NEXT at the Corcoran: Class of 2013

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Editorial Review

Corcoran grads show what’s ‘Next’
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, April 19, 2013

As the weather heats up, so does the art world’s focus on finding the Next Big Thing. In the coming months, we’ll start to see more than a few galleries presenting showcases of student work. It happens every summer.

Connersmith gallery started the trend 12 years ago with “Academy,” the first in what has become an annual series of invitational exhibitions showcasing the best of each spring’s crop of local art-school grads. “Academy 2013” opens July 13.

Where do the art dealers do their homework? They troll the thesis exhibitions of the area’s art schools, where newly minted BFAs and MFAs show off their final projects. One of the biggest of such shows is on view now at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, where the keys to the museum have been handed to the Corcoran College of Art and Design’s class of 2013. Called “Next,” the show features work by almost 90 undergraduate students of fine art, design and photography. Over the next week, work by graduate students will be added to the mix.

It’s a unique situation for the Corcoran students -- and for us. Unlike graduates of, say, the Maryland Institute College of Art, who have to present their work in humble academic buildings, the Corcoran kids get to strut their stuff in the setting of a spectacular Beaux-Arts museum. What do Corcoran visitors get? A glimpse into how creativity is nurtured. During the run of “Next,” there will be talks, academic critiques and other events taking place throughout the museum’s galleries and auditorium.

The show is a good way to take the temperature of the next generation of artists. Read on for our assessment of the changing weather.

Photography

Photography at the Corcoran College of Art and Design encompasses fine art photography and photojournalism. Amber Carter’s “Presence” falls into the first category. It’s a series of black-and-white portraits, lifted from films, that are each accompanied by an arresting and evocative subtitle: “You’re a coward,” for instance, or “Today, tomorrow, always.”

The idea of appropriation -- that is, using pictures that someone else took -- runs throughout “Next.” You’ll see it in Joan Oh’s “Through Their Eyes: A Series of Uploaded Travels,” which consists of an array of other people’s snapshots of Niagara Falls, Stonehenge and the pyramids of Giza that the artist downloaded from the Web.

More intriguing is the work of Jessica Lancaster, who literally paints over portions of her photographs of Detroit, where she’s from, in some cases whiting out objects in the frame. It’s an intriguing way of commenting on the racial unrest, economic turmoil and government corruption that have eaten away at her home town.

In a similar way, Sara Wright’s “Glitch” features a form of erasure. More sculptural than photographic, it’s 10 years’ worth of the artist’s photos, run through a paper shredder and piled in a heap. In an age of digital photography, the destruction is more symbolic than actual. But it’s an effective metaphor for something that many of us on Facebook and Instagram have probably felt: the desire to hit the reset button on image overload.

Student photojournalist Matthew Rose’s “Holler, No More” falls somewhere between deadpan and drama. Documenting a student of software engineering who’s the first in his Kentucky family to get a master’s degree, the series manages to make something dry look poignant: the shift from a labor economy to a knowledge economy.

Painting

Just as you would expect in any contemporary museum exhibition, you’ll see lots of photography, performance, mixed-media installation and video in “Next.” One thing you won’t see a ton of is painting, as the medium continues to struggle with relevance. It’s not entirely dead, though, in works by Katelyn Kang, Dandan Luo, Micah Myerov and Rostin Rostai. Surprisingly, the most striking painted images here are faces.

Portraitists Daesik Kim, Morgan Roberts and Robert Yi all ply the same trade, albeit from different angles. Yi’s work is almost cartoonish, but it lingers in the eye. Roberts’s faces do the opposite, seemingly shifting and dissolving, like faded memories.

Kim’s “Nada” is the most conceptual, depicting three faces that have been overlaid with the URLs of online shopping sites. The single-word title -- which means “nothing” in Spanish, and “look at me” in Korean -- points toward a reading of the art as a critique of the empty, image-obsessed culture of consumerism.

Performance

As you wander through “Next,” you’ll occasionally see what could easily be mistaken for piles of junk. More likely than not, these installations are the remnants/stage sets for some performance that’s long over. Performance art is big this year, and growing.

It’s hard to assess this genre based solely on the residue it leaves on the floor. But one piece caught my eye -- and my imagination. Annie Hanson’s “Proofing Ambivalence at Room Temperature” featured the artist baking bread and handing it out to museum-goers. What we see is what’s left: an array of ingredients, utensils, small ovens and a low, now-empty stage.

There’s a video, too. The short documentary helps make the point that Hanson’s work is about art as commodity. The ambivalence of the title cuts two ways. While Hanson’s customers eat her product without much enthusiasm, the artist appears to have mixed feelings about her role as maker, too.

Work by veterans

In the past four or five years, the Corcoran has experienced a small but significant uptick in the number of military veterans enrolling at the art school under the GI Bill. Why? Maybe it’s because, as Dean of Undergraduate Studies Andy Grundberg speculates, art school is “a relatively safe place to go against the grain” for those who are coming out of a regimented organization.

Whatever the reason, military experience can add a level of maturity or at least an appreciation for a side of life that’s a little deeper than one sees in the typical undergraduate.

Two artists stand out.

Karin Rodney-Haapala and Robert Lliteras are both students of photography. The focus of Rodney-Haapala’s work, made for the photojournalism department, is herself. The artist, who received a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress syndrome after serving in Iraq, turns her camera on the difficulty she has coping with the banalities of civilian life. A series of nine black-and-white photos -- each depicting an ordinary steam iron -- represents the nine times that Rodney-Haapala returned home one day to check whether she had turned off the iron. Accompanied by handwritten journal entries, her deadpan work is surpassingly moving.

Lliteras, of fine art photography, takes a different approach with his collage-based work. Combining text with old snapshots of soldiers of various vintages, “A Warrior’s Reflection” feels less personal and less specific than Rodney-Haapala’s images, but also more timeless and universal.

The story behind the work

The centerpiece of Judas Recendez’s installation “See, Hear, Touch, Take” is a single photograph. The piece includes a somewhat indecipherable sound component, along with a pile of IRS forms itemizing the salaries of several museum officers, folded into origami pigs.

But it’s the photograph you’ll notice.

Recendez’s image depicts a series of posters plastered over second-floor windows of the museum’s art school, spelling out the legend “4 SALE.” Made during the period when the Corcoran was considering selling its landmark building last year, the photograph documents a short-lived art performance. Unhappy with the institutional critique, school officials quickly made Recendez take down the offending signs, which he had put up in the windows of his own and several other students’ studio spaces.

According to Dean of Undergraduate Affairs Andy Grundberg, the stunt precipitated a schoolwide meeting to discuss the notion of academic freedom, which seems to apply only to faculty.