Twentieth century photography in California was born of departure. Beginning in the 1920s, pioneering photographers with familiar names - Imogen Cunningham, Dorothea Lange, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams and others - abandoned the primacy of aesthetics inspired by Pictorialism for the straight objectivity of Modernism. Generations of West Coast-based artists who followed have sustained that practice, pushing the medium’s boundaries through myriad documentary and conceptual explorations to arrive at the current moment and photography’s unparalleled popularity. That sustained enthusiasm, paired with increased institutional activity such as the opening of the SFMOMA’s Pritzker Center for Photography and smart programming in commercial spaces like Jenkins-Johnson Gallery and Fraenkel Gallery, and non-profit organizations like SF Camerawork and Rayko Photo Center affirms the medium’s overall vibrant health.
The accomplished work highlighted here represents the diverse environments in which an array of photographic practices are nurtured in Bay Area graduate art programs. The featured artists from Mills College, California College of The Arts and San Francisco Art Institute, their images and the larger bodies of work from which they originate succeed as sustained considerations of familiar photographic subjects (family, personal experience, identity, culture) and the new territory (technology, image production and consumption in the internet age) into which artists and makers are headed.
Lead by Department Head and veteran photographer Catherine Wagner and supported by numerous esteemed practicing artists, the Mills College MFA program stresses rigorous curriculum in which all students are encouraged to explore interdisciplinary pursuits.
Jingwei Qiu is a multimedia artist whose varied practice includes film, sculpture and photography. His MFA installation combined large, accretive sculptures and a suite of pitch black photographic compositions that consider the moral and material consequences of China’s spasmodic economy. The series “Black Still Lifes”, which features opulent floral centerpiece arrangements spray painted black and photographed before a black background, draws upon and beautifully bastardizes displays of bountiful wealth in the tradition of western European still life paintings and turns on its head the notion of what it means to be “in the black.
Representing the bulk of his MFA work, Holden Schultz’s Landscans comprise experiments - and the surreal visual outcomes - in deconstructing and repurposing outdated technological implements such as scanners and projectors. The psychedelic palette is produced by a custom-made scanner camera whenever movement occurs between exposures, resulting in fantastic or other worldly moments in otherwise familiar terrain. The landscapes represent a hybridization of analogue and digital processes and reference the growing mass of now-obsolete imaging devices.
A filmmaker by training, Leila Weefur interrogates structural racism through the overlapping languages of color, order, and division. Crayons and apples are used as proxies for human bodies, as are succulent red tomatoes in the installation This/Their/Our. In each instance, elemental forms are subjected to invasive experiments in which each form’s totality, strength, and resistance to violation are tested. Administered by anonymous hands sheathed in sterile surgeon’s gloves and carried out with clinical precision, the experiments represent the power and insidiousness of racism.
Divided between the newly-opened Minnesota Street Project, Fused Space, and the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art, California College of the Arts' MFA exhibition featured work by 39 emerging artists. In previous years, the main building on CCA’s San Francisco campus was taken over for this exhibition to mixed results. This year, curator Glen Helfand divided the exhibitions into discreet installations that gave each artist’s work better visibility. The resulting exhibitions, generously spaced and full of interesting material and conceptual juxtapositions, allowed for a much more relaxed audience experience.
Angela Martin Berry
A dual MFA and MA candidate, Angela Martin Berry’s entwined photographic and writing practices examine life’s rhythms in her native southern Appalachia. The series Rough Weather Makes Good Timber strikes an elusive balance between dreamy nostalgia for a fast-fading agrarian way of life and the real impact of land use and environmental change in rural America. Split between the Minnesota Street Project and the Wattis Institute, Berry’s short film The Lesser Light was included in a curated video compilation. The piece exposes viewers, through a claustrophobically-narrow aperture, to a dirt road made impassable by overgrown brush, and the psychological challenge of navigating it faced by Berry and her father.
“En vain pour éviter”, or “In vain to avoid harsh remarks” is drawn from “Carmen”, French composer Georges Bizet’s popular 1875 opera. Poppy Coles’ multichannel installation features a singer who recites repeatedly Carmen’s aria from the card scene in Act III. With each turn of the tarot deck, Carmen hopes for a card that foretells a happy outcome. Each time, she pulls the death card, and slowly resigns herself to what fate has in store for her. The character is locked in a pattern, and the audience (represented by Coles on the small screen and exhibition visitors in real time) is likewise bound to watch the cycle play again and again. Coles’ meditative piece, which addresses the prevalence of psycho-social and performative constructs, was only slightly diminished in execution by overhead light bleed.
Opened in 1871 under the name “San Francisco Art Association” and renamed formally in 1961, the San Francisco Art Institute has had a history of attracting photography luminaries as students and instructors alike, including Louise Dahl Wolfe, Minor White and Ansel Adams, who founded the nation’s first dedicated photography department at SFAI in 1945. Vernissage, SFAI’s yearly MFA exhibition, included the work of more than 80 emerging artists in the Class of 2016 working in multiple disciplines.
Marcela Pardo Ariza
Marcela Pardo Ariza works with digital photography’s endless potential for modification and reproducibility. Image pervasiveness in the internet age, including the production of memes and other virally-transmitted cultural symbols, reinforces that reproductive and consumer cycle but rarely considers how such visual data could live outside a particular confine. Ariza breaks those 2D rules by creating intimate photo-sculptural objects. Her installation features floor-based objects and pieces hung at unexpected and uncomfortable height, which forces the viewer to lean in or look down and results in humorous interactions between audience and object. Ariza’s unconventional interests, including the all too infrequent subject of humor in contemporary art, here expands to break our expectations of the photograph by breaking rules of form and wall-bound presentation.
“I don’t speak spanish but I speak a little spanish.
My name is Andrea
I’m a tejana…chicana…artist
My parents speak spanish but never in the house
When I was a little girl my Grandma Elisa would always pray in spanish
The first words I learned in spanish were ‘in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit’”
Andrea Nicolette Gonzales
Andrea Nicolette Gonzales takes on the myriad burdens of language and its impact on race, gender, and professional identity in the short film I Don’t Speak. Gonzales enrolled at SFAI as a painter and produced a notable series in which her model’s skin served as creative ground for working out issues relating to immigration’s personal and political impact and, as a Tejana artist, the sensation of being caught between divergent cultures. For I Don’t Speak, Gonzales painted herself, layering coat after coat of white paint over her olive skin until she is transformed into a blank canvas onto which the text is projected. This smart piece calls to mind Zhang Huan’s Family Tree (2001) and the potential for language to overwhelm the self.
A California native, Jordan Jurich-Weston holds a compassionate yet critical eye to a subject that is often a starting point for photographers: family. Jurich-Weston’s subjects, always framed by a near-Baroque interplay of light and dark, are singular subjects, all of whom impacted her life in profound ways. In the studio, these portraits hold wall space with considerable weight. When installed for her MFA exhibition, the prints were radically downsized and hung at uneven intervals, an effect suggesting snapshots or imperfect memory of a person or event. Jurich-Weston’s first installation piece, entitled The Stand of the Tide (2016), combines film and sound to convey a mighty personal struggle with personal history and the perils of inherited mental illness. Watching the fight unfold, Jurich-Weston wrestles against personal demons, attempting to drown and be done with them but not lose herself in the process. It’s an exhausting and admirable fight, one that leaves viewers rooting for her hard-fought victory.
Brian Z. Shapiro
Bohemian Grove is a 2,700-acre resort located near Monte Rio, California that yearly hosts titans of industry and politics. Since its founding in 1878, the gatekeepers who manage this exclusive all-male club have prided themselves on creating a space for men to escape what writer Elizabeth Flock describes as the “uncivilized interests” of common men. Brian Z. Shapiro happened upon the Grove during a visit to San Francisco’s Prelinger Library. That chance find started him on a course to discover, or come as close to discovery as possible, what goes on when the privileged recreate and relax. The installation combines Shapiro’s photographs - which were taken along the resort’s heavily-monitored perimeter and activate intense curiosity about what goes on there - with found images and objects to produce an oddly domestic scene. It’s as if we stepped into someone’s living room, an otherwise familiar place, that speculates visually on a space that is all but familiar or accessible.
Don’t Worry, I’ll Go Slow” is Christie Spillane's reckoning with sexual assault and the physical and psychological trauma left in its wake. In staged or loosely reenacted scenes, we watch as women’s bodies are consumed by elements - water and sand - that both mark the site of assault and stand in for the men responsible for these intimate horrors. Sinking slowly into sand, or struggling against the weight of water, her subjects marshall quiet yet fierce resistance. Looking at Spillane’s work is an agonizing experience, more so because we are implicated in the transgression by our gaze, yet we unable to stop it.
An earthy, almost sinister aspect permeates Charlie Watts’ work. In Sanctuary, Watts subverts the prevalent assertion that women are best celebrated for what they offer society as mothers and wives, and not for the unique and complicated identities that they inhabit. Her models are monumental, difficult to contain, unidealized and fecund; they are daughters of the usually anonymous women who drew attention in the work of French painters Gustave Courbet and Pierre-August Renoir, but demand that their individuality and solidarity with other women be acknowledged. Though the installation would have been even more impactful if overhead light has been minimized or eliminated outright, the overall impression upon stepping into a space dominated by these large prints is one of encountering the eternal.
Mitchell A. Yee
Mitchell A. Yee’s first professional calling was geology. As a field engineer, he studied the impact of large-scale industrial projects in California’s Tulare Basin. That knowledge of the Central Valley, how it has changed and what effects human intervention on the land have produced, is visualized in a series of large format aerial photographs. Yee’s portrayal of the land as fragile yet somehow durable after years of exploitation, and abstracted yet familiar, extends the long tradition of landscape photography in the American West.
While these brief descriptions offer highlights of the dynamic creative practices supported by Bay Area MFA programs, there are a wealth of additional noteworthy works produced by the following artists. Have a look at their websites below.
San Francisco State University
Kimberly Acebo Arteche
San Jose State University
Ashley Valmere Fischer
Roula Seikaly is a writer and independent curator based in San Francisco. Her writing is featured on platforms including Saint Lucy, Strange Fire Collective, Temporary Art Review, SF Camerawork, and KQED Arts. She has curated exhibitions at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, Triple Base Gallery, and SOMArts. Follow her on Instagram.