How 2020 Changed the Art of Three Emerging MFA Grads

A report by Osman Yan Yerebakan for The Observer.

In an art world that mirrors the country’s overall inequality in terms of distribution of wealth, it’s undeniable that artists have been drastically tested by the crises of 2020. Starting out during a state of emergency has put recent MFA graduates under tremendous pressure. Rapid closures of campus-based studios and cancellations of thesis exhibitions have eliminated opportunities to showcase years of work, just as large sums of tuition loans piled up. In an effort to provide the crucial exposure provided by thesis shows, galleries PerrotinSteve Turner and Hauser & Wirth have recently offered their digital platforms to host otherwise canceled exhibitions for students from Yale, Columbia, Cal State and the Bath Schools of Art and Design. 

“It’s likely that residencies and grants are going to be much more competitive, so people will really have to create dynamic applications,” predicts Adeze Wilford, a curator at The Shed who joined Perrotin’s recent roundtable discussion with Yale students about how art can function today. “These parameters are very similar to 2008, which will have an impact on the industry. Artists’ practices are definitely going to shift because of this,” Wilford told Observer.

MFA graduates find themselves entering into a market rapidly trying to mitigate an economic downturn, but also one embarking on a restructuring and looking inward to correct past mistakes. “There have been generations of Black artists working in the same conceptual framework as white artists, sometimes in the same studio buildings, who weren’t given the same institutional recognition or market support,” Wilfred says, calling the increasing attention on institutions’ inclusivity programs “a turning point for priorities.”

[. . . ]

Besides its social and economic impact, the pandemic meant a sudden loss of access to materials for another Yale graduate, Kathia St. Hilaire, who creates mixed-media paintings with everyday materials such as iridescent paper or sugar packing. Going back home to Florida at the beginning of the pandemic, however, helped St. Hilaire reconnect with these materials she utilizes in her work. “I’ve been able to recenter my work to my home,” she explains while preparing for group exhibitions at Derek Eller GalleryTang Teaching MuseumHalf Gallery, and Blum & Poe for this fall from two separate studios in Florida. “I couldn’t sacrifice from my process, so I needed a separate space with strong ventilation,” she says about reserving her Palm Beach studio for printing with toxic materials. At her Miami studio, she focuses on painting, which has become more focused on mark making and how this relates to Black abstraction since leaving her MFA program. 

And in terms of her research process, “Being able to use institutional online databases with an extensive collection of African and Latinx history is important,” St. Hilaire says.. “I have found it useful to virtually connect to other institutions with material libraries and printmakers.”

Her densely-layered paintings pull cues from her training in printmaking at RISD as well as her interest in everyday materials related to her Haitian identity. Dreamy but also exoticized  Caribbean seascapes or family gatherings blend into tapestry and disposable box braid packs or sugar packaging. “Investing in materials with potential to look like multiple forms, such as cutout prints or textiles interests me,” says the 25-year-old who grew up around South Florida’s Caribbean communities. “The process allows me to tell my own narrative about consumption of beauty products and natural resources, but also relates to the Haitian diaspora,” she says. “Figuration helps me affirm and memorialize controversial, historic, and political issues that deal with both marginalized and privileged communities of the neo-diaspora.”

Times of social uprising have long been periods of “push and pull between figuration and abstraction,” according to Wilford, “to create works with political point of view.” Representation, with its various meanings, is a notion many fresh MFA graduates grapple with today. In doing so, they turn to their communities not only for inspiration but also solidarity, in search of what textbooks have overlooked. During times of the “unprecedented,” their debuts seems more timely than ever.

Image: Kathia St. Hilaire, Biba Bijoux, 2020. Oil Based Relief collage with beauty advertisement on box braids.

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