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Hope, History and Play with the UCI MFAs (Part I)

The MFA, the terminal degree for artists — it is what artists strive for and what gallerists pushing the contemporary art market forward thrive on. For an artist, the MFA’s culmination is the thesis exhibition; it is like their coming out party in the art world, their brief introduction into the real art world and can make or break an artist’s forthcoming luck in the art market.

UCI’s MFA program is in the top 20 MFA programs in the country according to U.S. News & World Report and The National Center for Education Statistics. In this thriving cultural area Irvine is a great area for artists to concentrate on their practice just outside of the busy mecca of Los Angeles, and the art to come out of the MFA program at UCI can be a fascinating glance at the trends for the ever-evolving contemporary art market and look into the mind of the communal artist at this current sociopolitical moment.

Because of the quantity of culminating MFAs every year, the UCI Claire Trevor School of the Arts (CTSA) breaks them up into two parts. This year’s “MFA Thesis Exhibitions, Part I” showcases the work of graduating MFA artists Brandon David, Yubo Dong, Anna Ialeggio, Maximilian Karnig and Charisse Pearlina Weston. The CTSA utilizes all of its three art galleries on campus for MFA theses, and each artist gets a large space to do what they will.

A great first introduction to this unique multi-space art adventure is the Room Gallery, which currently features art by Anna Ialeggio entitled “Flat Not True.” Walking into the small darkened room, your eyes immediately fix on the only light across the room in the form of two video projections on strangely shaped black silhouette cut-outs. The video projections feature a figure, each on their own silhouette cut-out, as if carrying on in a private moment, mid-action. This piece, “man (birdie) and crane (shuttlecock)” gives the sense of performance as the two figures enact their own stories, one of a bird-like creature — but in a very minimal costume, showing us the performative qualities and behavior — and the other, an androgynous figure dressed in a banal masculine outfit — also giving the perception of a performance as it looks like a costume of a man. We can see parallels between the figures’ performances here with our own performances of our visual and physical identities. The interesting title of the piece allows us to imagine that there is a kind of parallel going on here — in the game of badminton, the birdie is another word for a shuttlecock, both just pieces performing in a game.

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Just nearby these projections is a wall of three very large, mobile sculptures turning on motors and casting identical shadows of themselves just below. The object in the mobiles is of a crane-like bird whose neck turns into a cone or a light cast on the ground. Created in three-dimensional form and rotating around and around again, these subtle and interesting sculptures act like a real-life screensaver in motion, just keeping the area warm for the next action; this leaves viewers with a sense of waiting and unresolved energy.

On the opposing wall, almost tucked out of sight, is a dimly lit photo printed on a blanket that looks like a handwritten list on a piece of lined paper. Numbered 1-4, it reads (in order): itself, scarcity, replacement, new baseline for self. This untitled blanket drawing feels intimate in both content as well as the material it’s printed on. Our presence in front of it feels invasive and also comforting — the list could be about art and the process of art-making but it could also be about self-evaluation, trauma or growth. The entire space of “Flat Not True” evokes a large notion of creating — creating art, identity, a body, a persona, gender, story, performance or experience.

Just across the courtyard from the Room Gallery is the next stop on this MFA adventure and is the Contemporary Arts Center Gallery, which features work by Brandon Davis and Yubo Dong. These two young artists both utilize video work in their theses, and although beautifully set-up in the expansive space, they leave visitors wanting more. Yubo Dong’s project, “I am only trying to help,” is a two-video installation that is centered on canned response often made by Google home assistants when provoked with a series of confrontational questions about itself. Brandon Davis’s exhibition, just around the corner from Dong’s, is a combination of video projection, ceramic sculpture and wooden sculpture. Davis has centered his installation and his video piece on the subculture of skateboarding and motorcycles, but it seems to echo the community inherent in these cultures, and the history and hard work involved.

In the University Art Gallery, the work of Maximilian Karnig and Charisse Pearlina Weston are on view. Maximilian Karnig’s paintings in “Dogsbody” are bright and attractive works that draw you into the space, but upon closer inspection these expressionist oil paintings do not have any great achievements in the thousand-year old tradition of painting, nor do they evoke any significant feelings or thoughts upon viewing. All the while, Charisse Pearlina Weston’s project projects loud and cacophonous sounds as soon as you enter the space, and they continue to beckon you to explore the source. Turning a corner to greet the noises, you stumble upon a magical sight of four small gray glass objects, like ghosts, that are yelling their sounds as they sit atop of small mounds of broken glass. Upon further inspection, they are talking to one another, as part of a four-channel sound piece is playing.

The sound piece is a combination of spoken word poetry, literary text, a speech by Frederick Douglass, advertising language, and fragments of music, all of which slightly muffled as they are spoken or sung by the artists. These gorgeous ominous gray glass ghosts are echoing the words of others, from history, from literature, from love and from hate. Surrounding these passionate ghosts are a series of glass and concrete sculptures with occasional images and varied phrases of poetic discourse, further adding to the narrative field set-up by the sound installation. All of the pieces in “An Appeal, but, in Particular, Very Expressly, To (i sink)” examine the different ways that black culture and the history of modern slavery has shaped the western collective understanding of freedom, or personhood, and of property. Weston poignantly and powerfully evokes a deep well of emotion and a visceral response in viewers to touch on the modern history of black people, the structures of black identity, the subversive ways that black people are commodified, and how we consider freedom and identity knowing all that has happened.