Recent art school graduates display their work in Oakland gallery
on September 6, 2016
In the corner of the gallery, a shimmering silver curtain hung from the ceiling and draped onto a table. The table was covered with scattered objects: copies of the back page of Art Forum, old art books, bunny sculptures, a three-ring binder filled with paper and a puzzle box with pieces strewn about.
This is Keith Daly’s artwork. “The piece is actually a condensed version of my artist’s studio, which I don’t have anymore, because me and all these folks graduated,” he said.
Daly was one of 12 recent graduates of San Jose State University’s (SJSU) Master of Fine Arts program who participated in Minted, an exhibit at Pro Arts Gallery in downtown Oakland that opened on Friday night. The exhibit includes works of photography, sculpture, painting, digital media and mixed media, with each artist exploring distinctive themes.
Adjacent to Daly’s work hung Rick English’s “South,” two photographs of decaying man-made structures, the photographs cut into rectangles, the pieces mounted at varying heights. In the middle of the room stood Ricardo Cortez’s work, an ice cream cart adorned with digital screens showing stories of immigrant families. Behind this hung a white glowing LED sign of an indecipherable symbol, Isaac Lewin’s piece, a meditation on linguistics and written text.
Natalia Mount, the executive director of Pro Arts, said that she was particularly interested in exhibiting the work of artists who are at the beginning of their careers. “We’re hoping to provide them with the institutional support to shine,” as they leave their college environments and move into a professional context, she said.
The gallery staff will be hosting a panel conversation on September 6 to discuss the question of what happens next for those with an art degree–a question that can loom large on the minds of new graduates, especially as they prepare to face intense competition in the Bay Area art world.
Robin Lasser, a professor of photography at SJSU who taught many of the artists who exhibited on Friday, described some of the challenges graduates face. “Art schools produce a lot of very–I don’t love [this word] but I’ll use [it]–‘talented’ emerging artists, and the opportunities for grants and exhibitions and residencies and teaching positions are limited,” she said. “Sometimes, when the pie is smaller, the struggle can seem larger.”
Daly, one of artists, said he sees this struggle play out not only in his own life, but also more broadly as the art world becomes, in his mind, more institutionalized. “It’s become much closer to a traditional sector of society,” with artists following a more linear career path by applying to residencies and gallery shows, he said. “You used to be able to split very clearly a used car salesperson and an artist, because the artist was kind of this freewheeling character, drinking, throwing paint around, and the dealer responded to a very specific need in society.”
Daly said he was interested in using his artwork to address the conditions in which art takes place, and elements of his exhibit reflect his concern about art becoming more commercialized. For example, on the table, he included a book about paintings and sculptures that the Museum of Modern Art auctioned off in order to raise money. He said this was interesting, given that museums typically acquire artwork rather than sell it.
While Daly used his piece to comment on the current state of art, other artists at the exhibit explored more personal themes in their work. Dan Fenstermacher, for example, displayed six photographs showing people with mental illnesses struggling with and overcoming challenges. One portrait shows a smiling man surrounded by cardboard boxes while holding a bowling ball above his head. The man, according to Fenstermacher, is a hoarder, but he uses the items he collects to create art.
Fenstermacher, who said he has Obsessive-compulsive disorder, said the aim of the work was to break down stereotypes about mental illness. He eventually hopes to turn his work into a book.
For Fenstermacher, competition in the Bay Area art world keeps things exciting. “I like the competitive nature of the art field here,” he said. “If I was in a city—maybe somewhere in the Midwest, like Nebraska—it wouldn’t nearly be as competitive, whereas here there’s world-famous artists all over the place.”
After graduating in May, he found a job teaching photography at Eastside Preparatory High School in East Palo Alto. Though it has been challenging for him financially (“All of my salary basically goes to rent,” he said), he called the chance to share his passion for photography with others “a blessing.”
Lesser, too, remains hopeful, believing that art students develop skills that are long-lasting and relevant in many careers. “Our world right now is spinning so quickly that any particular training is just as likely to be outmoded in a nanosecond,” she said. “But if you have the ability to be a deep listener, if you’re a person that’s curious and if you’re a person that’s trained in your creative practice to find connections out in the world, then I think you’re better prepared than most.”
The panel discussion, “Congratulations, you have an art degree – now what?” will take place at the Pro Arts Gallery on September 6, 2016 at 7:00 p.m. “Minted” will run until September 30, 2016. For more information, visit ProArtsGallery.org/event/minted/.
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