LOS ANGELES — On a breezy spring Sunday a couple of weekends ago, I drove out to the suburbs of Valencia, California, to what someone jokingly — and very much lovingly — referred to as the “glorious ruins” of the California Institute of the Arts, or CalArts for short. I was there for the school’s annual open studio event, showcasing the work of graduating MFA students. Surprisingly enough, I had never been to the CalArts campus before, despite often feeling surrounded by its alumni, sometimes called “The CalArts Mafia,” especially in Los Angeles.
When asked about the presence of the “mafia” (the term originated in the ’80s as CalArts alumni started to gather in New York,) longtime faculty member Michael Ned Holte described the school’s network as “simultaneously more vast and more tight-knit” than that of many of the other art schools in the city. I could see the “tight-knit,” definitely. There was a kind of easy intimacy in the air on the campus, a place where graduate and undergraduate students seem as comfortable with the faculty as with each other. It was clear, especially after speaking to the students, that the faculty is a major draw of the program — no doubt in a professional capacity, but perhaps even more so as mentors, guides, friends, and supporters.
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I could also see the “vast.” Christine Yerie Lee, for example, enlists both alumni (steven chen, BFA 2020) and students from other departments in the school (Alexsa Durrans, MFA Choreography 2022) as collaborators in her epic horror/romance/rock opera thesis film. And while the cohort does make the occasional appearance in each other’s work (spotted: a portrait of Rodrigo Arruda in Malte Sänger’s series of photographs), connections among artists seemed more like this — collaborations — than formal dialogues with an identifiable visual throughline of, say, theme or material.
Indeed, for the most part, material seemed to be secondary to the artists’ practices; one undergraduate student I ran into told me how the performing arts department seeped its way into the school’s ethos, informing how students approach the material as another means to express the issues they are working out in their practices (often experimenting with new materials for the first time, such as painting for Nick Bosworth,) rather than as a formal vocabulary or a craft to hone.
This loose attitude toward material was reflected throughout the studios. Though the School of Art is separated into four departments — Art, Photo & Media, Art & Technology, and Integrated Media — there was so much crossover that I didn’t realize such departments even existed until I looked at a map later.
That said, I found many of the studios in the Photo & Media department to be especially compelling. Though some students presented a more straightforward use of the camera (Simons Finnerty, whose self-portraits in his mother’s clothing are equal parts touching, disturbing, and nostalgic; or Wanyue An, who documents their body-as-sculpture-performance-object, others offered unexpected, more abstract ways to think about the image — for instance, Elizabeth Herring, whose multimedia practice incorporating everything from stickers to concrete blocks points to how material is indiscriminately flattened into an image, or Zenaido Zamora, whose cyanotypes printed on articles of clothing suggest image as projection and construction, as lifestyle and performance in one. This conceptual mining of material only makes sense at a place like CalArts, where renowned conceptual artists like John Baldessari and Michael Asher once served as faculty members.
Perhaps that’s part of what makes CalArts’s program so distinct — especially in relation to other art schools, many of which originated out of the Arts and Crafts movement in the United States. As Christine Yerie Lee summed up while looking back on her time in the program, CalArts “disrupted any linear thinking of what you think you will get out of the program.” Whereas other MFA programs aim to further develop the language of an artist’s existing practice, smoothing out any rough edges to achieve both formal and conceptual polish, students at CalArts seem to be encouraged to fail, get messy, and try new things — resulting in work that feels far away from the relentless churning of production for the art market.
At least, that’s what the artists’ studios conveyed to me. Only a few of them were staged with a viewing experience explicitly in mind, some even featuring QR codes, press releases, and business cards (see: Amber Denker, Rodrigo Arruda, Antonio Okun, Matthew DeStefano). However, the majority of the studios — though certainly cleaned up — felt very casual. Sometimes a name or social media handle was scribbled somewhere, other times not even that much identified the artist. It came across as a glimpse into a typical day as an art student. It suddenly struck me how rare and refreshing that feeling was, especially given the fact that this cohort of MFA students began their graduate program in 2020, with the tumultuous events of the global pandemic, and are now graduating as the pandemic begins to subside.
It’s hard to put my finger on it, but I think that’s what felt different. Instead of being forced to proclaim life and death stakes or societal significance, as has been the case in the past two years, here, art could take the form of students milling about campus, talking about ideas, visiting their friends’ studios, and enjoying the spring day in their last bouts of senioritis.