mfa 2003: after months of tireless reconnaissance, our secret agent targets four grads to watch
Robin Hann, Secret Exchange, archival digital print, 16x20 in., 2002. Courtesy FLATFILEgalleries, Chicago.
Point of origin: Kankakee, Illinois
MFA: University of Illinois at Chicago
How did you end up here? Well, I decided to commute to Columbia College Chicago for my BFA in photography. I met my partner in crime, Victor Leon, there, and moved into the city full time.
Tell us about your work. I have been working extensively on a body of self-portraits for the last 7-1/2 years, where I began by disguising myself as a 12-year-old girl. An important aspect of my latest work is that I am an identical twin, but have chosen to photograph myself as both sisters. What I hope to achieve through the repeated use of self-portraiture is that the figure becomes a blank space where the viewer can place themselves into the narrative of the image.
How has being at UIC changed the direction of your work? I am much more aware of contemporary issues that place photography within the context of art, and not just as existing alongside it. Also, my well of resources is much more vast; I now have the knowledge to draw upon other media, as well as past and current art theory.
What's the best thing that happened as a result of attending UIC? I met some wonderful students and faculty, who were very tough, yet were also unconditionally supportive.
What advice would you give a BFA student considering graduate school? The best thing I ever did was to wait 1-1/2 years after I received my BFA before going to graduate school. By then, I was really ready to go and give it everything I had.
Would you do it all over again? Definitely, without a doubt.
Do you feel living in Chicago has had an effect on your work? Yes, because it's where I, as well as my parents, grew up. I think it would be a hard thing to separate from my work, because it is part of the core of it.
How have your expectations about being an artist changed? My expectations have become much higher. I have committed myself to getting this far, so there's no reason to stop now. I expect myself to maintain a rigorous practice, as well as make images that are able to hold their own.
Now that school's over, what do you look forward to most? I look forward to making images that are not on the direct path, but that could lead to other works. I also can't wait to travel. I miss the beaches of Peru the most.
What will you miss the most? I will miss the regularity of input and advice from classmates and faculty, and just the academic environment in general. I find it very fruitful and inspiring.
Where to now? Well, this summer I'm teaching Photo I at UIC, as well as a few classes for a local community photography organization called Vital Projects. I will also be speaking at Emporia University in early September. After that, the future remains undetermined!
What's the worst or strangest comment you ever received in critique? The comment that stung the most was that my work (specific to a certain critique) was a good example of graduate students closing out the world in reaction to the flood of input from so many different people. I still disagree!
C. Joel Beaman, Trucks No Trucks, version 2, 15th Street Produce Depot, 15th Street & Morgan, Chicago, unique ilfochrome pinhole print, 16:30-18:45, 7.2.02. Courtesy the artist.
Point of origin: Jacksonville, Florida
MFA: Columbia College Chicago
How did you end up here? Miami is too hot, Atlanta too close, LA too far, New York too expensive. But Chicago was just right.
Tell us about your work. Right now, I'm photographing with a 1984 GMC Pinhole Stepvan, and meeting all kinds of nice law-enforcement people. I am keenly interested in the process of how we see and observe the world, and exploring the technical boundaries of image-making. I'm attempting to apprehend the mythic "open road" of America we hear so much of. So far, I am finding that it exists only in my head.
How has being at Columbia College changed the direction of your work? At the Center for Book & Paper Arts, I found lots of room and miles of leeway to explore everything from making paper and binding books, to creating sculptural environments--something really only an interdisciplinary program could require or even offer.
What's the best thing that happened as a result of attending Columbia? My colleagues' backgrounds varied from performance artists to industrial designers. Their perspectives and aesthetics were almost always refreshing and new to my ears.
What advice would you give a BFA student considering graduate school? Embrace the theoretical, but don't forget where your feet are and where they have walked....
Would you do it all over again? Absolutely (not/yes). Ask me again in a week!
Do you feel living in Chicago has had an effect on your work? Yes: technically, there is so much industrial infrastructure--if you can't find it in Chicago, you probably don't need it. I consider Chicago my home; I am convinced, every time I come back from elsewhere, that this is the right place.
How have your expectations about being an artist changed? Arriving at a question is just as valid a conclusion as arriving at an answer. The "answer" alone is less fluid, and doesn't hold up to scrutiny as well as a question might.
Now that school's over, what do you look forward to most? Spending time with my wife (graduate school makes an "art widow" out of one's significant other!) and getting ready for a baby in November....
What will you miss the most? Staying up too late, student discounts, my U-pass (the CTA is great!), a full production studio for making paper/letterpress printing on it/binding it--all under one roof! First-period homeroom with Frank, third-period gym class, archery, and track team.
Where to now? Hopefully teaching at the college level and having an art-blast with students under the guise of "Photo I" or "Drawing I."
What's the worst or strangest comment you ever received in critique? Regarding the pinhole stepvan: "Where's the bathroom?"
Jenny Roberts, Cornered, plexiglas, 2003. Courtesy the artist.
Age: Old enough to know better
Point of origin: Detroit, Michigan
MFA: University of Chicago
How did you end up here? I came here some years ago to work as an editor after two years in Tokyo. I realized then I was addicted to cities, and I was curious about Chicago.
Tell us about your work. My work is not medium-specific. It consists of the residue of various interventions, appropriations, and interactions. I have an affinity with what people don't pay attention to--the nearly invisible, ephemeral, accidental, and momentary. I'm not interested in making precious objects, though sometimes my work takes the form of objects. I'm more interested in the space that a work of art can create, and in the ideas and forms that arise as I attempt to maintain an ongoing, countercultural, playful perversity in engaging with the things around me, as a way of staying awake and alive.
How has being at the University of Chicago changed the direction of your work? It hasn't really changed the direction of my work; it has helped me clarify, focus, and strengthen what I was already interested in doing. It has trained me to think more critically about my own work and its relationship with art history, current art practice, and culture.
What's the best thing that happened as a result of attending University of Chicago? Meeting and getting to know a diverse community of people who are sincerely interested in all aspects of the artmaking process, and who share the sense that serious engagement in the struggle to come to terms with forms of expression is a significant, compelling, and worthwhile task in its own right.
What advice would you give a BFA student considering graduate school? Get a job. Cultivate a fetish. Make friends who are not artists. Travel. Hallucinate. Despair. Make your work on your own. Devote time to looking at other people's work. Read novels. Lose your keys. Then see where you are. Don't look at graduate school as a factory with you as the product.
Would you do it all over again? I absolutely would. It was a life-altering experience.
Do you feel living in Chicago has had an effect on your work? I'm sure it has, because living here constantly reminds me of the terrifying banality of reality and the beauty of the laundromat.
How have your expectations about being an artist changed? I've never had any expectations about being an artist and always felt it was quite impossible. Now I feel it's possible. This change makes all the difference to me. It doesn't have anything to do with the idea of "making it" in an artworld sense. It has everything to do with the possibility of making a life in which I'm also making art.
Now that school's over, what do you look forward to most? No intense expectations, no weekly meetings, and no scathing critiques.
What will you miss the most? Intense expectations, weekly meetings, and scathing critiques.
Where to now? The wild blue yonder, the workaday world, the laundromat.
What is the worst or strangest comment you ever received in critique? I was working on a piece that for some reason required fake lemons, so I had bought a bunch of cheap plastic lemons to include in it. A teacher asked me why I hadn't made the lemons from scratch. Why would I make them when multitudes of them already exist?
Paola Cabal, Here Tomorrow, interior latex, spray paint on floor, wall, School of the Art Institute MFA Exhibition, 2003. Courtesy the artist.
Point of origin: Bogotá, Colombia
MFA: School of the Art Institute of Chicago
How did you end up here? My family moved to South Florida when I was 3, but I went back to Colombia to live after undergrad in Pittsburgh (in Visual Art at Carnegie Mellon). After two years of the intense social/political/economic sink-or-swim of Bogotá, I had a couple of good pieces, more raw material for new work than I knew what to do with, and a keen sense that it was time for me to leave. I applied to SAIC and got in, so I came to Chicago. Ultimately, I believe you end up where you're meant to go.
Tell us about your work. I try to "fix" or hold things in place so that they can't escape, recognizing on the other hand that the demise of these things is built in. The optimistically titled Here Tomorrow (in which I traced the sunlight patterns coming into the space directly onto the floor and wall with spray paint) won't be--it's already painted over. But it still exists in a sense: the sun is still there and the wall is still there. In other pieces, the process of creating the image weakens and/or damages the surface. Carving and incising can make something stay in a way that can't be erased, but the paper doesn't necessarily appreciate it. In that work I think there's a tension between the fragility of the surface and the aggressive, visceral nature of the technique applied to that surface, which points to my ambivalence about change. Maybe it's sort of a mistake to try to make permanence; maybe you give up something important when you try to hold things down.
How has being at SAIC changed the direction of your work? It has definitely encouraged me to let my work do more of the talking (or suggesting or whispering) rather than try to take it to such a literal place that it can only resonate in a really limited way.
What's the best thing that happened as a result of attending SAIC? The genuinely insightful and always surprising faculty and fellow grads I have had the privilege to work with and beside. These are good people. I know myself to be crappy about staying in touch with anyone farther than arm's-reach away, but as far as this limitation will allow, I plan to retain these relationships for life!
What advice would you give a BFA student considering graduate school? After four years, you know who you are as a student. Take a little time to find out who you are as a person and an artist; make that clear for yourself. Then go to grad school and test that against what they tell you, and refine it. But bring something to it, you know? Don't just ask grad school to supply you with everything, because you'll be disappointed.
Would you do it all over again? Definitely. SAIC was exactly the right place for me to have gone; the timing was right and the feedback I got on my work was tremendously useful. Several thousand dollars of debt later, I can't say enough how not sorry I am I did this now.
Do you feel living in Chicago has had an effect on your work? Absolutely. Chicago is visually and culturally and in all other ways delicious to me. There's this gorgeous, forceful austerity to Chicago that I have a hard time putting into words; it's in so many ways the opposite of what I grew up around that it's really helped me to see those places, and therefore my practice, in a completely new way. It's like a present I never finish unwrapping because there are always more layers.
How have your expectations about being an artist changed? They haven't. I mean, every artmaking peer or faculty member or administrator or gallerist or curator or what have you, is a different example of a way to be one. I never subscribed to the notion of being an "artist" as this isolated activity divorced from everything else, so I can't really say that my expectations have changed on that point.
Now that school's over, what do you look forward to most? For the immediate future, processing all of the information I received while I was there!
What will you miss the most? What I can sort of see missing the most--and am sort of the happiest to be without for right now--is the constant attention of discerning minds and eyes on my work. But I am optimistic that it will be there to reach for when I find I need it again, as long as I force myself to be better than I am now about keeping in touch!
Where to now? For the moment, the plan is to stay here a year, until next summer. I can see Chicago being a home base for me, but for right now I know that what I need for myself and my work is to leave the States again for a while. Next stop: Brazil.
What's the worst or strangest comment you ever received in critique? I made a piece called Support System--where I traced the shadows of scaffolding cast at night by streetlight--and a visiting painter said she felt as though it should include a taxidermied squirrel somewhere on the floor.