The angst is palpable inside the New York Academy of Art’s Wilkinson Gallery, where most of this year’s MFA thesis exhibition is being held. Why the doom and gloom? Should we chalk it up to graduation anxiety or the generally apocalyptic political tone in the US? Or perhaps artist Eric Fischl, a senior critic at the Academy, has had an especially profound influence on his students this year? After all, the artist has a particular talent for riffing on social anxieties. Whatever the source of the gloomy mood, this year’s thesis show definitely indulges in the abject and existential.
Katie Bosch’s “Emaciation” (2018) sculpture commands the gallery from the room’s center. This papier-mâché mummy, built with hog casing, evokes the embalmed remains of Buddhist monks. With its eyes glazed over and hauntingly gaunt body, it can seem a little intimidating, but closer inspection reveals the artistry of Bosch’s brushstrokes and papier-mâché structure.
Arngrimur Sigurdsson’s nearby “Transhuman Torpedo” (2018) definitely attempts to one-up Bosch’s skeletal figure. Sigurdsson’s sculpture comes close to the quintessence of “grotesque.” It looks like a cancerous tumor on steroids, with hair growing from its mid-section and multiple eyes and fingers emerging from its fleshy mass.
While I definitely enjoy the thrill of Bosch and Sigurdsson’s ghoulish creations, I especially love Sian Smith’s particularly haunting imagery. Her “Self-Portrait” (2018) is a delicate oil painting on chiffon fabric. Confronting the viewer with a direct gaze, Smith clutches two pieces of fabric in her clenched fists, perhaps a meta-acknowledgment of what must have been a painstaking process to create this piece.
There are also more playful and quirky pieces, like Brendan Sullivan’s painting “Parallel” (2018), which takes a more surrealist approach. Here, a ghostly apparition that looks like a member of the Bush clan mows a suburban lawn under a crepuscular sky. There are certain elements that are off here: the presence of a gaping hole in the background, unnatural lighting, and (more pressingly) the complete absence of the man’s lower body. Together, these elements constitute a winning spoof on the unofficial spooky theme. It’s like parody of a parody of a suburban ghost story: the middle-aged man forever stuck mowing his lawn.
There are also some admittedly strange juxtapositions in the exhibition, an inevitable occurrence in a thesis show as big as this (44 artists in all). Most glaring is a corner where Erin Pollock’s “Sui Generis” (2018) is juxtaposed with Salomé Pereira’s “Priests” (2017). The former is a gruesome mixed media animation where a claymation figure appears to continually split open his head and eat himself. The latter is, well, a painting of a pair of priests.
By comparison, Helena Vallée Dallaire’s “It’s Only Been a Minute” (2018) just about encapsulates the dominant mood of the MFA thesis exhibition. Melancholy pervades the artist’s blue painting, in which a female figure slumps onto a brown couch in the foreground, practically merging with the sofa. An accomplished image of depressive loneliness, there is something intriguingly honest about Dallaire’s painting. It plainly signals the anxiety just barely hidden beneath the pigments in many of her peers’ works.