SANTA CLARITA, Calif. — Descending into CalArts for last Sunday’s Graduate Open Studios was a bit like finding my way through the labyrinth of Hades. Immediately lost, I desperately sought directions from anyone without headphones in.
Luckily, I soon found my Persephone, a woman working on a mural in one of the institution’s endless hallways, who led me down four flights of stairs then pointed me out a set of double doors with instructions to “keep going to the other side of the campus.” Her directions proved more propitious than expected, and soon enough I arrived at a corridor of open doors.
Though each studio was full of art — not to mention snacks and bottles of wine — I saw nary a student as I clicked my camera and asked random passersby, “Is this your work?” Though pulling together an installation, in addition to casual canapés at noon on Sunday, is no mean feat for an art student, it was still eerie to be all alone in a room full of someone else’s work except for an occasional dog.
Not until the end of the row did I actually run into an artist, Minga Opazo, whose studio was filled with oversized textiles that seemed to grow into organic shapes, with several sculptures resembling the rings of a tree. She sourced the cloth from thrift stores where only about 15% of what is donated ever sees a rack, the rest being thrown away for defectiveness or a simple lack of space.
As I emerged from the veritable grotto into a courtyard, things became a little livelier as folks started milling around the outdoor area. From here, I ventured into the studio of Casey Baden, where I unknowingly poured myself a glass of heavily spiked and highly delicious homemade lemonade. The plush sculpture in the corner caught my eye as an interesting comment on the flatness of the male gaze. But Baden was quick to correct me — she felt the piece spoke more to the imprints we leave on domestic spaces even after we have gone.
From a few doors down, a high falsetto voice lured me in. Inside, I found the work of Woohee Cho that largely dealt with the trauma of telling his mother he is gay and the aftermath of this admission, including the time he called her on FaceTime to sing Handel’s aria, “Lascia ch’io pianga” as proof of his talent and humanity.
From here, I set off over a hill at the bottom of which lay the college’s photography studios. I found the work of Courtney Coles, whose photo booth self-portraits document her own journey to self-realization; she sees the photo booth as a traditional yet under-acknowledged safe space for members of the LGBTQ community. Once upon a time before cell phone cameras, photos of same-sex partners smooching that were developed at the local drugstore may well have been reported to the police. On the other hand, the instant print of photo booths cut out any chance of a meddling middleman.
On the other side of the building I discovered the work of Nick Angelo, whose “Power Gaze” photo series reverses the Medusa-esque stare of opioid-pushing pharmaceutical companies. By capturing their headquarters, such as those of the Sackler family owned Purdue Pharma, in black and white, his photographs transform otherwise free-floating amoebic entities into stone-like monoliths that very much exist in time and space and are therefore susceptible to the consequences of their actions.
Like any journey into the unknown, mine was filled with surprises and uncertainties. Besides the mysteriously deserted stretches (and the art that went unmentioned that felt a bit too much like “student work”), a substantial number of works held a great deal of possibility and promise. Far from retreading well-worn paths, many of the artists brought new takes on emergent and evolving issues, ranging from global warming to the construction of alternative identities. The best of these were sincere and rigorous — qualities all too often absent in the art of those about to graduate into the proverbial real world. All and all, the voyage to Santa Clarita was well worth the endeavor.
The CalArts Graduate Open Studios took place at the California Institute of the Arts (Valencia, Santa Clarita, Calif.) on Sunday, April 28.
Correction: A previous version of this article attributed the first image to the incorrect artist. We apologize for the error and it has been fixed.