Material Hyperrealities: A Fantastical First Year MFA Exhibition

Emily Johnson
April 06, 2023

One of the most exciting events in the School of the Arts calendar—and probably one of the freshest group shows in town—is the annual First Year MFA Exhibition. For first year Visual and Sound Art students, it’s the culmination of their initial year in the program, their chance to make the leap from studio to gallery space. Curated by Amy Sadao, this year’s show opened on March 25 at the Lenfest Center’s Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, and closes this Sunday, April 9. 

Every piece on view was created during the current academic year; thirty new perspectives on what living and art is right now. The effect is so eclectic, so ruthlessly contemporary, it’s like a riotous TikTok wormhole.

Video, sculpture installations, collage, projection, and painting all cohabit, with some projects involving several elements at once. Found objects and identifiable materials are everywhere; garments, flags, instruments, silicon, plywood, paper mache, plexiglass, and pickles. Yes, pickles. 

There is art all over the ground and in every corner. As soon as you step into the space, a rectangular terrain of sawdust is piled at your feet: Zhiqian Wang’s Bright Light Bursting at the Eternal End the Past Memories of Someone Solidifies as an Endless Process of Passing Through a Tunnel (applewood sawdust, sound installation, 2023). Candela Bado’s ruin but also afterlife (glazed ceramic tiles, penny, nickel, dime, quarter, and dollar coins, 2022) comprises a stretch of ceramic tile with the oxidized imprints of coins dotting its pristine surface. 

On the floor nearby, Entrance of the Gladiators (cotton fabric, buttons, tap shoes, sponge, wire, mini acrylic bubble level, space gaming headset, air-dry clay, wooden dowel, elastic cord, paper, masking tape, oil-based clay, plastic roses, rope, gherkin pickles, pickle jars, polyester fiberfill, acrylic paint, headphones, hair, astroturf, video monitor, media player, and single-channel HD video with color and stereo sound, 9 mins. 50 sec. looped, 2023) from Erica Enriquez, seems to imagine what it might look like if a clown were sucked out of a video realm and spat out into an inhospitable reality (the aforementioned pickles are sitting in front of a mini tv set, next to cartoonish pink headphones.)

Even within paintings, space and material realities collapse and collide. I could have stared at Ian Ha’s dreams (acrylic, gouache, ink, and watercolor on Jangii paper, 2023) for hours; the piece features a wooden rocking chair fracturing, seeming to fall off the edge of the world, casting a shadow on a curtain that is being erased into celestial ether. In the seat of the chair are pieces of other scenes: a slice of a bridge, a square of blue abstraction, like when you see a mirror on the curb. The work comes apart; paint drips, vectors appear from nowhere, but all is tied together with a string of whimsical LED lights. 

Inside a Line (acrylic on canvas, 2023) from Sharon Yaoxi He presents a pleasingly geometric space that also disintegrates and recombines as you look closer. The piece suggests that every line is composed of innumerable scaffolding fractals; razor-thin angles, trapezoids. Like the architecture of a very chic videogame, its palette of muted yellows and blues, and crisp, lovely boundaries yields itself up to careful viewing.

Kai Oh’s Leaf (mixed media on archival pigment print, 2023) is a swirling veil of digital media and physical materials. The liquid pink neon aurora of the print is punctured with tiny holes, laced with string, daubed with orange paint, and sketched with tiny trees, moving the viewer seamlessly in and out of the physical and printed registers.

The quaking sounds drifting through the gallery emanate from a kind of audio pod sculpture constructed by sound artist A.M. Devito, titled Intimate Listening Space for the Hyperreal #1: Dendrophilia (sound, steel, polylactic acid, acrylic, synthetic fabric, acryl gouache and wood, 15 min. 41 sec. looped, 2023). It’s accompanied by the invitation to “Please take a seat and open your ears.” 

The listener seats themselves in a low, round, black fabric chair, surrounded by suspended reflective silver domes, each housing a speaker. This Intimate Listening Space allows you to immerse yourself in Devito’s composition, an arrangement of everyday sounds; footsteps, a closing door, pages turning, a whining dog—followed by passages of distorted water, bubbling bird calls, and electronic roars. Bass rumbles through the back of the chair, shaking the resonance into the listener, pushing the sonic experience into a kinetic one. 

Look once, and you will not be able to look away from Claudia Yeejae Kim’s sculpture Happy Stool (wood, chicken wire, plaster wrap, silicone and viscose, 2023.) What at first looks like an enormous table covered in bandages is actually tiled with squares of light-flesh-tone silicone. The rubbery squares are imprinted with the weave of bandage fabric, each one a different thickness and shade. Their edges are rough and they’re stitched together, reminiscent of The Silence of the Lambs—but in such an innocuous shape: a gigantic footstool. It's a mesmerizing, somehow comical physical distortion. 

Five different artists worked with video, screening shadow puppet fables, the dance of a character with lightbulbs for a head, or the construction of their own work. Krista Gay’s Winner Winner (Nine-channel video, 5 min. 11 sec. looped, 2023) is a standout for its incisive simplicity: it features artfully asynchronous Oscars acceptance speeches from every winning Black woman in the ceremony’s history—only nine in total—beginning with Hattie McDaniel in 1939. 

Countless other objects of fascination—a jaw-dropping waterless fountain from Sasha Fishman, a painted goatskin with elegant brass piping from Nima Jeizan, Julian Zehnder’s cubed-up, crackling static bubbles, or Yiwei Lu’s disarmingly funny analogue slideshow—are on display through this Sunday. It’s a madcap scroll through art’s up-and-coming; raw, real, and invigorating.