Please join us for the opening on Friday, May 20th from 6-8pm.
Anna Caruso Julia Goddard Peter Gynd Rebecca Jean-Philippe Helen Marder Jonathan Ojekunle Alyssa Soethout Kiera Stuart Shuyang Zhou
The 2022 thesis class of Brooklyn College has weathered many storms. Their graduate years have been marked by a pandemic which rendered their worlds smaller and more isolated at a time traditionally marked by personal, intellectual and artistic expansion. They had much to respond to and to endure. The result is a remarkable array of works informed by self-reflection, adaptation, trauma and healing.
One silver lining of the pandemic has been an expanded sense of how and why art sustains us. How does it help us process our experiences? What is essential and non-essential to our work? There seems to be a collective wave of gratitude amongst artists for the shelter their practice has offered in this time of chaos and uncertainty. Another boon has been a new and widespread acceptance of the healing aspect of both art making and viewing. Speaking about art as a source of replenishment has traditionally been something of a taboo within the mainstream, falling into the category of sentimental reflection rather than legitimate art historical or academic dialogue.
I feel that shifting now. We’ve become more accepting and honest about the healing aspects of art, about its value as a coping mechanism, about its necessity as a means of connection to ourselves and to others. Artist Guadelupe Maravilla, currently showing at both MOMA and the Brooklyn Museum, has received widespread critical acclaim for his sculptural installations that act as active sites for individual and group healing, and which speak to the power of physical and emotional healing as both spiritually and creatively regenerative.
Responding to the loss of her mother to ovarian cancer in January of 2022, Anna Caruso pivoted away from a sculpture and photography practice to create meditative, abstract “grief-scapes” – grids of gestural watercolors completed in one sitting, bearing as titles the day they were made as tactile evidence of the moment. Painted on small white squares set on black panels, these progressions evoke a multitude of visual references: waves, eruptions, brain scans, weather patterns. They both remind one of and function as Rorschach blots, opaque yet filled with meaning. Working with such simple and portable materials allowed Caruso to access her practice anytime; a therapeutic and practical necessity.
Helen Marder’s multimedia installation, which investigates motherhood, mortality and family dynamics, also bears the weight of grief. The artist lost her father to Covid, an event palpable in her deconstructed, frayed representation of a beloved childhood toy, a piece that evokes both happy memories and unsalvageable loss. Mother’s Hug, a denim, wire and plaster sculpture hung at torso height, examines both the restriction and comfort within the maternal embrace. Marder explores how the hopefulness inherent in building her own family is intertwined with painful memories and an inevitable fear of loss, mining that tension with raw, vulnerable gestures.
Peter Gynd spent the first year of the pandemic in the coastal rainforests of Vancouver, painting and photographing the natural environment. Upon his return to Brooklyn College, Gynd continued to work with that imagery, trying to recapture the feeling and essence of that time and place. He used photographs as source material, but ultimately abandoned them to create large-scale, semi-abstracted paintings grounded in the notion of the forest as a healing, spiritual place, a natural cathedral filled with monuments, altars and relics. These works seem to exist in an interstitial space between remembered landscape and subconscious dreamscape, mediated by ritual.
Rebecca Jean-Phillippe uses portraiture as a means to reflect upon the power dynamics of both sexual empowerment and exploitation. Drawing from personal observations, as well as from the history of the oversexualization of the female Black body, she makes exquisitely rendered pastel drawings that investigate a tangled web of selfhood, pleasure, ambiguity, kink, and the legacy of enslaved bodies. Considering submission from multiple perspectives, she asks more questions than she answers, allowing this analytic process to remain open-ended as she explores complex terrain. Alyssa Soethout had every intention of working in the darkroom during her MFA program, but the pandemic made that impossible. In response to this pronounced lack of access, her practice expanded and evolved to include a new way of creating images by combining digital drawings and photographs and screen printing them. This unique process creates something that feels both digital and analog. The series featured in this exhibition pays homage to the film canister as a repeating visual trope, balanced by ephemeral photographs of natural and urban environments.
Jonathan Ojekunle also had to significantly adjust his expectations of his art practice for the last few years. His plans to relocate from Nigeria to Brooklyn College were delayed by the pandemic, and he began his graduate work remotely. This resulted in an intense period of reflection. The result is a series of evocative self-portraits born out of reckonings with who he is, where he is, and the feelings brought on by a global crisis and the eventual move to a new continent. Ojekunle’s triptych, rendered in soothing yet insidious pastel tones, reveal his ambiguous feelings about hiding both his face and feelings behind a mask. His experiments with breaking the traditional canvas into a more abstracted shape speaks to a process of emotional fracture and realignment that feels current and universal.
Keira Stuart’s large scale painting, populated with mysterious, intriguing figures, is also a deeply personal narration of her own psychological process. In response to trauma, and in search of both resolution and self-awareness, she aligned with the psychological theory of the dialogical self - the idea that each person has different voices within them that are born of different experiences. A dialogical self therapy practice aims to blur the line between the individual and society by underscoring shared experiences. For Stuart, this painting was an exercise in self-awareness and problem solving that allowed her to become and remain more vulnerable in her practice.
Painting with a virtuosity that calls to mind Rembrandt and Vermeer (not coincidentally, some of her inspirations) Shuyang Zhou offers us a series of still lifes born of pandemic isolation. Domestic space became her de facto subject matter, and her memento mori include not only the classic rotting fruits, but Amazon boxes languishing on package room shelves, washing machines in need of unloading, and the view from her apartment window. Her investigation of daily minutiae connects her to a long artistic tradition of fascination with the everyday, most recently embraced in the 90’s by artists like Gabriel Orozco and Rivane Neuenschwander.
Another artist harnessing the history of painting to tell her story is Julia Goddard. Goddard told me during one of our studio visits that she thinks of herself as the Navy Seal of painting. Looking at her colorful, dynamic canvases that pay homage to Warhol and DeKooning, I wasn’t sure I understood. After delving deeper, I began to see what she meant. Deeply influenced by the legacy of a military family aligned with social justice, her canvases act as a sort of camouflage for more complex, strategically coded messages. She uses visual references to well-known painters to cloak more subversive ideas and social critiques, offering layers of information to those willing to seek them.
Although the work of the 2022 Brooklyn College thesis class is inherently personal, with each artist tackling their own set of experiences, questions and challenges, they all become part of a larger creative response to a colossal, catastrophic worldwide event. A generation from now, theirs will be the art that represents these years. Just as art that was made during and in response to the AIDS crisis reveals how shifting perceptions of sexuality and mortality permeated everything, so will these artists reveal how the world confronted a global pandemic and how it changed us. The legacy of this generation is being written now and will resonate for decades to come. When I look at this exhibition as a whole, I am reminded of some beautiful writing by Susan Thompson about Doris Salcedo’s 2015 exhibition at the Guggenheim. Thompson identifies a tension in Salcedo’s trauma-based work deriving from a relationship to both beauty and horror. It seems fitting that the same tension, or duality, is present in much of Shelter in the Storm.