MFA exhibitions spotlight talent

Logan’s ongoing MFA exhibitions create community around UChicago arts.

By Tianyuan Deng

Ply, the second of the four M.F.A. thesis exhibitions, opened at the Logan Center this past Friday. The exhibition presented works by four graduating artists: Nick Basis, Mark Beasley, Anais Daly, and Katherine Harvath. The audience delighted in the collection of works on show, which included one installation, a set of collage works, several sculptures, and some paintings.

Basis’s work invited the audience to read aloud sentences on screens. Upon entering the chambers, audience members saw three blue screens placed horizontally at knee level. Random sentences rolled through the screens and usually started with the instruction word “aloud.” These sentences could be composed of a single word, a series of repeated words, a witty saying, or a long-winded description of an object. Every screen had different content that rolled at a different speed, so when three people read them aloud, the scene resembled an impromptu theater performance with no obvious plot. However, the sentences were chosen and orchestrated to create a kind of synergy among the participants. For instance, at one point all three screens showed, “We are together, we are together, we are together.” One could clearly see that the three participants, probably strangers before the performance, were somehow bonded through the act of chanting this message like a mantra—or indeed, as a simple fact, as they were literally together in a room. One participant, who commented that this “feels like it is starting a religion,” was obviously susceptible to the cultish charm of the piece.

During the opening, Basis and Harvath took time to share stories about their creative processes with the Maroon. When asked about the source of his inspiration, Basis replied that it stemmed from a gift for his girlfriend. At the time of her birthday, his girlfriend was in New York City, and he thought of writing a play and then asking his friends to perform it in front of her. His friends did not need to do anything except read from the script he wrote. This birthday gift inspired Basis to think about the act of reading and its effect on human interaction. The idea then evolved into the installation/performance work on display at Logan.

Harvath’s talent shone through her color paintings. The paintings looked achingly modern because their surfaces seemed to index the artist’s gestures—the smearing, smudging, scribbling and spattering of pigment. Yet, even as someone who is familiar with the modernist aesthetics, I was struck by the originality of Katherine’s series. The gestures seemed to be infused with vitality and velocity, and the vibrant colors energized the canvas further still. In conversation, Katherine revealed that she used rags and experimented with different materials, and that, by the end of the production, she usually tossed away 70 percent of the works because they were not up to her standard. She also tried to balance the work by evening out the gestures. For example, if there was a big smear in one area of the painting, she balanced this gesture with a small scribble in another part of the canvas. This did not mean that Katherine “plotted” or streamlined the paintings, though. She concluded that whenever she tried to repeat the magical moments of some previous work, she always failed. This piece of observation suited well the general tendency of artistic creation toward a combination of meditation and spontaneity.

The audience clearly enjoyed the works, or, at the very least, enjoyed the company of friends. Because refreshments and drinks were served and the open gallery space was navigation-friendly, people mingled, and it was particularly easy to strike up a conversation with the budding artists. The M.F.A. exhibition was quite worthwhile for its burgeoning talent and meaningful interaction.

Ply is part of a recurring series of thesis exhibitions by University of Chicago Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.) students. A new round of artists will go on display for the next exhibition, Wayward, on May 4 and again with Sway on May 18.