New York Studio School MFAs Get Serious

A sense of gloom permeated the New York Studio School’s annual MFA exhibition. What is the middle ground between losing ourselves in depression and bottling up all our feelings? How can art provide visual catharsis? These are not new questions, but the artists have formulated some novel responses to meet the existential dread of this moment.

Since the Hamas attacks of October 7 and Israel’s subsequent bombardment of Gaza, Nicholas Skoug has attended numerous demonstrations for a ceasefire. He drew on these experiences to create a new body of work, including “Ceasefire” (2024). The painting, in shades of red, green, and white, echoing the Palestinian flag, depicts an October 2023 protest in front of the White House organized by the group “if not now.” “The red has to be throughout because of the bloodshed, the urgency,” Skoug told Hyperallergic.

James Kozlik’s work evokes the gravity of the times from a psychological perspective. “My mood about the world has been pretty dark,” the artist explained, referring to his nocturnal landscapes. In “Night Presence #1” (2024), only two windows are illuminated in a residential tower, isolated from one another. At its base, the tower looks as if it might be sinking into water, anticipating how Manhattan will eventually flood due to climate change.

In contrast, Walter Brown’s captivating “Atlas” (2024) reminds us to retain sight of the joys around us. Turquoise fractals glimmer against the black background, providing a moment of iridescence in the dark. Brown’s paintings, as the artist wrote in the exhibition catalog, “represent my reaction to the current world situation in all its complexity, with both its ugliness and beauty.”

Claire Burner’s doleful painting “Loving You Is Losing Game” (2024) portrays a woman bending over, her bare back pierced with arrows and dripping blood. It’s a raw image of corporeal pain that invokes the emotional violence that so many people are enduring alongside physical distress. “This body of work is about love, violence, and losing and finding the self,” the artist remarked.

Another standout image of bodily and emotional suffering was “Underwater II” (2024) by Narelle Sissons, a painting of a figure stuck underwater. “For me, it’s about the emotional state of being suspended in water,” the artist noted. With the work, Sissons probes the physical sensation of fighting against drowning as a way into the emotional agony of feeling trapped. 

Recalling the work of Giorgio de Chirico and other Metaphysical painters, Sutton Allen uses color to create eerie, atmospheric scenes. He said of the painting “Square” (2024), “I had an idea of a poem between three forms — the empty plinth, the cone, and sun or moon. But then other ideas emerged.” The sky appears polluted and smoggy. Its relationship with the central visual poem is left open to interpretation.

Zipporah Norton’s mixed-media sculpture “Resurrection Stone” (2024) takes a more intimate approach to loss, memorializing the transition from childhood to adolescence. According to the artist, the work “is about giving shame a platform of beauty and dignity.” An important detail is easy to miss: Amid the scattered dirt on the green shag rug, there is a rock with body hair. This autobiographical work invites all of us to revisit puberty — a time when hormones raged, and a new body formed.

As mental health becomes an increasing concern in these tumultuous times, this year’s NYSS MFAs offer some thought-provoking contributions to this ongoing dialogue.

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Zipporah Norton “Resurrection Stone” (2024)

The NYSS 2024 MFA These Exhibition continues at the New York Studio School (8 West 8th Street, Greenwich Village, Manhattan) through May 29. The exhibition was organized by NYSS.

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