Aren’t we all feeling a little more mortal these days? Between a global pandemic, endless wars, and recent clampdowns on reproductive and trans rights, artists are rightfully unsure what the future holds. Across the cultural sector, people are also thinking about the meaning of art in increasingly monetized public spaces, often directly in relation to their physical being.
At Columbia University, MFA candidates are reconsidering how we perceive the “body” of work. Every corner and crevice of Wallach Art Gallery feels lived in, reflecting not just artists’ experience quarantining with their work, but also that of re-entering society. One artist apparently comes to the gallery each morning to rearrange their installation. Another makes collages from thousands of magazine cutouts that are color-coordinated in their studio. The bridge between exhibition and domestic space is broken down, reinforcing the natural instinct of many artists to beautify their surroundings.
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This year’s thesis exhibition features 33 sound and visual artists addressing how we alter our environment, occupy figurative and literal space, and eventually disappear completely. At one entrance, Joseph Liatela’s “To Move Is to Remember” (2021) accomplishes all three. A display of lilies hanging above a reflective black dance floor sets a somber tone, emanating a gorgeous collage of ambient sounds from queer nightclubs across the city. Pollen handprints on the walls hearken to a performance last week, but they could also symbolize traces of the dearly departed. (The artist held another performance on May 15 to honor victims of the PULSE nightclub shooting.)
Ambient space is a point of departure for Korean artist Hyoju Cheon. White skinfolds grow out of an entire gallery alongside sanding machines she constructed herself. The understated “Slow Down to Nothing” (2022) conveys a highly internalized claustrophobia in the little tensions between body and technology. Despite the airy room they occupy, the tools themselves are attached to the wall, binding the gallery with the labor of its construction.
Other sculptors likewise address artwork as extension of the body. In a display by Jacq Groves, small sets of bones take the form of tools. Raphaela Melsohn’s ergonomic studies rest loosely on thin metal bars to critique the limits of comfort, and perhaps spoof the Eames style. In another room, Xinyi Liu’s earth-tone washcloths appear tattered and stretched like archives of dead skin.
Paintings adhere more closely to conventional portraiture but are thematically fascinating. Linus Borgo’s self-representation “I Sing the Body Electric” (2022) renders a traumatic personal incident into surrealism. The artist was accidentally electrocuted at age 18, which resulted in the amputation of his left hand. In this portrayal, the phantom limb clings to a tree branch that shoots lightning throughout his body, revealing his skeleton. Shooting stars curve above his bare skull into an apse, with moray eels and rabbits fluttering around the foreground. Three starfish at his feet reference Eva Hayward’s theoretical essay on transness as regeneration.
Chinese painter Lyn Liu uses crimson and black oil paint to portray human interdependence. Two disembodied hands toast champagne flutes between slats of harlequin wallpaper. Despite the reference to socializing, a feeling of isolation pervades, hinting at our intrinsic nature as social animals in a highly individualized culture. In contrast, Kelsey Shwetz emphasizes bodily absence in vivid, altered environments. Stained glass adorns a sweeping cliff scene, with vigorous brushstrokes drawing the eye upward. It feels like a spiritualized postscript to human civilization, or perhaps a foreshadowing of what comes next.
Climate awareness comes to the fore in Linnéa Gad’s limestone and lapis lazuli sculptures, which look like they’ve been submerged underwater for centuries. The oyster shells in these works are a welcome sight considering the Hudson River is visible from the gallery; these are the same tiny animals that have helped purify New York’s waterways for generations. Another installation by Christen Shea analyzes the body’s proximity to water in a bedroom scene of wetsuits and concrete slabs, imported from Rockaway Beach during early morning surfing treks.
The artists’ presences are sensed even while not there in person. Palestinian artist Fadl Fakhouri’s pain is palpable in their elevated bridge of tied-up keffiyeh cloth, which could well be remnants of the dead. At the time of writing, Palestinians are carrying the body of beloved journalist Shireen Abu Akleh through the streets of Jenin, Nablus, and Ramallah after her murder by an Israeli sniper, reinforcing Fakhouri’s drawn borderlines as bodily restrictions.
As guest curator Elisabeth Sherman writes in the catalogue, a thesis exhibition should be “a celebration of a goal realized and a marker in time.” True to form, Lizzie Zelter allows sunlight to work its magic on her paintings throughout the day. A three-dimensional house covered in mirrors refracts the rays across colorful storefront scenes. A rumination on privacy and anonymity in the urban sprawl, the piece succinctly illuminates our collective presence in this fleeting moment.
Columbia University’s Visual Arts Class of 2022 MFA Thesis Exhibition continues at the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery (615 West 129th Street, Upper West Side, Manhattan) through May 22. The exhibition was curated by Elisabeth Sherman.