Art

Intellectual Rigor and Emotional Intensity in NYU’s MFA Thesis Show

In their two-part thesis show, NYU’s studio art MFA students showcase works that are formally precise and affecting.

Installation view of Luca Molnar’s thesis from the NYU 2018 MFA show’s first part (photo courtesy NYU)

Inside 80WSE Gallery, New York University’s 2018 MFA graduates assembled a thesis show of work that runs the gamut from academically inscrutable to emotionally resonant. Spread across two exhibitions (one in April and another in May), students were given a gracious amount of time and space to showcase their talents.

Somebody at NYU must be pushing Roland Barthes’s version of poststructuralism hard. A majority of the MFA students seem to have constructed work that indexes the outer world through cartography and materiality. Luca Molnar draws upon decorative patterns seen in kitchens and bathrooms. These domestic signifiers are then spliced together with jagged borders that mimic those lines you might see on a world map. Are these spaces of intimacy or violent battlegrounds? The contrast between cheery floral prints and vibrant red splotches makes answering this question difficult.

Installation view of Omer Ben-Zvi’s thesis from the NYU 2018 MFA show’s second part (photo courtesy NYU)

More literally, Omer Ben-Zvi investigates a network of maps focused on the arctic in “North Pole” (2017–18). Displaying nearly 50 maps together on just two walls, Ben-Zvi tests viewers’ ability to absorb information when it floods their vision. And whereas colors on maps usually help define borders and landmasses, the cumulative aesthetic vibrance of dozens of maps together actually confuses one’s eye. Trying to make sense of “North Pole,” the image of Greenland quickly becomes a defining icon, a helpful reference point for figuring out from what angle we are looking at the arctic.

Taking over one of the back galleries, artist Jerry J. Adams created a bright pink installation of sculptures, photography, and projections that evoked a Chelsea nightclub aesthetic. A neon cross has been plugged into the wall; large color field prints hang from the walls and ceiling. At the center of the gallery is  “Apologies to Insect Life / Pull the Curtains” (2018), which combines elements including an Ansel Adams book and an electric guitar. Altogether, it’s clear that Adams is trying to invite viewers into his headspace; it is a glimpse of the artist sorting out his religion, passion, and hobbies.

Installation view of Jerry J. Adams’s thesis from the NYU 2018 MFA show’s second part (photo by the author)
Installation view of Komikka Patton’s thesis from the NYU 2018 MFA show’s second part (photo by the author)

My favorite work at NYU’s MFA exhibition was Komikka Patton’s series of expressive paintings and ink works. Whereas many of her peers have a meticulously academic, somewhat emotionally restrained approach to art-making, Patton paints with an affecting force. Pulling on Afrofuturist themes, she riffs on motifs related to motherhood and motherships. For example, “Mother 24 Times” (2018) depicts the same haunting mask in successive portraits where the color of paint varies from white to black. On the opposite wall, “Where’s my Mother?” (2018) is a triptych illustrating a child’s temper tantrum. As if possessed, dozens of hands spring from the figure, who lies on the ground in the fetal position — a disconcerting portrait of pain. While an MFA show offers the perfect setting for the more philosophical and formal investigations of artists like Molnar and Ben-Zvi, it’s also refreshing in this context to encounter work like Patton’s with greater emotional intensity.

Installation view of Komikka Patton’s thesis from the NYU 2018 MFA show’s second part (photo by the author)
Installation view of Erin Schiller’s thesis from the NYU 2018 MFA show’s first part (photo courtesy NYU)
Installation view of Alex Heffesse’s thesis from the NYU 2018 MFA show’s first part (photo courtesy NYU)
Installation view of Nick Doty’s thesis from the NYU 2018 MFA show’s first part (photo courtesy NYU)
Installation view of Nick Doty’s thesis from the NYU 2018 MFA show’s first part (photo courtesy NYU)

The NYU MFA studio art program’s 2018 thesis exhibitions ran at 80WSE Gallery (80 Washington Square East, Greenwich Village, Manhattan) from April 4–21 and May 2–19.

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