Meandering the dim halls of Hunter College’s admittedly hideous MFA Studio Building in Hell’s Kitchen for their recent MFA Open Studios, peering into every open door I could find, I expected to be fascinated by the selection of emerging artists contained within the small, often shared studios — but I did not anticipate being consistently blindsided by the artists’ unexpected plays with the hidden, the participatory, and the startlingly witty.
Featuring 130 MFA students, the Hunter College MFA Open Studios was an overwhelming stroll through five floors full of artist studios. Not only marking an opportunity to view the studios of up-and-coming artists, this year’s open studios was its last in the Hell’s Kitchen MFA Building before students move to a new building in Tribeca in the fall.
Beginning on the 6th floor, I started my open studio visit with Max Greis’s wide range of artistic mediums from collage paintings to stereoscopic photographs. Mixing the historical with contemporary technology, Greis’s unique employment of a stereoscope immediately caught my eye. Taking images from, as he showed me, his enormous collection of original stereoscopic photographs, Greis then scans and collages them together, juxtaposing seemingly disparate images to create surreal, three-dimensional scenes.
If an MFA student’s use of a stereoscope was not surprising enough for me, I was shocked to discover a moving painting wedged between two of his intricate collaged works. At first glance, I pegged the middle painting on his studio wall as yet another static image. Upon a second glance, and with help from Greis, I noticed scenes appearing and disappearing on the panel.
Mining the History Channel and other historical clips, Greis merged together a landscape of video imagery and projected it on a painted panel, creating a noticeably vibrant color. Watching the mesmerizing melange of video and paint, I kept viewing new moments in the video, from horses running through a gate to a Native American who appears in the forefront of the panel.
Another artist who played with the unexpected in her work was Spanish artist Catalina Viejo Lopez de Roda. Drawing from feminist theory as well as poetry and her own family, Viejo’s large, mostly black and white works on paper presented a complex study of the duality of women and female sexuality.
While I was initially attracted to Roda’s slightly disturbing works on paper, I discovered, with Viejo’s insistence, a small, completely engrossing participatory work, which she described as a construct. Opening each panel to find more and more tabs, Viejo’s construct revealed numerous hands opening up a woman’s body. Becoming complicit through the opening of the construct itself, Viejo forces the viewer to participate in the voyeuristic and sexual act.
Perhaps illustrating viewer’s near complete paranoia about touching artwork, Viejo admitted to me that most of the attendees were hesitant to even touch her construct. However, her participatory construction was perhaps one of the most confrontational and theoretical pieces in the open studios.
Yearning for a similarly shocking moment of discovery like Viejo’s construct, I managed to find another artist’s work which played with the idea of hidden sexuality. Part of a performance the previous night, Natalee Cayton’s installation There are those to be seen and read/There is a platform in which to lay presented a sense of fluid sexuality and love.
As directed by the wall label, I walked barefoot up the wooden platform to a series of three lighted holes. Kneeling to peek into the holes, I found three typed pages, which read like scenes from the postmodern fiction of Kathy Acker or Lynne Tillman. With lines reading “You were a girl at the same time I was a boy,” the multiplicity of meanings made for a fascinating and physically uncomfortable glimpse into the hidden, allowing for a completely different interaction with stories and language.
Similarly playing with language, Nari Kim’s series of works based on Art in America reviews revealed a witty and unforeseen concept. At first glance, Kim’s wall-mounted sculptural pieces look like paint-splattered found objects and yet, when looking around her studio, a framed review from Art in America points to her underlying idea. Without ever viewing the work described in a review from Art in America, Kim takes the critic’s description of works from Picasso or Pollock literally, constructing what she pictures as she reads the review.
As an art critic myself, I found it somewhat unsettling and also thoroughly hilarious to see what Kim’s works looked like in comparison to the text of the review and the original artwork. However, I shudder to think what Kim would create in relation to some of my own reviews.
Even though many of the works that attracted me at the Hunter College MFA Open Studios contained a conceptual grounding, I was also surprised and relieved to find art that was unquestionably funny, such as Charlie Hobbs’s works on paper. While many artists attempt to have a good sense of humor in their work, I rarely find myself laughing out loud while viewing art. In a studio filled with quirky, moving sculptures, my eye and sense of humor was drawn to his works on paper presenting ideas to “grow weed with Dan Flavin” or to “take acid and wear an Elmo suit in Times Square,” which Hobbs would probably not be the first Elmo to try.
After exhausting my art-viewing stamina with the constant discoveries evoked by the Hunter College MFA Students, I left the Hunter building for most likely the final time, feeling hopeful not only that there is a group of emerging artists who are striving to create participatory, fresh, and innovative work but also that I can still be surprised by art.
Hunter College MFA Open Studios took place on April 26 and 27 at the Hunter College MFA Building (450 W 41st Street, Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan).