambitious young painter. Filtering Mondrian and Malevich through Christopher Wool and street signs, he titrates painting to its zero degree and presents a set of glossy skins, graphic marks on Styrofoam board, that straddle the divide between painting as mute object and arbitrary mark. Propped into groupings, his (non) paintings form a makeshift environment with promising developments.

Felipe Arturo’s crafty engineering yielded a self supporting, collapsible rubber screen, attached to a projector and suspended from a metal crane through a series of pullies. Projected onto it were a series of videos, from abstract color tests, to enigmatic footage of shrubs being pruned. The impressive contraption ultimately seemed to call for interventions into real space or public forums which promise to be the real crux of Arturo’s thoughtful practice.

Finally, there’s the wonderful performance by Aki Sasamoto, complete with rigged cameras, intricate costumes and a motorized domestic environment run amuck. I’m still not sure what the spinning spatula on the wall was about, but her piece unfolded with a thorough commitment to the space. Doubters take heed: she plans to perform daily for the duration of the exhibition in a true show of dedication.

The scene, crammed into a somewhat awkward space, boasted the usual tote-bag toting art school crowd languorously living up to its reputation, with the assembled sporting haircuts and styling choices even they couldn’t take seriously. All in all, it proved a roaring good time, with friends, family and well-wishers casually mixed in with prominent art worlders, such as noted alum Dana Shutz, and the ever lovely, Elizabeth Dee of Elizabeth Dee Gallery. There was an offhand informality to the whole affair that stressed the fact that it was simply beginning, a first offering for these nascent talents. Seeing as that’s what graduations are supposed to be about, this all felt right as rain. –Franklin Melendez