The Alienated Aesthetics of USC’s Student Exhibition

LOS ANGELES — First off, I’m sorry to the University of Southern California campus security officers I lied to in order to write this review. I was not going to make a U-turn, nor was I trying to reach my nonexistent contact at USC’s Fisher Museum of Art. Inside, USC lawn signs directed me to Orwellian “designated free speech areas,” the latest effort by USC President Carol Folt to quell protests over the university’s unwillingness to divest from Israel. The art museum was empty when I arrived, an unfortunate byproduct of USC’s campus closure to non-students the past several weeks. These roadblocks, though, did not make the USC Roski Annual Student Exhibition any less impressive. Across painting, video, sculpture, and photography, the undergraduates’ work paired meditations on discomfort, isolation, and technology with an impressive aesthetic rigor.  

Body horror has become a broad genre; the works on view suggest it may be most acutely and honestly felt in late adolescence. Yukin Zhang depicts bodily changes in visceral detail: “Sample: Wisdom Teeth” (2024) features an index finger pulling back an open mouth to reveal a new wisdom tooth poking through a pink gum. Nathalie Argueta’s charcoal and oil drawing, “Growing Pains” (2023) similarly explores the physical discomfort that accompanies growing up. In it, a windswept female figure raises a hammer above a rocky outcropping — or her own leg, as Argueta’s composition makes the target of her strike difficult to discern. Young bodies are often aestheticized and objectified, a process reified in Jeong Ah Park’s “Full Circle” (2024), which displays a ceramic vase crafted to resemble a cartoonishly sexualized woman, complete with a star-printed bikini, protruding vagina, and anime-style braided hair. 

Jeong Ah Park, “Full Circle” (2024), ceramic

Technology influences the works on view across mediums, together conjuring an alienated aesthetic defined by warped, collaged compositions and multimedia experiments. Yoonseo Yang’s painting, “Where am I?” (2024), centers a blurry solitary figure walking through an empty restaurant. Crafted in precise strokes, it recalls depictions of motion in still photography. In Wilha Duncan’s painting, “I party with myself” (2024), a surreal house party bursts across three continuous wood panels of varying sizes, combining to form a disjointed canvas that lends the revelry the glitchy quality of an iPhone panorama shot. Elsewhere, Isa Perez investigates the slipperiness of public self-performance and its mediation in images. In their photographed diptych, “Alienated” (2024), eight digital cutouts of the artist’s self-portrait appear across two Los Angeles landscapes, Perez morphing via costuming, pose, and editing from a demure mother to a drag queen. 

My semi-illegal viewing of the exhibition was more than worth it: The artists possess a clarity of vision and technical command rare in artists double their age. Good things lie in wait for those who bypass campus security — and their own ennui. 

Yoonseo Yang, “Where am I?” (2024), oil on canvas
Yukin Zhang, “Sample: Wisdom Teeth,” detail (2024), oil on canvas
Peyton Grase, “Masking” (2023), mixed media
Jackie Sanchez, “I <My Fate” (2024), oil and spackling paste on canvas
Terrie Yu, “Algorithm: Starling” (2024), oil on canvas
Sasha-Mylan Williams, “LUX & LEGACY” (2024), photography and mixed media

The USC Roski 2024 Annual Student Exhibition continues at the USC Fisher Museum of Art (823 West Exposition Boulevard, University Park, Los Angeles) through May 9. The exhibition was organized by the USC Roski School of Art and Design.

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