The Chicago Art School Community: The Evolving Expansion of MFA Thesis Exhibitions

Happenstance Constellations: On the Chicago Art School Community and the Evolving Expansion of MFA Thesis Exhibitions

Stephanie Cristello

As most of us are already very much aware, the Chicago art community is chiefly composed of art school alumni from some of the very major institutions housed around the city. The art circuit here is a tightly knit scene, and provides the perfect outlet for a variety of alternative spaces and commercial galleries, which are often initiated by grads from some of the many art institutions, which are both teaching and providing prospective exhibitions to Chicago’s emerging artists. Among the most influential of the opportunities these institutions offer are the ever-important MFA Thesis exhibitions, whose buzz can usually be heard around this time of year. Come April and May, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Columbia College’s Interdisciplinary Arts Department, the University of Chicago’s MFA program in Studio Arts, as well as Northwestern University’s Art Theory & Practice program, are all exhibiting their MFA thesis grads, manifesting in a multitude of artistic practices spanning across Chicago.

Alexander Valentine, Diamonds (2010). Offset ink on vellum, 13 × 9 inches. SAIC MFA Candidate 2011.

Put simply, there is much promise and expectation endowed to MFA thesis shows. For artists, it is a prime avenue to gain exposure, and connect with a variety of art professionals such as gallerists, collectors and curators, most of which are, work with, or have worked with past alumni from Chicago art institutions. For art schools, the exhibitions are a chance to display new talent, and an opportunity to take stock of what is being created by the graduating class. More than anything, it provides all parties with the chance to see what kind of work is being produced, who is producing it, as well as what that means within the spectrum of what’s being done “out there”.

The Graduating Class of 11’
It’s the new wave of emerging artists; the major institutions, such as SAIC and Columbia’s MFA Thesis exhibition programs are curated in a manner that allows for the open exchange of ideas between projects, as well as between schools – this year especially, there is a deliberate thesis-within-a-thesis tenet that is shared amongst the shows. “In some ways this show announces what the Chicago art community will be,” says Mary Jane Jacob, Executive Director of Exhibitions and Exhibition Studies at SAIC, “The MFA grads here often stay in Chicago, at least for a time, and some for a lifetime. They become the Chicago art community, and it is this art community that teaches them, too, during grad school”.

“In Chicago, each MFA show has kind of a different identity- a lot of people like to say that if you go to the UIC show you can expect this and at SAIC you can expect that…” explains Jessica Cochran, Guest Curator for the upcoming SAIC Thesis exhibition and Curator of Exhibitions & Programs, for the Center for Book & Paper Arts at Columbia “but the reality is that each show presents a pretty extraordinary spectrum that can’t be tied down to one dominant aesthetic or conceptual approach”. The Columbia and UIC graduating classes are small, allotting each of the grads with a large amount of space to realize their thesis; the shows are communally treated as a realization of a resolved project, “it allows the viewer to consider the artist’s practice within a context of cohesion,” says Cochran.

Chicago Map of Organizations, 2011. Provided by The School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Dean of Graduate Studies at SAIC, Candida Alvarez, has been working with four recent grads, Cochran alongside Bryce Dwyer, Juan William Chavez and Gregory Harris as Guest Curators, as well as twelve current Curatorial Practice students (on board as Graduate Curatorial Fellows). Having helped to create a more focused pedagogical approach to the upcoming exhibition, this year, the alumni community has been included more than ever. Being the largest graduating class in SAIC history, the MFA show will be expanding its exhibition site from the Sullivan Galleries to include two ground floor exhibition sites on Wabash near Monroe, making the work more available to the public. “This year the emphasis is on process. We wanted to highlight the process of artistic production,” explains Alvarez, who hopes this approach will raise the bar for future shows, “When you make everything transparent, it deepens the learning experience”.

Flash Freeze: MFA Exhibitions as the Formation of Instantaneous Communities
Chicago art schools are constantly evolving, raising the bar in the same way Alvarez outlines. In creating its own community, the graduating class show allows for the bourgeoning artists of this year to do something provocatively different than the ones who showed last. If not to demonstrate a display of cohesion across schools, thesis shows (in the most general sense), help to satisfy an instance. They give more solidarity to the creation of work at the onslaught of a release for new emerging artists. The general art school community, much like the curated approach of the SAIC Thesis show, is a community within a community. Thesis participants are, in many ways, a constellation of communities; each instantaneous in their formations, each with the potential to be amorphous and expand, overlap, and snowball. “The students form networks and communities during graduate school that endure,” explains Cochran, “at SAIC I am part of a community of Guest Curators, Graduate Curatorial Fellows, Faculty, Exhibition Administration, and most importantly, student artists. We all have a stake in the success of this show as a formative, layered experience, same goes for Columbia”.

Scott Carter Less is More, 2011. Installation view at Gallery X. SAIC MFA Candidate 2011.

“We always plan the MFA thesis show to coincide with Art Chicago/NEXT,” says Jacobs, ”this is the one annual occasion for which the widest range of the Chicago art world comes out, and to which many others come from elsewhere”. The exposure is large, although collectors are not the only ones who look forward to viewing the shows; curators from Chicago museums and local non-profits make their rounds as well. “Quite a few prominent collectors make it a point to see the shows – I have even been in a Chicago collector’s house and heard him boast about the work he has by a now-prominent artist that he ‘discovered’ and bought at a graduate show,” says Cochran. Engaging with the city’s ‘legitimizers,’ as she calls it, is perhaps the best way to make the most out of your MFA exposure.

On Thesis and Singularity: Different Tensions Created by Curated Systems

Alexander Valentine, Storm Window (2010). Offset ink on vellum, 13 × 9 inches.

Having spent the entire SAIC semester conducting hundreds of studio visits, the curators of this year’s thesis show have divided the entire exhibition up into a loose series of grouped thematic sections.  Among the many artists participating in the curated spaces is Alexander Valentine, an MFA candidate with an emphasis in printmaking at SAIC, who will be part of the On the Run exhibit showing at the Sullivan Galleries this April. “The thing about SAIC MFA shows, which is really different than the traditional thesis they do at UIC, for example, is that over a hundred artists participate, and literally thousands of people come,” says Valentine, “You get the opportunity to have a conversation with a community that would otherwise be lost in a solo exhibition”.  Valentine’s thesis project, a numerous hanging installation of small offset prints, will also consist of a satellite space that will house boxed editions of the colorful, luminous, and impressively painterly sheets.  The process he applies to his print work certainly translates to the show; “The approach here works for me, especially as a printmaker.  Keeping an open dialogue and exchange between the works I’ll be exhibiting with fits really well for me, because I see my work as a constant, additive process”.

“My showing experience up until now has definitely affected my thesis project,” says Scott Carter, an MFA Sculpture candidate at SAIC whose latest installation Less is More, on view at the Student Union Galleries’ Gallery X, deals with many parallel ideas being developed throughout his thesis.  With a deeply rooted interest in environment, and how space becomes a part of our everyday experience, Carter conducts a continuous exploration of affect and the body.  Less is More, a site-specific installation built primarily out of drywall, utilizes the environment as both a narrative, and sculptural device.  Through the extraction of geometric elements from the literal walls of the space, Carter leaves the gallery littered with holes and other formal shapes; the cut out material is then reconstituted in the space through the functional assemblage of domestic furniture objects, such as tables and chairs.  Despite his intensely interactive process, Carter modestly stresses that your thesis is not necessarily your big bang, “funding is nice, but as a student it is hard to obtain. An alternative is to be resourceful and don’t view the thesis exhibition as a grand finale”.

Scott Carter, A Temporary Engagement, 2011. Installation View.

After talking to both Valentine and Carter about their approaches to space within the SAIC setting, both seem to agree that the allotted space (which is spread among almost 200 grads) cannot possibly be defined as a limitation, but rather a consideration, “There are plenty of things you can do, I’m even hesitant to even use the word ‘limit,’ ” Valentine stresses, “It’s not about lowering your standards, but working within your site- as always, you respond to what you’re doing in terms of the exhibition, so it’s not even necessarily a constraint”.  For Carter considerations for responding to space, as a sculptor and object maker, is more geared toward how he can consistently produce a succinct project, “I would say create or show work that isn’t overly ambitious – it can save time, money and spare you a lot of stress during the process, while often proving to be a great work in relation to the overwhelming nature of the exhibition”.

Laura Elayne Miller, An Unquiet Mind: The Untold Story of Isabelle Cadieux. Film still, 2011. Columbia MFA Candidate.

“There are three things you need for a successful MFA show,” says Chicago artist and curator Laura Elayne Miller, MFA candidate in Interdisciplinary Arts at Columbia, “a clear vision, a well-planned budget, and strong PR”.  Coming from an intensive background in film/video and theater production, Miller’s multi-media installation An Unquiet Mind: The Untold Story of Isabelle Cadieux, traces the life of an unknown French Outsider artist through the dramatic curation of found-object assemblages, film/video, and personal ephemera left behind by the now deceased Cadieux.  Dealing with conceptions of history in relation to how we create narrative structures through collective memory, Miller’s installation is truly as hybrid and interdisciplinary as her artistic practice itself.  “This is time to get exposure,” presses Miller, “Many MFA students work endless hours in the studio and show their work whenever they can. However this is your moment to catapult yourself into the professional art scene.  Think beyond postcards and your existing network, and consider your career goals in order to expose yourself to the people in the community you want to connect with”.  Miller’s experience is somewhat different in this sense, simply because the Columbia program allows for an individualized thesis space; though still participating in a collaborative conversation among the other artists exhibited in the show, there is certain specificity to the Columbia approach that allows for a complete solo exhibition.  Although perhaps not conceptually, Miller’s thesis maintains a connection to her peers, in the sense that they are all taking part in defining a moment; and a community.

Ambition After Art School: the Sprawl of Emerging Alumni








Jacobs brings up the very prevalent discussion of ambition, which as an experimental practice, fits quite congruently into the Chicago aesthetic; there is always room for dialogue between sub-groups, simply because the local art world is so interconnected.  The open network and overlapping of artists, gallerists, curators and the like, creates a certain kind of freedom between worlds that never allows for the local scene to become stagnant, “Chicago is a great place for any experimental, innovative, self-created projects. There is a certain exciting DIY entrepreneurial spirit in the city to which I personally respond to very well and hope to continue responding,” says Katya Grokhovsky, Performance artist and MFA candidate at SAIC.  Responding to the Chicago environment is perhaps the best device grads use to acclimate themselves onto the scene, “it puts everything in perspective,” explains Carter, “The MFA show is a great way to gauge the wonderful influence that SAIC has on the art community throughout greater Chicago”.

A view of Laura Elayne Miller's studio, multimedia works in preparation for Thesis installation, 2011.

For being a fairly uniform crowd embedded within the community, the Chicago art scene still manages to be innovative in its approach, and push forward; the “sameness” of the community becomes just the opposite.  Local art school institutions do a great deal in fostering a perpetual ambition among its grads; satellite waves of artists are constantly being poured onto the scene, keeping it intensely active.  So how do MFA thesis exhibitions fit into the Chicago art scene?  Well, they don’t.  They are already a part of it. Thesis shows merely offer a glimpse into what’s coming next; like any open-exchange community, the Chicago art scene is able to group into a series of happenstance constellations, which due to some degree of institutional gravity, allows these satellite communities to revolve around the ever-shifting weight of a consistently sprawling center.


Show Information:
SAIC Graduate Thesis Exhibition

April 30–May 20
Sullivan Galleries, 33 S. State St., 7th floor
Wabash Galleries: addresses 22 and 28 S Wabash Ave.
Tue.–Sat., 11:00 a.m.–6 p.m.
Reception: Friday, April 29, 8:00–10:00 p.m.

Columbia MFA Thesis Exhibition
April 29–May 20,
Arcade Gallery, 618 S. Michigan Ave, 2nd floor.
Mon–Fri, 10:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m., Sat. 12pm-5pm

Center for Book & Paper Arts Gallery, 2nd Floor, 1104 S. Wabash Ave
Mon.-Fri. 10:00 a.m.– 6:00 p.m., Sat. 12:00 p.m.-5:00 p.m.
Reception: Fri. April 29, 5:00 p.m.-7:00 p.m.

UIC MFA Thesis Show 2011:
Exhibitions in Studio Arts, Photography, Moving Image and New Media Arts
April 5-30
Gallery 400, 400 S. Peoria Street (MC 034)
Tue.-Fri., 10:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.  Sat. 12:00 p.m.–6:00 p.m.
Reception: April 8th, 15th, 22nd, 29th, 5:00-8:00 p.m.