It may feel like the fairs are currently dominating New York City’s art scene, but farther uptown, Columbia University’s 30 graduating MFA students are presenting their thesis work in a thoughtful exhibition that offers a welcome break from the commercial shows. The Unravelling and Exploding of Time, Space, and Matter, curated by Jasmine Wahi and up through May 21, takes up two floors at the school’s Lenfest Center for the Arts and involves more than just paintings hung side-by-side or artworks grouped into arbitrary categories. Instead, the show compiles incredibly disparate works into a network of immersive gallery spaces, all somehow speaking to the exhibition’s impossible theme. What does “the unraveling and exploding of time, space, and matter” even mean?
Garrett Ball’s prints, watercolors, and linoleum-printed wallpaper tackle the show’s wordy title upon first entry. Facing the gallery doors, the installation is an obsessive and pseudo-mathematical dissection of Western art and the notion of time featuring a subway turnstile and the imposing architecture of Grand Central Station’s famous hall. From here on out, the artists largely discard this canonical imagery, concocting their thesis presentations from nontraditional objects and personal memories.
One thing that stands out about the show is a handful of artists’ exploration of fear as a tool to convey a deeper meaning. On the upper level, Anna Ting Möller’s two-pronged installation comprises severed limbs hanging from the dark space’s ceiling and a 10-minute video loop. The film blends personal and landscape imagery taken in China (Möller is Chinese and Swedish). The scenes — glimpses of a water bottle resting on a table, the facade of an apartment building, a crowded street, a serene river, and fidgety hands — evoke a racing memory. In front of the video, Möller’s sculptural works are made in part using kombucha culture. The probiotic is made from tea and sugar, two drivers of imperialism, and Möller describes her use of the material as a reflection on colonial histories.
Two floors below, Alison Nguyen has summoned a horrific halved car filled with dirt. A disturbing film that follows the lives of three women programmed by artificial intelligence whose memories have been erased, interspersed with references to the Vietnam War, plays across three nearby screens. In one scene, the women sit in the back of a car with a dead man lying in a pile of dirt at their feet.
Other works are more playful. Merry Sun’s “Wayward Bridge, Westward Sun” (2023) encompasses three sloped platforms with steel pipes lined up along their sides. The pipes play whimsical notes as the viewer walks across the undulating bridges.
Another stunning presentation incorporating sound is Paul Rho’s multipart installation Tidal (2023), which melds analog photography and moon jars, a traditional Korean ceramic. Speakers inside the jars play quick singular notes — recordings of Rho hitting ceramic bells — on a 10-minute loop. The pings move from one paper jar to the next and never sound at the same time. The intervals between notes are too long to pick up on a pattern, transforming the ethereal work into another somewhat unsettling installation.
I encountered Rho near his installation, setting up his camera to document the exhibition for his classmates. In creating Tidal, Rho told me, he asked himself how he could “make photography into something else.” The project began with the artist throwing moon jars on a pottery wheel and then wrapping them with mulberry paper printed with photographs of Korea, where he grew up. Rho felt the material aspect of the work was complete, so he added a performance element in which he hits two bells as he knocks down the paper jars while wearing traditional Korean hanbok attire (the bells, dress, and a small video of the performance are displayed near the paper jars).
“In the end, I cannot perform 24/7, so this has to come in the form of installation,” Rho said. With the help of a friend, he recorded the sound of the bells and made them play inside the moon jars.
The Columbia MFA exhibition also includes a smattering of exquisite paintings, some contemplating collective histories and others relaying deeply personal moments. Conor Dowdle’s “Duo Divorce Club” (2022) depicts a Brooklyn bar. Dowdle, who sketched on site, told me the characters sitting on the bar stools loosely resemble real people. The bar almost looks like a carnival, with its yellow hues and ceiling painted with the sun-ray pattern of a circus tent. The figures themselves appear transitory, too, loosely outlined and blurred as if in motion.
Other works are more abstract. Levi Nelson, an artist from the Lil’wat Nation in British Columbia, Canada, crafted a series of oil paintings incorporating Indigenous design elements including the Pacific Northwest formline and the Coast Salish carving style. In his artist statement, Nelson explains that he chose the European tradition of oil painting as a way to explore what it means to be an artist with an identity that has been “interrupted, influenced, shattered, and then put back together from both sides.”
Downstairs, Li Wang’s paintings show a single naked subject in various domestic spaces drenched in vibrant lighting. Kat Lowish created a series of paintings depicting interiors, too. They are mostly quiet and occasionally surreal, asking what goes on in our most intimate environments when no one is there to watch. Kevin Cobb’s series of strangely shaped oil paintings play with perspective and self-perception, piling multiple realities of vision into single works and depicting the view of the artist while they are physically creating the artworks.
Perhaps due to meticulous curating by Jasmine Wahi, who founded the local arts nonprofit Project for Empty Space, each of the 30 presentations transports the viewer to wildly different places while remaining somewhat cohesive. What draws them together might be the creepy echos of the video loops filling the galleries, lending even the lightest works a feeling that time, space, and matter are indeed “unraveling and exploding.”