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“Currency” — SFAI’s MFA Show @ The Old Mint

Dimitra Skandali, Aegean-Pacific: a Dialog v.I, 2013, installation views, crocheted seaweed, seaweed sphere


Against the backdrop of two art fairs, various galas and several competing MFA shows running over the same mid-May weekend, SFAI’s annual exhibition of its own MFA grads appeared in a location almost  as storied as the Art Institute itself: The Old Mint – the one-time Fort Knox of the West Coast, best known for being one the few buildings to survive the 1906 earthquake.  It may not be the Arsenale or the Giardini, but the students treated it as if it were. They exploited to maximum effect its dungeon-like rooms, large vaults, stairwells, high-ceilinged ballrooms and intimate anterooms.

Currency, the show’s title, pointed not only to the Mint’s history — as a one-time (1874-1937) repository of bullion and gold-coin manufacturing — but also to the hope that these newly minted professionals might themselves attain coin-of-the-realm status.  The show contained impressive works from nearly 90 artists, much of it falling into predictable categories: autobiography, identity, politics, sex, environment, consumption, “institutional critique” and art about art.  As always, the best works displayed strong ideas backed by real skills, revealing influences without mimicking them.  
Marie-Luise Klotz, from Goldwert, The Collapse of an Indicator Species

The biggest buzz  — literally — came from Tom Loughlin’s installation in the basement, Foghorn.  It consisted of a strategically placed subwoofer whose low-frequency emissions vibrated the granite walls, and whose tonality replicated a distant foghorn. The only visible elements were a wool mat on an elevated platform. Laying in that softly lit, dank space, absorbing the sounds, put me in meditative state — but it also put me in the mind of

what prisoners at Alcatraz must have felt waiting out their sentences.  For site-specific relevance nothing else in the show compared. Dimitra Skandali’s installation of huge seaweed ball nearby gave off a musky scent, intensifying the maritime feel; but the bigger payoff from her part of the installation came from visual stimuli: woven strands which made the catacomb-like space appear even spookier than it actually is.  (It received the Anne Bremer Memorial Prize, SFAI's best-in-show award.)

Videos in hallways and stairwells shattered the calm.  Their booming, overlapping soundtracks made the audio portions difficult to discern.  Nevertheless, it was impossible not to recognize the talent of artists like Chris Corrente, Heejin Jang and Lynn Colingham (whose upstairs video kiosk wisely employed headphones.) Jang’s stairwell piece, Duet +Nuclear = Triangle, set to a shrill, ringing electronic soundtrack, juxtaposed pixelated images of Korean dance (traditional and modern) against scenes of a fiery holocaust, bringing to mind the story of Nero fiddling while Rome burned. 

Chris Corrente, 2013, Hyperbole, still from video


Hyperbole, Corrente’s rap video about gaming the system to get laid, paid, high and famous, featured a montage of erotic background images whose lightening-fast sequencing brought to mind Bruce Conner’s 1961-5 masterpiece, Cosmic Ray, a forerunner of modern music video. Colingham’s performance, Skin Horse IV – Drag, is a short, hard-hitting soliloquy voiced by the artist.  She plays a man, a self-obsessed misogynist, and if, after watching her, you felt like you’ve been violated, well, that was the point of this Kara Walker-meets-Andrea Dworkin assault on hip-hop braggadocio.

Chandra Baerg, Untitled (Bering Strait) Assemblage, 2013, gypsum board, oil paint on Dibond, popular latex house paint 96 x 48 x 10"

Amber Crabbe took aim at bureaucratic blame shifting.  She covered a wall with a grid of screen shots from San Francisco Government Television and superimposed quotes overtop a single repeated visage of herself addressing a government agency where she once worked.  She called it an honest conversation, which it clearly wasn’t, because the quotes formed a catalog of fake contrition of the sort we’ve come to expect from elected officials and their minions; it compared favorably to Andrea Fraser’s famous parodies of institutional doublespeak.  

Explorations of sexuality came in several flavors.  In two side-by-side videos, Moises Levi Toledano gyrated nude and in sequined trunks. These mock-erotic taunts, with their over-the-shoulder, come-hither looks, seemed aimed at those who like staring at their own reflections.  Chason Huggins filled a room with beer cans and other party trash and affixed pink drawings of people masturbating to the walls — all very Tracey Emin; while in the basement, Nicole McClure showed photos of models copulating while wearing rubber facemasks of herself. “They demonstrate,” the artist writes, “the contrivance of expression itself.”  Indeed.  Their location, opposite a giant ore-crushing machine, underscored the soullessness of the enterprise, projecting the same smugness as Jeff Koons’ Made in Heaven series, featuring himself and the Italian porn star IIona Staller.
 David Janesko and Adam Donnelly, site-specific camera, seaweed, sand, mud, driftwood
Photography, judging by the sheer number of compelling images, is one of SFAI’s core strengths. Rohit Krishnan Sabu’s prints of dream-like urban and rural scenes on tall scrolls are accompanied by melancholy texts that express angst in prose reminiscent of John Berger's.  The photos seem snatched from the edge of consciousness.  Adam Donnelly and David Janesko build “site-specific cameras” out of beach detritus using drilled-out seashells for lenses. Their photos, which recall camera obscura images of yore, were unremarkable; but the cameras themselves — functional pieces of land art – are amazing when displayed out of context.  (The one on view, in the foreground above, I took for a funeral pyre until a wall label enlightened me.)  Toni Gentilli’s camera-less photos, part of a growing move toward antiquarian methods, are examples of an even older technology: alchemy.  The artist swabs blood, insulin, sugar and light-sensitive chemicals onto microscope slides and exposes them to sunlight to form crystalline formations; these she places in an enlarger to create silver gelatin prints with the stated goal of visualizing “genetic mutation and autoimmune disease.”  Subsequent toning of the prints with copper or gold chloride effects the “alchemical conversion of metals,” which the artist points out, was once thought to be capable of producing “a universal elixir that would cure illness and prolong life.”  Situated in one of the building’s upstairs vaults, they felt as otherworldly as cellular activity viewed through a microscope. 
Hanna Kunysz, Post-Human Strata Series, 2013, compressed found materials

There was plenty of art about the environment. Marie-Luise Klotz’s images, from a documentary series on honeybees, ranged from magnified close-ups to frenzied abstractions, and her careful modulation between those two views riveted attention on how declining bee populations threaten the human food supply. Marcela Davis’ large-scale images of tornados and volcanoes appeared to be straight photos until you stood close, at which point you saw that her source materials were photos of the human body, stitched together to create compelling representational images. Their appearance during the week disaster struck Oklahoma seemed prescient.  Raeyln Ruppel’s photos, of pastel-colored buildings under overcast skies, recall of a lot of photography coming out of China these days about heedless development. The surprise is that these were made at Mission Bay, home to SF’s only houseboat colony and new high-rises, including a UCSF complex.  The area feels like a civilized no-man’s land, and Ruppel’s photos, from the series On the Edge of Utopia, portray it as such, in toxic shades that communicate the area’s still-palpable industrial past. In a sculpture installation consisting of three columns of compressed plastic refuse that seemed both solid and liquid, Hanna Kunysz imagines what core samples of the Earth’s crust might reveal in a post-apocalyptic future.  Foretelling a petrochemical-fueled meltdown, these beautiful/repulsive objects ranked among the show’s highlights.  

Ray Mack, Lovers, 2012, oil on canvas, 96 x 96"

So, too, did Ray Mack’s oil paintings.  She appears to have studied Goya and Bacon, and her depictions of pain and suffering reflect those influences in work that can only be described as waking nightmares – masterfully rendered.  In her remake of Giotto’s The Lamentation, for example, the dramatis personae appear wild-eyed, as does the subject of Lovers whose crooked teeth ooze blood.  Mack’s inspirations are historic, but her thick/thin expressionist paint handling places her pictures squarely in the present.  The same holds for Ingrid Wells’ painterly watercolors about child beauty queens.  They plumb the low end of American pop culture.  Plump-cheeked and daubed in shades of lipstick red, these pre-teens seem as vulnerable to deflation as the ratings of reality TV shows, a source for this series.

Elsewhere, two potent riffs on Minimalism — Chandra Baerg’s sheet rock sculptures and Tamra Seal’s room-sized parody of ‘60s decor – felt like cool tonics relative to everything else.  Baerg folds sheet rock as if it she were making origami, referencing, perhaps, Dorothea Rockburne, but also making common cause with the local duo, Casteneda/Reiman, who, like Baerg, treat the raw material of home building as a vehicle for confounding visual expectations.  Seal’s Pop send-up of Minimalism, replete with fake shag carpet, invokes the aesthetic sensibilities of Dan Flavin (in a wall-mounted lamp), Don Judd (in a stair-step diving platform) and DeWain Valentine (in a resin/wood “lamp”).  This self-contained an art-about-art environment, in addition to those proffered by Loughlin and Skandali, was one the show’s strongest installations.  It garnered SFAI's second-place award for best in show.  
Strong works were also submitted by Michal Wisniowski, Kelly Nettles, Sam Mell, Conrad Guevara, Ilchi Kim, Tony Maridakis, Missy Englehardt, Ivan M. Farmer, Allie Blanchard, Dianna Lindquist, Kevin Tijerina and Ruya Qian.
All in all, Currency offered diverse and inspired expressions of postmodernity. Which is to say: hope for the future. The pity was that the exhibition lasted only four days.  
To see more images from the show visit Squarecylinder's Facebook page.  
Currency, the San Francisco Art Institute’s exhibit of its 2013 MFA graduates, ran May 16-19 @ The Old Mint.

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