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As the school year drags to a close, shows of work by students just nailing down their B.F.A. and M.F.A. degrees are cropping up all over town. Most of these shows are brief, many instantly forgettable, but few are without spark, and more and more of them are good enough to attract an audience beyond the usual indulgent parents and peers. Though there’s no local phenomenon to compare with the full frontal assault of Yale photo department grads (Katy Grannan, Anna Gaskell, Dana Hoey, Justine Kurland, Deborah Mesa-Pelly, Tim Davis, et al.) on the art world, that hasn’t stopped dealers, curators, and collectors from showing up at Parsons, Columbia, or Cooper Union senior shows ready to pounce on fresh meat.
That sort of attention, along with the increasing emphasis on professionalism and presentation, doesn’t necessarily spur creativity. Too often these days, student work seems calculated rather than inspired—molded by market forces, both real and imagined, before it’s had a chance to develop a force of its own. But this is true of entirely too much of the art that turns up in the galleries as well, and even if senior show projects are tailored for consumption, they still tend to be fresher, leaner, looser, more sincere, and (if you’re lucky) more audacious than their pro counterparts. (For collectors willing to gamble on their enthusiasms, the work is also a hell of a lot cheaper. Though the M.A. thesis show up at NYU’s 80 Washington Square East Galleries through June 1 includes a 14-part installation piece for $9000 and a few works in the $3000 range, there are plenty of photos priced between $600 and $800—barely the cost of a frame at a blue-chip space.)
Because every institution approaches the rite of the spring student show differently, there is no standard format, and the idiosyncrasy and unpredictability of the experience give it a certain charge. No matter how well-intentioned, some of these exhibitions are a mess: impossibly overhung, hopelessly slapdash, and, by their very nature, wildly uneven. In many cases, students are allotted a limited amount of wall space to fill as they wish, staking out individual territory only inches away from one another’s work. But chaos can be exhilarating, if overstimulating, and cheek-by-jowl competition is a challenge for both the artist and the viewer. Though some of the work that stands out at these shows could probably survive a nuclear firestorm, other pieces need that busy context to thrive; funny how great mediocre pictures can look when bad ones are hung right nearby. But the untalented artist rarely makes it through to the senior show, and I’ve seen more terrible pictures in Chelsea than I have in art schools, where pretensions haven’t yet reached the toxic level.
Whether because the schools are more conscious of preparing their graduates for careers or because young artists are more careerist than ever, a number of senior shows are better organized and less hectic than this increasingly outmoded model. At Cooper Union, where the 142nd schoolwide Annual Student Art & Architecture Show runs through June 21, seniors have already mounted and dismantled a series of smaller exhibitions as part of their thesis requirement. Here and elsewhere the crucial decisions about editing, sizing, formatting, framing, grouping, and hanging pictures are not just afterthoughts to the creative process. Early in May, Cooper grads Shane O’Cadja Nash and Courtney Walker joined forces on one of the school’s large landing spaces for one of the most provocative shows I’ve seen this spring. The high-tension dialogue they set up between Nash’s confrontational color portraits and Walker’s graphic explosions of image and text was smart, engaging, and bristling with ideas about their shared culture, which seems at once race-conscious and color-blind.
The School of Visual Arts provides a number of venues for its students to display work, including its Visual Arts Gallery in Soho and exhibition spaces within its buildings. SVA has photography student exhibitions throughout the summer, one of them a 10-person showcase at White Columns from August 9 to 24, and there’s a group of photographers up now at the Soho space (137 Wooster Street, through May 26). There’s no common denominator among the 10 B.F.A. candidates gathered here, whose work ranges from arch fashion shots to haunted nature studies, and the small number of pieces makes it hard to judge individual talents. But Morten Andenaes’s two little color photos, neatly matted and framed, are memorable. Each one is divided in half horizontally like a muted color field canvas (think Hiroshi Sugimoto crossed with Brice Marden), and the exact nature of the material before the lens is tantalizingly obscure. Like Saul Fletcher’s similarly miniaturized work, they appear to come from a rich, anxious interior world.
When I first started paying close attention to student shows more than 10 years ago, it was immediately apparent that there were prevailing influences and popular strategies. Nan Goldin’s diaristic agonies and ecstasies were imitated everywhere, usually very badly. Autobiography is always a powerful temptation for the young artist, and Goldin’s brand was particularly seductive, partly because it appeared effortless, which made it nearly impossible to match. Though hardly out of the picture, Goldin has been replaced as an influence by Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Gregory Crewdson (both of whom teach at Yale), and other masters of the directorial mode. But while their gorgeous blend of fact and fiction continues to fascinate, it no longer rules, and what has been most interesting about student shows in the past few years is their diversity and stylistic independence. There are pieces that probably wouldn’t exist were it not for the example of Vik Muniz or Gilles Peress or Francesca Woodman, but that work is all part of a much larger mix.
This is immediately evident at the NYU show at 80 Washington Square East. All the work here—primarily photography, but including painting, installation, and mixed media—is confident and polished, and even the most routine images seem grounded in something deeper than the desire to make it big. Stephane Crasneanscki’s meticulously composed eclipsed landscapes, Andrew Stole’s ghostly layered self-portraits with his father, and Enrique Méndez de Hoyos’s sexy, serial-image grids are among the most assured pieces. But three women who showed their work in widely scattered arrangements struck me as particularly soulful. Vaune Trachtman’s 18 unframed shots of the city at night capture its tensed-up, strung-out mood in rushes of blur and grain. Lauren Adria Krohn turns 16 straightforward documentary shots of her grandmother and her North Miami apartment—each presented in a different wood frame entirely appropriate to the material—into a portrait as shrewd as it is loving. And Madelyn Bradley scores with a collagelike sprawl of variously sized color photos clamped under glass and a looped video that spin suggestively around the subject of childhood sexuality. Included among photos grabbed from a TV show on JonBenet-style beauty pageants and a picture of a man holding an ecstatic young girl on a merry-go-round is an image—of a little girl in a pink bathing suit lying on a kitchen floor—that may be entirely innocent but looks like a classic crime scene shot. The tension between these two possibilities galvanizes Bradley’s whole wall.
Among the many student shows over the next few weeks, the Parsons photo department senior show runs through June 2 at 2 West 13th Street. Hunter’s M.F.A. thesis show at its Times Square Gallery space, 450 West 41st Street, and the college’s B.F.A. exhibition at the Leubsdorf Gallery at 68th Street and Lexington Avenue both continue through June 16.