Art School Confidential 2: The MFA Show

Spring, at art school, isn’t exactly about sunny days and waiting for the first heirloom tomatoes to show up at farmers’ market. It’s a frantic season of creative pushes, buffing edges, and occasional artistic breakthroughs. More often, it’s a season of anxiety levels spiking along with pollen counts. I’m in deep — thesis advising, offering studio crits, editing artist statements (write it so your grandma could have an inkling of what you do), and coordinating CCA’s MFA show. This is not intended as product placement, though I certainly hope you’ll come to see the exhibition (which opens on Thursday, May 12, the day before SFAI’s on Friday, May 13; Mills, UC Berkeley, Stanford, UC Davis, SF State, and others have opened or are about to), but more as an opportunity to consider this art world fixture as a uniquely joyous tradition in this crazy business.

The MFA show, as form, has become oddly politicized in recent years, initially with those booming days of the early 2000s when galleries would poach from graduate exhibitions for the next big thing, to more current dialogs about the exorbitant expense of an advanced art degree and the few viable career options that result from it. (See Bruce High Quality’s Teach 4 Amerika tour, and the accompanying conversation they staged at Southern Exposure.) Regardless, MFA programs are well enrolled these days.

CCA MFA show installation in progress

Artist Rachel Dawson applying wall vinyl to her MFA installation, CCA. Photo: Carmen Winant

The reality of the situation for artists is an endearingly awkward but celebratory moment when all the lessons of critical theory are subsumed by pragmatics (though for the high-concept CCA announcement, designer Geoff Kaplan reveals the reading list from the history and theory course that the full class of grads read their first semester). Artists are cast into the real world with a veneer of institutional finish. That Foucault essay doesn’t help an artist much in being able to mount a large flat-screen monitor securely to the wall, figure out the most effective arrangement of a painting series, or ward off the fire marshal’s ability to shut down an installation for safety violations. Neither does history and theory do much to combat the hours of lost sleep, frayed nerves, or the personality quirks that inevitably come out under pressure. It’s the time when friends and relations come out to support and celebrate a newly minted MFAer for making it through the program. For collectors, the show offers the thrill of making discoveries and scooping up work before an artist has gallery representation that will bump up the prices.

It’s that moment for an artist to wholeheartedly make and present, with the sense of joy that people will look. For viewers, it offers an abundance of material, and at the opening receptions, generous opportunities to socialize.

This is not to say that there won’t be the critics in the house. There’s always lots of art-scene chatter about the quality of a school’s current crop, who stands out, the high and low points. This year, we’re all wondering about SFAI’s new MFA show venue on Treasure Island. Perhaps more interesting is to look at how a next generation of artists is processing this peculiar cultural moment of sputtering economies and political shift, and raise a glass to their commitment to the process, and to their future. Mazel Tov!

Forward thinking work by Sarah Hotchkiss, CCA MFA exhibition. Photo: Carmen Winant

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