Photo Essays

Yale Photography MFAs Smash the Thin Border Between Fiction and Reality

While shows like this one make the Yale-to-Chelsea pipeline seem all the more real, these artists have some serious skills.

Installation view of Evelyn Pustka’s work at David Zwirner (all photos by Zachary Small for Hyperallergic)

In the first pages of A. L. Steiner’s introductory essay to David Zwirner’s exhibition of Yale University’s MFA Photography thesis show, she quotes Susan Sontag on the political necessity of images to fashion a better world:

Images are more real than anyone could have supposed. And just because they are an unlimited resource, one that cannot be exhausted by consumerist waste, there is all the more reason to apply the conservationist remedy. If there can be a better way for the real world to include the one of images, it will require an ecology not only of real things but of images as well.

The nine graduate students exhibiting work in the show, titled Unbecoming, do their best to engender Sontag’s “ecology” of reality and fiction, often attempting to smash the thin border between those two realms of existence with an unsettling (if patently quirky) effect.

Dan Swindel, “Mirror” (2017), single channel video, 2:30 minutes
Dan Swindel, “Lean” (2018), pigment print, 20 x 28 inches

Dan Swindel accurately captures the technologically uncanny valley that we call the office space in his video work “Mirror” (2017). Pivoting a portable mirror around the reflective façade of an office building, Swindel bounces the sun’s glare into the floor-length windows to expose the building’s interiors in a hazy, greenish light. For me, this scene comments on the excesses and illusions of security protocol. Why do suburban developers insist on camouflaging their offices into the surroundings? This design choice is popular, especially in New England, where Swindel presumably shot his video. The false illusion of security here is unwarranted — especially in the digital age where vital information is kept on computers and not in cubicles. This may be precisely Swindel’s point. His mirror trick reveals nothing but mundane office paraphernalia: a swiveling office chair, a desk, a plant.

Evelyn Pustka, “Untitled” (2017), archival pigment print with Plexiglas

Nearby, Evelyn Pustka has a trio of Plexiglas prints that mix beautifully saturated colors in a trash heap. These works coincide with the artist’s awkward and uncanny video, “Party in the USA” (2018), which features a group of old, seemingly wealthy people singing the Miley Cyrus song and drowning on wine. Pustka’s photographs are somewhat reminiscent of Andrea Gursky’s close-up work that aestheticizes water pollution, as in “Bangkok VI” (2011). The artist is a great deal more mischievous than Gursky, however, including dentures, blood, and otherwise unsavory detritus in her work.

Lacey Lennon, “Untitled, (Whitney)” (2018), single channel video, 2:12 minutes

Another artist who caught my eye was Lacey Lennon, whose meditative video of a woman, back turned to the camera and staring at the swinging lock of her door, has stuck with me through the past week. “Untitled, (Whitney)” (2018) is simple in its concept but stunning in its execution. The pendulum-like motion of the chained lock made me question if this video was actual a GIF, inducing other questions about the meaning of time and loneliness, as the character’s dripping wet hair waterfalls down her black leather jacket.

Installation view of Jennifer Calivas’ work

Jennifer Calivas is less mournful about her position in the world, but still full of tact. Walking into the second gallery space where the artist’s work is positioned, you might notice a fake boulder made of papier-mâché with synthetic hair and googly eyes. Listening to the headphones attached to “Karen or Whatever #1” (2018), one hears from a selection of men — presumably those whom Calivas has met on the street — who inform the artist about their impressions of her. “You look like you’re from Colorado. You look like you might go to church. You look like somebody I know, but that was in the past,” one guy remarks. Accompanying Calivas’s rock is a series of sensual mouth portraits. The exposure on these photographs is so high that the definition between lip and skin is almost indistinguishable, focusing on the mouth as an erogenous zone.

Installation view of Penn Chan’s work

In that same gallery, Penn Chan exhibits a handful of strange tableaux investigating the quirks of modern life. One untitled work from 2018 depicts a tiger on a leash with a caged man in the background. There’s also a juxtaposition between two water scenes. The one above appears to be national guardsmen clearing a flooded river of debris while children in swimsuits frolic in the foreground. The bottom image seemingly depicts swimmers training for a rescue operation. Chan succeeds in making striking images that are at once crisply clear and indecipherable. For me, his work also comments on today’s political ethos of “fake news”: the artist excels at subtly highlighting the gaps of comprehension in photojournalism.

While shows like this one make the Yale-to-Chelsea pipeline seem all the more real, the nine artists in Unbecoming have proven their own worth with a powerful show that revels in the peculiarities of photography, exploring that space between reality and fantasy, truth and fiction.

Installation view of Dannielle Bowman (right) and Luke Libera Moore’s (left) work
Details of Dannielle Bowman’s work
Installation view of Kathryn Harrison’s work

Unbecoming: Yale MFA Photography 2018 Thesis Show continues at David Zwirner (533 West 19th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through July 25.

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