As the only Visual Art MFA Program in the city, the University of Washington is a crucial component of Seattle’s cultural ecosystem, as it attracts emerging artists (and their unique perspectives) from around the world. Alums include Leo Saul Berk, Susie Lee, Rodrigo Valenzuela, Barbara Earl Thomas and Jonas Wood, among many others. During their studies, the majority of students’ time is spent within the confines of the university. The final Thesis Exhibition, hosted each year by the Henry Art Gallery, aims to legitimize and launch the graduating students into their careers as professional artists and designers.
As the show is effectively fourteen solo exhibitions within four galleries on the upper level of the Henry, the MFA + MDES Thesis Exhibition is typically a disjointed and mixed affair, and the 2016 iteration is no exception. It includes six MDES (Masters of Design) graduates and eight MFA (Masters of Fine Arts) graduates: two from 3D4M (3-Dimensional Form), three from Photomedia, and three from Painting + Drawing.
Though the boundaries between art and design as disciplines have become increasingly blurred in contemporary practice, it would be near impossible to mistake one group for the other in the 2016 exhibition. One reason is placement: The six designers occupy a single gallery in the rear of the exhibition, while all the artists occupy the front three galleries.
Within the MFA crew, the interdisciplinary experimentation and performative aspects of the 3D4M and Photomedia students rise to the fore while the more traditional concerns of the Painting + Drawing students fade to the background. Meanwhile the relegation of the MDES students to the rear of the exhibition create a counterpoint that elucidates some of the differences between the two programs and disciplines.
A look at the MFAs
Benjamin Gale-Schreck’s Building Resonance (echo) from 3D4M is one of the most compelling pieces in the exhibition by virtue of the unique method it employs to transform visitors into participants. Gale-Schreck, a musician and former construction worker, is a capable craftsman and describes himself as “a sound artist with an emphasis on objects and community.” Building Resonance (echo) is comprised of a large wooden cradle connected to a sound system that plays ambient architectural noise, which causes the object to shake and reverberate while an individual lies upon it. The work takes the physical structure of a building, in this case an old train depot in El Paso, Illinois, as well as its associative memories and meanings for Schreck of his father and his ancestry, and translates them into a sound work that is felt by the body rather than heard. The effect is unsettling and destabilizing yet immersive in its ability to capture and conjure the physicality and agency of space, objects and memory.
While Gale-Schreck’s object-based sound work places the attention onto the viewer’s physical experience and body, Paul Baughman’s (balancing one’s own weight in the shadow of antithetical sides) places the attention back onto the body of the artist as a conduit for meaning. Described by Baughman as an, “attempt to deconstruct my position in society,” the one-time performance on the exhibition’s opening night involved Baughman moving a mass of dense black clay, which weighed as much as the artist, from one side a large wooden structure, reminiscent of a teeter-totter, to the other.
The laborious, seemingly pointless task evoked rich associations through its notion of balance in relation to the self. However, any intended connections to “society” (as was expressed by Baughman), could be made more explicit, especially as the regimentation referenced in part by the backdrop of black shapes is never given more specificity.
Interestingly, Baughman entered the Photomedia program as a photographer but stopped taking photographs during the course of his study to focus on other media, performance in particular. This ability to explore, take risks and grow in unexpected directions within one’s creative practice is one of the greatest benefits offered by an MFA Program, and one that seems to be encouraged by the Photomedia program at the University of Washington.
A similar form of exploration is evident in Ellen Xu’s My Dear Friend, Time, a standout in the exhibition. Comprising paintings, sculptures, objects and videos, Xu’s vibrant installation invites visitors to dwell on the span of a life and the formation of identity, starting from a meditation on the loss of a beloved companion: her dog named Cat, which came with Xu from China when she moved for the UW MFA program.
Xu struggled with linguistic and cultural barriers during her two years of school, and says she spent “the first half of my time [in Seattle] facing a huge amount of uncertainty where I was continuously experimenting with various media…In retrospect I think I was desperately trying to understand what contemporary art is.”
Now at the end of the program, Xu has stopped trying to define something as indefinable as contemporary art, and instead focuses on the process of making as a means of finding meaning, expressed in My Dear Friend, Time in forms, not words. The sheer range of media and number of works in the installation represent Xu’s attempts to grapple with this loss while finding her voice: a frame wrapped with enough black and white yarn to match Cat’s weight and color; a video in which Xu repeats the exact hour and minute of Cat’s passing; a round wooden seat in the shape of a kidney, the same organ that led to complications with Cat’s health and eventual death.
Xu’s installation demonstrates a vigor and passion that is vital to successfully undertaking an MFA degree. Gale-Schreck, whose work shares a similar kind of passion, acknowledges this reality as he points out, “The art world is volatile and relentless, and in some messed up way an MFA is put on a pedestal as the “safe move” in the transition from undergrad to the real world. In reality, pursuing an MFA is a double-edged sword. If you are lacking the personal desire and dedication to pursue what you love, your pursuits will be a waste of time.”
A look at the institution
Choosing to enter an MFA requires a great leap of faith, especially in the twenty-first century where MFA programs, particularly the exorbitantly-priced top tier programs, have come under fire for driving students into debt while providing slim prospects to their graduates in terms of a sustainable career. Thankfully, as a public university, the UW is more moderately priced and offers scholarships and teaching assistantships to help offset tuition costs. Yet, the path forward once a graduate has his or her MFA in hand often remains unclear.
As the only major arts institution in the city solely dedicated to contemporary art, the Henry Art Gallery is well suited to serve as a platform for propelling the MFA graduates forward. At the same time, the MFA Thesis Exhibition, having taken place at the Henry for the last forty years, seems to have become a stale routine rather than an opportunity for the museum to help articulate and advanced the work of the graduates. The lack of involvement by the Henry’s curatorial staff in particular seems like a missed opportunity, given the crucial role curators play in supporting and challenging artists.
Ultimately, one gets the impression after leaving the exhibition that the Henry could take a more active role with the University in organizing and supporting the MFA + MDES Thesis Exhibition by serving as more than just a well-credited white cube, and instead encouraging greater innovation among the students and the presentation of their work in the galleries.
The benefit of displaying at the Henry does not hold the same value or opportunity for the MDES graduates, though this is not to say their presence is without merit. Their inclusion gives necessary attention to design as a critical field and creative practice. In addition, the juxtaposition of the two degrees within a single exhibition draws out some tangible differences between the disciplines of art and design, principally the role of design in optimizing the function, value and the appearance of information and systems versus the more intangible role of art in interpreting, examining and playing upon many of the same systems that design undergirds.
L.A. based artist and writer Walead Beshty stated, “Art school is an abstraction of the art world, but the world it reflects is not necessarily a contemporary one.” This claim points to one of the discrepancies between the two groups of graduates within the Thesis Exhibition, particularly to the inward orientation of many of the MFA projects versus the outward orientation of the MDES projects. The design graduates address a variety of topical issues in their projects, including gentrification, social-media literacy for middle school students and the elderly, as well as new technological developments, including data visualization via virtual reality.
In comparison, the work of the MFA graduates lacks the same relevancy and engagement with the present. While themes of landscape, the everyday and the body are never irrelevant, many of the MFA pieces do not take these themes into new territories or strike a chord as readily as the MDES students do within larger discourses. While many of the works reflect what art is or has been, few, perhaps with the exception of Gale-Schreck, elude to what art could become.
A look at the program
The relegation of the designers to the back room of the Thesis Exhibition is tidy, but also sterile, and it reflects how the MFA and MDES graduates have little to no overlap with one another prior to the Thesis Exhibition. Their sudden cohabitation at the Henry creates a sense disunity within the exhibition. This disunity is compounded by the fact that the MFA graduate studios are scattered across three different locations, with Photomedia in the Art Building on the main UW campus, 3D4M at the Ceramic and Metal Arts Building about a mile east of the main campus, and Painting + Drawing located in Sandpoint.
These physical divisions separate the students from one another, with the exception of the interdisciplinary graduate seminar the MFA students take together five out of their six quarters of study. Many of the graduates from the class of 2016 expressed desire for greater interaction between the departments, a concern the faculty are well aware of, and are working to address. While the University cannot simply change the locations of the graduate studios overnight, Jamie Walker, the Director of the School of Art + Art History + Design hopes that “further integration and collaboration will take place across campus.”
However, it is not only bridges within and between the programs, or between the University and the Henry that need to be cultivated, but also greater bridges between the students and the larger Seattle arts community. One of the best traditions addressing this issue emerged in 2002: Strange Coupling, a student-run organization that pairs undergraduate and graduate students with local working artists for collaborative projects displayed in an annual exhibition. Strange Coupling 2016 recently took place at King Street Station, pairing 13 students with 12 artists, including three of the graduating MFA students.
One of the strongest pieces in the exhibition was the collaboration between Ben Dunn from the Painting + Drawing MFA department, and Francesca Lohmann. While Dunn’s atmospheric and abstracted landscape paintings were the strongest from his division, they ultimately failed to resonate as strongly as his Strange Coupling collaboration, which involved vibrantly painted strips of birch and walnut edge banding that twisted and curled around sand bags and clamps. Scattered across the southeast section of the gallery, the tension created by this precarious arrangement of elements created a dynamism and emotive weight that was absent from the more static presentation of his paintings in the Thesis Exhibition.
Strange Coupling places the students first, and by doing so, encourages risks and cross-pollination between disciplines while building stronger ties between the UW and the Seattle arts community. The focus on collaboration, playfulness and unexpected outcomes are all qualities that make Strange Coupling one of the most interesting art exhibitions each year. It’s time the MFA + MDES Exhibition took note.