Ube, Ashtrays, and Wormhole Topography at SOMArts

Bhenaz Khalenghi’s Ants (SOMArts)

The spacious gallery exhibits work by 15 award-winning MFA students.

Strident, didactic, preachy, obscure: At times, student art can be perilous terrain.

But an exhibit currently up at SOMArts through Sept. 25 showcases the best work from 15 second-year MFA students at six Bay Area art schools, including UC Berkeley, Stanford, Mills College, the San Francisco Art Institute, and California College of the Arts. Curated by Kevin Chen, the work on display represents the largest gallery show many of these artists have ever participated in — but you wouldn’t know it from looking at it.

Chen was also one of three jurors tasked with picking 15 artists out of 100 applications, but notably, once the winners were selected, he wasn’t bound to use art they’d submitted.

“The great thing is that there’s no limitations,” Chen told SF Weekly. “I could actually meet with each artist and consider their entire body of work produced to date.”

He noticed two themes, the first being an reliance on organic forms and a “process of accumulation,” and the other being notions of futurism or “the digital glitch.”

Accumulation is the name of the game for large-scale works like Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill’s A bitch always smokes, a pair of Claes Oldenberg-size sculpted ashtrays with two cold cathode tube cigarettes that makes no attempt to hide the wires. The eye is drawn to the interiors, but instead of an accretion of ash — or the attendant parallel with what happens in human lungs — it’s a buildup of cool light instead. But the theme is even more obvious in Bhenaz Khaleghi’s Ants, a mandrake root of thread that could be either animal or vegetable in nature. It’s faintly monstrous, but pretty up close, a nice tension between macro and micro — plus it clearly took a great deal of time to weave.

Winning a Cadogan means $6,500, which students at a tuition-based school can apply to the following year of studies, and students in subsidized programs can use to keep themselves in ramen and peanut butter. There is only one Murphy Award, a $40,000 merit-based prize that this year went to Andrew Wilson for a large-scale installation of denim tunics on hangers against a blue wall. It’s a haunting use of absence and negative space, the empty hangers’ shadows piling up like corpses that aren’t there, and indeed it’s meant to evoke casualties from a slave vessel filled beyond capacity. (The blue wall could be read as the sea, as viewed from the side of the ship.)

Hadley Radt, Flow State
Hadley Radt, Flow State

The exhibit’s other thread, that warped sense of the future, shows up in a triptych of images by Hadley Radt done in ink and pen. Like a crystallization of deep space or topographical map of a wormhole by way of cutting-edge computer graphics from 1983, the trio is a mesmerizing fantasy of distorted grids, with a genuinely arresting depth. Chen says that she’d never worked on this scale before — the images are 24 by 36 inches — and he had to encourage her to spend a full work-week on a ladder and scaffold at SOMArts.

France Viana, Color Palate: Ube
France Viana, Color Palate: Ube

“It was five consecutive eight-hour days in the gallery,” he said. “It pushed beyond her comfort zone and opened up a world of possibilities to explore in the second year of her MFA studies. I’m excited to see what she can do.”

In a roundabout way, outer space shows up in the work of Filipina artist France Viana. Identity politics can be laden with cultural frictions, but her series of five close-ups of ice cream flavors from the Philippines — ube, jackfruit, halo halo and the like, many of which can be found at Mitchell’s — are beautiful pastel renderings of something faraway yet familiar. They could almost be mistaken for moons of Jupiter, the pitted surface reflecting air pockets in the ice cream.

The 2016 Murphy Award and Cadogan Contemporary Art Awards Exhibition, through Sept. 24, at SOMArts, 934 Brannan St., 415-863-1414 or somarts.org.


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