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LOS ANGELES and IRVINE, Calif. — After spending much of their education separated from one another due to the ongoing pandemic, recent graduates from the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) and UC Irvine (UCI) have rejoined their classmates through their respective MFA exhibitions, re:connections and A Lantern for Many Lives.

In “Han,” CalArts MFA Ruoyi Shi reappropriates the ancient ritual of placing jade in the mouths of the dead. In Shi’s iteration she stuffs her own mouth full of ceramics, gummies, and ice cast in the shape of traditional jade figurines. In the final sequence of her recorded performance, Shi fills her mouth with ice and spits out the melted water. The clear liquid holds a vanitas-like beauty, but with the current context of saliva as a biohazard, fear crowds interpretation. Though a centuries-old practice, Shi’s “Han” transports us to immediate danger.

The inescapability of the pandemic infiltrates each gesture and concern of the recent MFAs, and both cohorts are equally interested in standing witness to the precarious present and cataloguing what remains. In re:connections, curator Audrey Min stresses the artists’ interests in personal archives and collective histories. 

Amanda Bauer and Lois Bielefeld set their focus on the origins of their birth lines. With an archaeologist’s care, Bauer photographed her grandfather’s mysterious archive of handmade objects. Wrought with the history of her grandparents’ divorce, the two photographs on view contain an inaccessible drama: we have no clues as to why Bauer’s grandfather made and then maintained these objects. Here, these absurd little sculptures are static, but we easily imagine turning them over in our hands: flipping the closure on a wooden box or pressing dried corn kernels onto our palms.

Installation view, Amanda Bauer, “Corn Dryer” (2021) (photo by Rafael Hernández)

Bielefeld shares Bauer’s fascination with familial collections by pairing Bibles, clocks, and other tchotchkes with their collectors: her mother and father. Part of her larger series To Commit To Memory, each image restages quiet interactions in her parents’ evangelical home: folding laundry, serving dinner, and memorizing scripture. Bielefeld heightens the reality of these tableaus by including transcripts from her parents’ conversations, allowing her subjects a voice. 

Installation view, Lois Bielefeld, “When I was young I always wanted to be a full-time homemaker. And I wanted 12 children. Then I married Eric, and God blessed us with two children. We would have liked more, but are very grateful for both Dan and Lois. It was wonderful to have a boy and a girl. I love and appreciate both of them. We miss being able to see more of each of them. I pray faithfully for them every day.

Since I became an adult, I’ve always felt like I was looking in from the outside on my parents — only seeing through a limited framework. I wonder how much of that was due to the boundaries I built.” (2020) (photo by Rafael Hernández)

In contrast to the shared space for CalArts graduates, UCI MFAs have been afforded their own galleries in the dispersed arts center plaza on campus. In her contribution, “The Keeling,” Ivy Guild reanimates the dried husks of aloe collected from the now-demolished UCI Arboretum. Displaced from South Africa, this plant faced another forced removal. Guild designs support structures for each aloe corpse so that they appear ready to walk back to their distant soil home. Through latex casts (in “Sloughing”) and metal fixtures (in “Dizygotic” and “Rollator”), Guild gives these diasporic seedlings a dignity not yet afforded.

Installation view, Ivy Guild “Rollator,” “Sloughing,” and “Dizygotic” (2021) (photo by Ivy Guild)

In a separate campus gallery, André Comtois’s rotoscope work, “Self-Care,” animates tracings of disembodied hands as they handle invisible objects. These vignettes, sourced from YouTube videos of mundane activities (deboning a chicken, changing a car part, washing one’s hands), suggest a more menacing quality in their touch. Given the ongoing threat of viral surface transmission, Comtois’s echoes of touch magnify what we cannot hold. Like Shi’s “Han,” “Self-Care” is weighted with a sickening context. However, each of these artists anchor their practices in a minor gesture that announces something extraordinarily hopeful: the chance to contextualize their work within the mirror of their peers for the first time in this new pandemic present. 

Installation view, Andre Comtois “Self Care” (2021) (photo by Paul Salveson)

re:connections continues at Tin Flats (1989 Blake Ave, Elysian Valley, Los Angeles) through August 31.

A Lantern for Many Lives continues through September 1. The Keeling and Each a Different How were on view at the Contemporary Arts Center Gallery (University of Irvine, Irvine, Calif.) August 1-11.

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Shannon Hebert Waldman

Shannon Hebert Waldman is a Los Angeles-based arts writer and bookseller. Her work has appeared in FNewsmagazine, Social Objects: Essays, Interviews, Projects and Interventions on Socially Engaged Craft,...

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