Tuition disputes be damned. Despite struggling with leaky pipes, overheated studios, and absentee professors, Columbia University’s visual arts MFA students have assembled a high-caliber thesis show that reflects more about New York’s contemporary art scene than it does about the program’s administrative malaise.
In the Wallach Art Gallery’s massive two-floor space in Columbia’s Lenfest Center for the Arts, curator Deborah Cullen has allocated each student sizable square footage to demonstrate her or his skills. Most artists have chosen to replicate an aesthetic reminiscent of Spring Break, building full installations around their work. Clearly, young contemporary artists are using the sprawling pop-up art show as a model for exhibiting work and driving interest.
The first work to really catch my eye was a ceramic installation by Elsa Lama von Buchwald. Constructed from what I assure you is the exact same bathroom tile I have, von Buchwald crafted an architectural construction that stretches along one of the gallery’s hallways. Sculpted into slight ramps, plinths, and thin columns, the piece culminates in a small niche where a funny-looking bust resides. It’s an anticlimax that works perfectly in this Ivy League climate where one typically expects profundity.
Nearby is Emma Thomas’s work, an obsessive arrangement of ropes and things that look like ropes. Camouflaged into its surroundings, one such rope slinks down from the ceiling, changing from off-white to a bright blue that matches the metal stool it coils around. More lightheartedly, Thomas has included a mid-sized kinetic sculpture that jiggles like dusty, rubbery jello. Yes, that’s a disgusting description — but I’m into it.
Lemon Guo’s “Loom” is a beautifully haunting audiovisual installation that presents long sheets of fabric with video of a Chinese landscape projected onto them. A din of whispers fills the room as a narrator describes life in the village we see projected on the walls. Her voice grows louder and polyphonous while describing the very sounds she hears in the village. The volume grows until all that’s heard is the hard “S” of her consonants.
On the opposite side of the gallery is an equally haunting installation by Delphine Adama Fawundu. The Broooklyn-born artist advances a postcolonial critique that assembles work according to the conditions of black identity politics, spirituality, and gender. In many of her works, Fawundu splits her subjects’ bodies in two. “Earth Seed” (2018) depicts a man — with cowry shells covering his eyes — whose legs have been turned into long strands of black hair. In “Olokun” (2017), another man’s lower half appears to consist solely of a grass skirt.
Asif Mian’s rack of plastic couture, titled “Nothing & Specter” (2018), also made a strong impact. It operates in tandem with two video pieces featuring footage shot on thermal cameras. One is a live feed of “Nothing & Specter,” which periodically inflates and deflates; the other is a recorded performance titled “Breath Ascent Reveal” (2018). Together, these three works form a triptych that seems to comment on the invisibility of minority suffering within a consumer society. The image of Eric Garner saying “I can’t breath” immediately comes to mind when viewing the installation, an ominous contrast to how much the live thermal video of “Nothing & Specter” resembles the silhouette of a Ku Klux Klan member’s costume.
Easily the funniest artist in the exhibition, Samantha Nye satirizes the misogynistic Scopitone videos of the 1960s from a feminist-queer perspective. Parodying Neil Sedaka’s “Calendar Girl,” Nye has cast older women and queer women to replace the bobble-headed blonde models of Sedaka’s original video. The result is an indulgent escapade that features Nye and her crew using their own campiness to wryly spoof pop culture’s long legacy of chauvinism.
These and other works in the 2018 thesis show attest to the rigor of Columbia’s visual arts MFA program, in spite of whatever administrative it is currently undergoing.