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Review: CCA and SFAI graduate exhibitions

California College of the Arts and San Francisco Art Institute Graduate Exhibitions:
Some thoughts mostly about the format, less so about the work

By Aaron Harbour

It is Spring 2019 and another crop of students is finishing up their tenure in the California Bay Area’s various graduate programs. I try to see at least a few of these every year, consistently I catch the shows at California College of the Arts (CCA) and San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) and usually Mills College and University of California Berkeley’s and sometimes Stanford and I at least try to get a feel for what is on display in San Jose, Davis, and San Francisco State, hearing from friends who teach at these places about any stand outs. As I’m writing this its tough to not delay things, talking about my own relationship in regards to arts education or about what is going on in graduate programs nation-wide; basically anything besides giving even a gently critical appraisal of graduate arts education here, a subject so many I know are personally involved in either as current or former students, current or former teachers and administrators etc.

Well, first off, the CCA graduate exhibition was okay. Just okay. But the real issues with this show were the timing and to a lesser extent the venue — these students for the most part have essentially four semesters in school and the show occurred at the beginning of the fourth, the one where ideally the lessons of the first three are just coalescing into an artistic identity which will find itself realized in the labors of that last semester. So it should come as no surprise that nothing really stood out. There were plenty of okay things with at least a handful of artists whose practice I’ll keep an eye on in the coming years.

There was some thought about how the very limited space given to each artist was allocated which made the show somewhat cohesive. This cohesion made for an easy-on-the-eyes/mind wander through the 2.5 galleries and open atrium, but I think it does a bit of a disservice to the artists who under ideal circumstances would be given a large modicum of space to do exactly the best version of their practice, rest of the world be damned. Instead these artists who have paid a significant amount (or will pay over time in loans etc) to attend graduate school are given a corner here, half a wall there; the individual installations had a hard time peering out over the group show style of it all.

But really it was the timing this year — presumably to fit the schedule of the venue — which let the artists down. The show opened March 9th, a full two months before SFAI and Berkeley’s shows, essentially six weeks after the winter break. Not only did this result in work that was not nearly as ambitious or well-developed as it could have been, it left these students with an ungainly post-show stretch in which many fell to focusing on finishing their theses, something that could be done as easily in a cafe as with an art studio. This year I was closer to the artists than I’ve ever been, offering help as a graduate advisor these past two semesters; I think I might’ve even viewed the show harsher were I even less involved. A badly timed show in a barely serviceable venue, this wasn’t a year that’ll stand out when looking back which is unfair to these artists at this pivotal time in their development.

A few weekends ago (when I wrote this, it said ‘this past weekend’ but I found myself a bit blocked up trying to finish this piece) I took a trip on a Sunday out to Fort Mason to SFAI’s new graduate building for their graduate exhibition which had opened a few days previous on May 17th. This year’s show was much like last years, not the work per se, but the strange manner of its installation. While the school is very proud of its new facilities, the actual studios afforded grad students seem as small, if not smaller, and maybe a tad dimmer, than their equivalent at the imperfect 3rd street building where CCA has now set up camp. And this new site makes a terrible venue for a exhibition

It wasn’t that long ago that the SFAI graduate class would be given an entire one of these large piers completely built out for the sake of the show. But now students are confined to their studio building which presents a very limited set of options. A few were fortunate enough to use the large entry way space to showcase larger pieces in a sort of group show there. One artist made use of the bleacher stairs between levels in a smart way with multiple pedestals at different heights to show their ceramics; I was only so-so interested in the individual works but I was impressed with the care and ambition of their installation, at least as its been done these past years.

The best places to show art in the building are two large spaces upstairs hiding at the very back of the building that two fortunate artists got to fully occupy. One of these artists, Sophia Alexandria Cook, put together a great installation of my favorite work from the exhibition, maybe thirty+ edge-to-edge photographs nearly floor to ceiling along with a few sculptures on the floor. Her practice reminded me a bit of a few other practices I like (Andrea Longacre-White and Davina Semo’s spring to mind) while being very new, with so many variations on a simple set of starting materials smartly presented. There’s an image below of her installation; who’s to say what each of the artists in this SFAI (or CCA for that matter) graduating class might have been able to do given this much space to fully realize a project?

Instead, elsewhere artists were stuck with what they got. One artist seems to have chosen an architectural afterthought of a space beneath the bleacher stairs which, another possibly elegiac installation about the environment found itself nestled into a corporate-feeling conference room (which sounds better than it was). More often than not artists simply worked within the confines of their small studios, sometimes taking more than one of these spaces, scattered throughout the whole building like a sort of scavenger hunt. When you take into account that the majority of the spaces curtained off with signs saying: ‘artist at work’ were completely empty, it is hard to understand how there wasn’t more thought about the layout of the show — one could imagine a single artist being given a row or aisle of contiguous spaces to work with. There were whole studios utilized as simply calling cards for installations elsewhere in the building. Visitors were left to wander up and down, maybe peering into a studio and thinking ‘oh, there’s more of that stuff we saw a bit earlier’.

About the crop… I met my partner nearly a decade ago while she was finishing an MA at CCA and contrary to the tendency in her program to learn about and strive to work with artists of a post-emerging calibre (don’t make me explain what I mean by this <3 ), she was close to the students in the graduate program there, many of whom we would go on to work with as curators. We’ve stayed relatively aware of what is going on at the local graduate programs since then and have watched these programs slowly shrink. CCA seems focused on the non-fine art parts of the school, demolishing the old graduate studios to build new facilities that curiously don’t include replacements. SFAI, well, who knows what’s going on there. Part of the ‘problem’ (which is more so just a new reality) is people are less and less inclined to dive into debt for the spongey value of a graduate degree, more keen to either skip it all together or else find a place that is free or cheap to attend. So each year less and less students are in these programs; maybe CCA’s program is a third of its peak number of students. One might think this means more individual attention for the students who do decide to attend and then possibly better artists coming out the other side as a result, but I don’t see any evidence of this. Instead, it seems the schools are inclined to take a higher and higher percentage of applicants each year.

But whatever the issue may be, there is no excuse for letting down those who do decide to go the MFA route with a lackluster graduate exhibition situation.

All in all it was a poor showing in dire need of some more guidance: dear SFAI or CCA: I’m available…

Sophia Alexandria Cook’s work at SFAI’s graduate show.

Sophia Alexandria Cook’s work at SFAI’s graduate show.