This article was originally published in BU Today.
The 800 block of Comm Ave is awash in color, and no, the reason isn’t just the spring’s flowering trees. Rather, it’s the arresting play of light bouncing off of the series of vibrantly painted fabric and metal sculptures inside the 808 Gallery. Created by MFA painting student Erin Kerbert, the three-dimensional works are reminiscent of Alexander Calder’s dazzling mobiles, but more impressive in size.
Kerbert (CFA’17) is one of 33 College of Fine Arts graduate students—9 painters, 4 sculptors, and 20 graphic designers—whose work is being showcased in this year’s School of Visual Arts MFA thesis exhibitions, two separate shows on view through April 28. The 808 Gallery is host to the MFA Painting and Sculpture Thesis Exhibition, the Faye G., Jo, and James Stone Gallery to the MFA Graphic Design Thesis Exhibition.
Kerbert’s works comprise clothing fragments—a piece of a coat, a part of a dress—suspended from sculptural copper framing. Some of the fabric has been painted and then sculpted into fluid, dynamic poses. Kerbert says she moved away from making strictly two-dimensional pieces after becoming “frustrated that I couldn’t access that beyond the flat surface.” Coming from a fashion design background, she began to experiment making what she calls “woven paintings,” before ultimately settling on a form that allowed her to suspend the fabric paintings from copper tubing. “As these newer pieces have begun to take hold, I have started to understand them as objects that may mimic articles of clothing,” she says. “The pieces are not to be worn, but rather question what we wear and why we wear them.”
Halfway across the gallery are a series of relief paintings by sculpture student Catherine Della Lucia (CFA’17) that “explore the state of ‘in-betweeness.’” The work is meant to convey the active negotiation of identity right on the canvas, melding languages of painting and sculpture, of Eastern and Western imagery. It is a deeply personal, largely autobiographical project.
“This work begins at my personal narrative as a Korean American adoptee, and I hope it can transform into a larger discussion on the greater adoptee experience and transcultural identity,” Della Lucia says. One piece in particular, Submerge, stands out for its striking composition. The multimedia work features a fragmented, featureless face jutting out from a black canvas partially obscured by a wood panel. The upper third of the face has been painted off-white while the bottom two thirds is a reddish plum. The canvas is secured to the wall with white fishing rope.
By using the bas-relief format, Della Lucia says, she is “able to pull out areas of the image from flat to dimensional space while simultaneously compressing and grinding down information and material such as rice, sesame seeds, wood, steel wool, and paint until I can find a balance somewhere in between.”
Near Della Lucia’s works are a series of beautifully muted paintings by Nicolas Roche (CFA’17). Unlike much of the other work in the exhibition, Roche forgoes the use of bright, popping colors. Instead, he works mostly with graphite on canvas or Arches paper. One work, Existential Toppling, is particularly eye-catching, a wiped away grayed canvas with a repeated pattern of figures staring off to some unknown point, coupled with a repeated pattern of drifting boats. Some of the figures and boats are delicately colored with touches of oil paint, a choice that seems simultaneously deliberate and random. No two figures are colored the same, a technique that begs for a close examination.
Roche urges viewers to “imagine a boat in which the passengers are adrift, stranded in time, place, and thought—who are they? Why are they here? Their whereabouts are unknown, their destiny unbound.” The repetition in his pieces, he says, is “a stand-in for ruminative thinking, call[ing] into question how thought can inflect a feeling of stasis.”
Among the other notable works in the show are Ruowen Wu’s dazzling geometric dot paintings, mostly large-scale acrylic and oil pieces on linen and canvas. The works are appropriately—and eye-catchingly—displayed in an enclave of the gallery against walls painted with black and white dots, a counterpoint to Wu’s more colorful dots. Wu (CFA’17) says that for him, the dot symbolizes the multiplication and order of the natural world.
One of his paintings, Pink Flower, superimposes larger black circles and pink floral shapes on a red and cyan pattern reminiscent of Ben-Day dots and 3-D imaging. “I try to replace physical mixing with optical mixing,” he says, putting colored dots side by side for the eye to mix when viewed from afar.
Josephine Halvorson, a CFA School of Visual Arts professor of art and chair of graduate studies in painting, says this year’s MFA thesis students are a very interesting group. “They’re very highly individualized,” she says. “I’ve never seen a group of graduate students with bodies of work as diverse as theirs, so specific to their own interests.”
At the Stone Gallery, the MFA Graphic Design Thesis Exhibition covers a wide range of work—from sleek posters to videos to interactive installations.
Jewelson Fernandes’ piece Representing Emotion Using Lines (REUL) incorporates hair dryers as part of an interactive element. The bottoms of a series of black placards against a wall, each printed with a fingerprint-like linear image and coded with letters and numbers denoting a location and year, are made of heat sensitive paper. When blasted by one of the two hair dryers sitting beneath the installation, they reveal handwritten memories and feelings.
“I chose to take up the challenge to communicate emotions with some form of visual representation,” Fernandes (CFA’17) says. “Rather than focusing on an explicit narrative, my design uses abstract linear forms to create a universal language that conveys these emotions that we all experience. The linear forms are created using lines which represent a meaning based on the length, thickness, intensity, and occurrences.”
The artist says that a person’s fingerprints are one of their most personal and unique features. “I thought about using my own fingerprint to represent stories from my past by altering the lines in them based on the emotion of the respective story,” Fernandes notes, but “chose to keep the narrative of the story hidden because I wanted it to act secondary to the patterned lines.”
A project by Cynthia Zhao (CFA’17), Waiting Paradigm, is a meditation on waiting, as its title suggests. The installation features five fabric posters—“Waiting for Jobs,” “Waiting for Love,” “Waiting for Traffic Lights,” “Waiting for Death,” and “Waiting for Phone Calls”—and an interactive area where viewers can craft their own definitions of waiting with stamp versions of symbols Zhao has created.
The idea for the project came about one day when Zhao was getting ready to do laundry. “One day, my boyfriend told me that I used the wrong detergent for my silk dress, so I started to search what those wash care symbols mean, and how to wash my dress correctly,” she says. “At the time, I was waiting in line to do laundry while thinking about my thesis. I hate waiting, and I wish someone could tell me how to relieve anxiety while waiting. Then all of a sudden, I got this idea to weave waiting, symbols, fabrics, and labels together.”
Each of her posters is made using a different fabric and bears its own care instruction tag with a code of symbols that resemble the ones commonly found on a detergent box—these range from a calendar to an hourglass to a deck of cards to an infinity symbol. The fabrics have clearly been selected to represent the subject of each panel: “Waiting for Death” is made of burlap, “Waiting for Love” of silk. “Somehow I’ve always felt that burlap is for death and silk is for love,” Zhao says. Each poster is inscribed with a quote from the artist that corresponds to each form of waiting. Asked what she hopes visitors take away from her work, she says, “I hope people can feel relieved knowing everyone has to wait for something to happen in their daily lives.”
The MFA Painting and Sculpture Thesis Exhibition is at the 808 Gallery, 808 Commonwealth Ave. through Friday, April 28; hours: Tuesday to Sunday, noon to 5 p.m., Thursday, noon to 8 p.m., closed Monday. The MFA Graphic Design Thesis Exhibition is at the Faye G., Jo, and James Stone Gallery, College of Fine Arts, 855 Commonwealth Ave. through Friday, April 28; hours: Tuesday to Sunday, noon to 5 p.m., Thursday, noon to 8 p.m., closed Monday. The exhibitions are free and open to the public.