Inflatable mattresses, water from the Milwaukee River, and sand from the Pacific Ocean are just some of the materials that visual artists innovatively integrated into the artwork of Columbia’s newest exhibit. A year after Columbia postponed the First Year MFA show, second-year Master’s of Fine Arts students returned to display their pieces in their long-awaited Columbia debut. Despite facing cutbacks on studio space and collaborative group work, artists have come together for a final showing of their work.
On display in the Wallach Art Gallery from March 27 to April 10, the Visual Arts Class of 2021 First Year MFA Exhibition, curated by Carmen Hermo, associate curator at the Brooklyn Museum, featured works of 23 student artists, highlighting a diverse range of contemporary issues from refugeeism and queerness within Bangladeshi communities to domestic violence and bodily harm.
Under the constraints and limitations of the pandemic, the Master’s of Fine Arts students worked remotely from their own studios and virtually connected with curators through Zoom to communicate their visions and aspirations for their gallery presentation.
Carmen Hermo was impressed by the level of ambition and experimentation that the fine arts cohort invested in students’ innovative endeavors.
“I saw a lot of artists dealing with push and pull between memories, like remembering the love and lost ones or pre-COVID time, or the landscapes that they’re no longer in, but then there was also a lot of political imagination at hand,” Hermo said.
Here is a look into some of the artwork displayed in this year’s exhibition.
A remote year led artist Khari Turner, SoA ’21, to move to Venice, California, where he explored themes of spirituality and ancestry in his work. On display is his piece “Black Alternative 2,” which depicts various hands, lips, and noses on a faceless body painted on a black canvas. Turner’s work blends sand and water from various sources across the United States, including Manhattan’s harbors and the Milwaukee River where he grew up. The piece is meant to signify the deep resonance that water has had in Black history, particularly related to the transatlantic slave trade, creating an uplifting piece connecting various aspects of Turner’s life.
“There’s a little part of history, there’s a little part of me, and there’s a part of fantasy of being able to think of water from across the nation being in one image at the same time,” Turner said.
“I Leave My Windows Open At Night” by Ivana Carman, SoA ’21, is a mix of collaged screen prints and acrylic and oil paints in the form of a diptych, a two-part piece placed together. The piece focuses on the experience of being alone in the city as a woman and the anxieties that come with it. This is a dichotomy, Carman describes, where she highlights her desire to be both close to and distanced from people.
The piece displays the interior of a home, depicting a scene of a dining room that peeks into a window looking out, a mirror reflecting the room, and a door opening into a living room toward the side. Carman’s work uses these scenes to reflect on themes of a more introspective, interior view.
“My work centers around thinking of interiors as a metaphor for interior life,” Carman said. “I use windows and mirrors as a separate world within a separate world.”
The decay and transformation of synthetic and organic materials are on display in “Ocean Alchemy,” made by Noga Cohen, SoA ’21. Made of primarily found materials, Cohen’s piece is composed of an inflatable mattress filled with fiberglass, wax, and other materials melded together with high heat to resemble bodily qualities.
“I have been trying to create this atmosphere that really deeply relates to these processes of decay that happen in our bodies and in the planet,” Cohen said.
Through Cohen’s investigation regarding the relationship between manmade materials and natural powers, viewers can see how elements, such as water and the heat of the sun, can transform both inorganic materials and bodies.
Yixuan Shao and Bicheng Liang
Despite being separated from each other by the pandemic and working remotely across the continent, sound artist Yixuan Shao, SoA ’21, collaborated with printmaker Bicheng Liang, SoA ’21, to create two mixed-media installations. In the sound-print installation “Bleikr,” Shao and Liang aimed to create a multisensory experience of the desert while making the audience aware of its presence in a neutral gallery space.
The installation includes dozens of rectangular boxes covered with cyanotype prints presenting monochrome snapshots of a desert landscape. Viewers sit on a bench that vibrates along with the wall as they hear a multi-channel recording of natural objects penetrating these prints. Shao and Liang invite the audience to investigate the role of nature as a witness of time and history on a geological scale that extends past the human historical experience.
Inspired by Liang’s printmaking practice, which often makes use of natural textures such as tree bark, Liang and Shao’s “At Intervals,” features aluminum foil morphed into textures of rocks, providing a more abstract representation of nature and the state of presence.
“[For] ‘At intervals,’ I feel like the two things working hand in hand is that as a person, I had to be in that position to understand that environment,” Shao said. “Often, maybe you can say it’s a metaphor that it is how we survive in, you know in society, that’s more and more becoming hyper aware of the position and your surroundings.”
Despite facing challenges posted by the pandemic, the fine arts students channeled their creative energy into artistic investigation of time, nature, identity, and spirituality.