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The concept of the starving artist is as old as art history itself. It was Giorgio Vasari who, during the Renaissance, described Michelangelo as exceedingly frugal, subsisting only on wine and bread when on an art-fueled bender. Centuries later, precarity is a condition built into becoming an artist — especially in a city like New York where rent is unaffordable (and so is the milk).
The promise of a better future is on the minds of Columbia University’s 2019 class of visual arts MFAs. Last year’s group of graduates told Hyperallergic that their program was in shambles with faculty unexpectedly departing, studios flooding, and heat inside Prentis Hall reaching scalding temperatures. Students from this year’s cohort say that conditions have much improved. There were fewer facilities issues and the administration added more classes and adjunct faculty — though full-time positions at the school have yet to be filled and some internal problems have persisted. “I wonder if it shows in our thesis show this year,” one artist mused in an email about the show.
Well, did it? I think so.
Fear flashes from the dense woods seen in Taejoong Kim’s Foresta series (2019). Like a scene from a horror film, images of the forest burst onto the projection screen with alarming pace. Many of these images or granular in detail and flat, almost like a woodblock print. Anxiety fills the room. Is that the sound of crunching leaves and branches? Plot twist. On the other side of the screen, viewers will notice that the artist has poked several pinholes into the fabric, which creates a serene vision of twinkling stars on the opposite wall.
Vivian Chiu’s work confronts the mechanics of identity formation in a meticulous deconstruction of materials like wood, acrylic, and photography. As a queer Asian woman, the artist investigates what the weight of tension is on the body, and how disorientation manifests in the body politic. Repetition and labor-intensive practices that all circulate modernist theories of the grid coalesce into works that simultaneously pay homage to her family’s history of toiling in factories and Chiu’s path toward self-discovery. Accordingly, works like “Looking” (2019) and “Self IV” (2019) are symbols of complexity and hardship, the deconstruction and reconstruction of one’s sense of self-worth.
History haunts the halls of the Wallach Art Gallery and artists like Chiu dive into their ancestral pasts. Kiyan Williams presents a hauntingly poetic tribute, called “Untitled (For My Great Great Great Great Great Grandmother Salmoy Miller who was Emancipated from slavery in 1834)” (2019). The work is accompanied by three other related pieces, all of which use dried soil as a foundational material. The result looks dredged from the ground — the dead resurrected as sculptures to tell their story. It’s an approach not unlike what artists, including Wangechi Mutu, are serving at this year’s Whitney Biennial.
There are others who follow this path. The daughter of immigrant parents from India and Pakistan, Ruhee Maknojia’s work searches for symbols of paradise and peace through Persian philosophy and other sources. “The Garden” (2019) is an installation made for relaxation and yet it’s constantly being invaded by trouble. Mischievous characters and chaotic patterns cover the work, weaving a pathway for the viewer into the installation’s darker inner sanctum of meditation.
Another personal highlight was Rafael Domenech’s “Notations from an American landscape” (2017–19), which presents itself as a reading room of massive cutouts. What the artist has accomplished here is an ode to geographical dislocation, a massive photomontage of how urban landscapes are as much generators for creativity as they are stifling places to live. Aesthetically, the images within Domenech’s makeshift art books bear resemblance to John Baldessari’s Overlap and Junction series, which also combined photographs in ways that connect compositional elements and disparate realities.
The future is, by definition, uncertain. But Columbia’s 2019 thesis show attests to the power of visual arts to divine paths into the future by addressing our pasts.