Working in the building that first housed the Whitney Museum, MFA students at the New York Studio School of Drawing, Paintings, and Sculpture are cognizant of how art history has actively influenced their work. Unlike their peers at Columbia University or NYU, who may chafe against tradition, many of the Studio School’s graduates focus on incorporating the techniques of modern masters into their own work in the school’s 2018 MFA Thesis Exhibition.
Ruth Li’s sensuous works on paper exemplify this collision of past and present. Clearly drawing on Picasso’s Cubist portraiture, Li’s figures hold each other in acrobatic poses that sometimes stretch beyond the edges of their painted frames. There is an interesting dynamic between the artist’s works on paper and sculptures, which often serve as smaller maquettes for the wall works. There is a sense that Li first executes her two-dimensional pictures as three-dimensional objects, pulling the erotic embraces of Auguste Rodin’s sculptures into the mix.
“Bird” is the word for artist Hagar Fletcher, who here appropriates discarded objects and transforms them into leggy sculptures of the avian persuasion. For Fletcher, the chance to transform detritus into art represents a method of dealing with trauma. Nevertheless, there is something lighthearted and genuinely funny about these spindly little birds who populate the nooks and crannies of the artist’s exhibition space.
And speaking of birds, painter Jeffrey Morabito’s work includes at least one goose depicted, quizzically, inside of a brown vase with its long neck protruding. This is par the course for Morabito, who often sets legible figures within illegible picture planes. “Appetite” (2018), for example, depicts a giant mouth opening to guzzle what appear to be a miniature cupcake, sandwich, and shrimp. Looking closer, though, one notices that the tongue is purple and the background is a muddy brown. These small ambiguities allow Morabito to push against the viewer’s process of perceiving.
Sculptor Marco Palli’s spindly steel columns almost look weightless — not that you could pick them up without risking a tetanus infection. The sides of his sculptures are typically paper thin and rigid like a serrated knife. Often balancing on three long legs, Palli’s sculptures are fascinating creatures that simultaneously evoke feelings of vulnerability and danger with their ghostly presence. And although one might be tempted to compare his work to other great steel-benders like Richard Serra, Palli’s comparatively small-scale works are less posturing and monolithic. Unlike his forbearer, he wants to draw you in, not consume you.
Manny Padernos’s work embraces his immigrant identity as a Filipino who once lived in Singapore and now lives in New York. His installation, “Ang Balay Sa Akong Amahan (The House Of My Father)” (2018), is an imposing yet colorful mix of mylar, vinyl, twine, and other media hidden behind a black curtain on the Studio School’s second floor. Evoking the up-cycled metal lattices of Ghanian artist El Anatsui, Padernos has composed an intricate postcolonial work that touches on one’s attachment to everyday objects and domestic materials that denote the concept of home. But this concept is a difficult subject for Padernos, who identifies as a gay Southeast Asian man. The spider’s web of color that crisscrosses the gallery indicates how complicated feelings of love and alienation can be when wrapped up in one’s memories of home.
The 2018 MFA thesis exhibition continues at the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting, and Sculpture (8 West 8th Street, Greenwich Village, Manhattan) through May 23.