Sarp Kerem Yavuz.JPG

MFA SHOW 2015 School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Sullivan Galleries

Kittisak Wa Chontong detail.JPG

I’m excited to step off the elevator on the 7th floor at Sullivan Galleries, knowing the show is a behemoth collection that should be ripe with interesting, diverse, and ambitious work. The first appetizer? Untitled by Kittisak Wa Chontong in the lobby. I am stunned – it is neither ironic nor interesting and impossible to take seriously. A sloppily assembled cardboard box with some duck tape, torn paper, and an ink pen does not create new narratives or conversations or relationships (as suggested by the artist). This does not bode well for an introduction to such an important show for over 100 participating artists. Luckily, just inside the entrance, Corner Curve Wall by Eric S. Oresick begins to restore my confidence. I press on. There is a lot to see here, swinging from both ends of a wild and wide spectrum. As I walked through the galleries, I felt underwhelmed – there were too few ecstatic pauses and instead, I found myself repeatedly thinking: things can have meaning, though they have no meaning to me / things can have meaning, though they have no meaning to me / things can have meaning, though they have no meaning to me / things can have meaning, though they have no meaning to me.

Shen-Yuan Su.JPG

Don’t get me wrong; there are works that are outstanding, like the staggering work Iman by Sarp Kerem Yavuz (pictured at top), which captured my attention through engaging content of the desecularization of Turkey, large-scale technical prowess, and bold installation. Or _oracle() by Shen-Yuan Su, a particularly good example of kinetic art that combines craft, industry, and philosophy (in figure and in sound), rather than simply an exploration of movement. Quietly and then overwhelmingly, a woman’s voice prophetically and passionately proclaims “what you hear is what is, what you see is what is” until they so densely overlap I am dizzy. Other works, however, such as the collection of camping paintings and objects by Betany Porter…not so much. More so, I vehemently disliked several works to the degree that they made me viscerally angry, like Untitled by Oriana Weich: a vague video projected onto a haphazardly-piled roll of white paper cast asunder on top of white pedestals. But sadly, most fell to a safe place somewhere in the middle, and mostly in terms of execution: not great, not terrible, and not enough to stop and engage. To follow are some of the other works that made an impression from this expansive and diverse gamut.

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Video works were everywhere, I could hear them coming and going throughout every nook of the exhibition, warning and beckoning me to their presence. By far, the most successful is Composition for a Place In-Between by Erika Raberg, an intimate video of boy massacring a clarinet and, a man keeping up on a stand up bass (also captured in the photograph titled Untitled (echo location)). Invoking feelings of sadness and perseverance, Raberg displays a subtle naivety, reflective of a mature approach to the medium. This is more than can be said for S>HE<R by Jiyun Jung which depicted jutting legs exploding from a corner with a psychedelic background and unnecessary objects on the ground, or Charm for Heart by YALOOPOP which depicted what I can only reason was 3-D vibrating shrimps and an image of the earth pulsating to sci-fi music; both of which felt ridiculous and contrived (see note about anger above).

Carley Ries - Angle of Repose.jpg

Each site is an arabesque, to illustrate some hazard and marvel of intimacy by Carly Ries is a total standout in the vast caverns of this exhibition and among the artists presenting photographic works. An inquisitive and intense mini-collection, each image is a dichotomy of hard and soft, muted colors and provocative figures, sharp detail and forgiving focus. A title stemming from The Waves by Virginia Wolf, Ries’ images allude not only to the merciless struggle felt in our most private moments, but also resonates within the context and larger dialogue of contemporary photography.

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Leah Mackin’s exquisite and sophisticated works, all three titled Untitled, reflect an artist with focus and precision, an artist who considers technique and presentation as much as content. Not quite drawings, but rather remnants of a presence, Mackin’s elegant two-dimensional works offer opportunities to reminisce, reconstruct, and imagine the who and the why.

Sein, Zeit and Innerweltlich Seindes (Being, Time and Inner-Worldly

Jany Zhang - detail.JPG

Entity) by Jany Zhang also captures this same essence of experience and action. Reminiscent of the paper stacks by the late Felix Gonzalez-Torres combined with the burned pages of Chinese-American artist Beili Liu, Zhang’s dense stack of rice paper stained with traditional calligraphy ink illustrates the significant changes that are possible from small interventions. Interested in the concepts of Taoism, Zhang sets a simple and irreversible process into motion and waits for the invading liquid to bleed from the center out. It is an interesting question about the autonomy of our decisions. It’s a shame then, that much of the presence gained by Zhang’s work is greatly interrupted by the juxtaposition with the adjacent works which grossly invade and annihilate the shared space.

Karen Nachtigall, detail.JPG

Karen Nachtigall presents Peristalsis (a term used to describe the involuntary wave like motion that happens in the intestines), which depicts nearly 8,000 cones, each reflecting a plaintiff in a Mass Tort lawsuit against a pharmaceutical company. Each cone was laser cut, folded, dipped in plaster, painted and attached to the organic and expansive form reminiscent of the interior of the body – it is incredibly seductive. Like a magpie, I am drawn to the beauty in the work and appreciative of the craft and time that were obviously critical to the meditative process of creation. In understanding that Nachtigall seeks to make sense of her (and my) place in society through experiences with illness, significant events in the body, and the intervention of medicine – the wheels of phenomenology are spinning.

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Also working in ceramics, Jonathan Rockford explores the sculptural possibilities of single-stitch crochet in glazed and painted porcelain works titled Devoided Accretions. These are interesting investigations, if nothing more than technically, of the crossroads between the handmade and the digitally rendered. Presented on a stainless steel medical table, each object becomes a specimen to be documented, dissected, and catalogued – whether it is for posterity or navigating the future is where the real question lies.

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Interiorization of the Outward. Exteriorization of the Inward. by Fafnir Adamites, a rich pair of objects serving as felted meditations on trauma, memory, and the legacy of emotional turmoil inherited from past generations. There is an immediate correlation with the past purely through his selection of media and process (as history to be remembered and lore to be passed forward), and the life-size scale makes the work immediately relatable to the self and the other. Here, a stern and segmented plumb sways softly over a crumpled quilt/ground/disguise, hypnotizing me ever deeper into the rich black abyss receding before me. The significance of repetition in labor is reflective of Adamites’ obsession with the repetition found everywhere in our existence – it is intoxicating. Other works that peaked some interest include Trigation by Mike Sullivan: the audio is interesting, the installation is not; Deokcheon Village by Mirong Kim (pictured below): a delicate depiction of a small village in South Korea that was razed to make way for new construction; Paper-Pop Pavillion by Nahyeong Lim: an enormous structure made of cardboard tubes and zip ties, and Orbit by Tobias Zehntner: two swinging light bulbs creating visual tracers, though I cannot help but compare it to the works of Olafur Eliasson.

Mirong Kim - detail.JPG

Overall, as a collective exhibition it feels quite frenetic, as these kinds of exhibitions often do, dotted with singular works that are meant to represent the culmination of a student’s experience, education, and pursuits over the course of several years. If you go to the exhibition’s website:, you can read a bit more about each artist or connect to their personal websites, giving a more round picture of their ideas and perhaps, images of works that should have been selected to more adequately represent their intentions. In some cases, inevitably, they simply failed to make any sort of make an impact regardless of any background information I can muster. Having been through the graduation exhibition gauntlet twice (for both a BFA and a MFA), I understand the delicate dance this culmination of efforts is supposed to represent and the number of hands at work through the process. In reading the exhibition information, for over four months, graduating MFA candidates worked with curatorial teams of distinguished guest curators and graduate curatorial assistants to envision the exhibition through what is described as an invested approach that allowed for dialogue, process, and collaborative decision-making to bring the MFA SHOW to fruition over time. So it stands to reason that some of the disconnect I experienced is not necessarily all at the hands of the artists but also of the curatorial teams guiding them; as well as, I suppose, SAIC for steering and molding these students over the course of their time at the school. But, in the end, if one selected work is to represent the conceptual, technical, and aesthetic pursuits of these artists over the course of several years, the ultimate responsibility lies with the artists to successfully illustrate and convey their most developed ideas in masterfully crafted works. Greedily, I just wish there had been more.

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Head downtown and see for yourself. The MFA SHOW 2015 show is on view through Wednesday, May 13 at the Sullivan Galleries, located at 33 South State Street, 7th floor (and it is nearly the entire floor). For more, visit:

For more on the curatorial teams, visit:

Images (from top to bottom): Sarp Kerem Yavuz, Iman, 2015, photograph on fabric banner; Kittisak Wa Chontong, Untitled, 2015, cardboard box; Shen-Yuan Su, _oracle(), 2015, kinetic installation; Erika Raberg, Untitled (echo location), 2015, archival ink-jet print; Carly Ries, Each site is an arabesque, to illustrate some hazard and marvel of intimacy: Angle of Repose, 2015, archival pigment print; Leah Mackin, Untitled, 2015, fingerprints on manipulated steel; Jany Zhang, Sein, Zeit and Innerweltlich Seindes (Being, Time and Inner-Worldly Entity), 2015, Chinese rice paper, traditional calligraphy ink; Karen Nachtigall, Peristalsis (detail), 2015, mixed media;Jonathan Rockford, Devoided Accretions, 2015, glazed and painted porcelain; Fafnir Adamites, Interiorization of the Outward. Exteriorization of the Inward., 2015, paper, felted burlap, felt; Mirong Kim, Deokcheon Village (detail), 2015, fabric LED, arduino; Eric S. Oresick, Corner Curve Wall, 2015, mixed media

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