Curatorial Statement


(when I was in a craze I thought I’d turn into burnt up paper
flying high as the towers and buildings)

My name is written in front of me in neon letters:
There’s a hotel with my name.

• Cecilia Pavon

Is the present always haunted? What makes a void a home? Can plenitude and emptiness coexist? These are some of the questions that I have returned to while working with the nine artists in the MFA class of 2021 on their thesis exhibition. Titled No Vacancy, the exhibition includes works ranging from painting and sculpture to video and animation; they present an array of perspectives and aesthetic approaches that are, as in any MFA show, wildly divergent. And yet, a throughline connects these practices: a hint of dislocation, a whisper of home, the self returned as specter.

Exploring a sense of place that is tenuous, transient, and potentially temporary, these works suggest what the late theorist Mark Fisher, following Jacques Derrida, terms “hauntology”: the experience of a present shaded by the past—in other words, a presence tinged with absence. Hauntology, as Fisher explains, happens, “when a place is stained by time, or when a particular place becomes the site for an encounter with broken time.” Many of the works in this exhibition might be said to embody these sites of broken time, brimming with the temporal question of memory, as well as the related spatial question of where to put it. If memory is a means of keeping ourselves intact through time, it is also part and parcel of a search for refuge: a place to safely store the self. Many of the works in No Vacancy display both a quest for, and suspicion of, what we call home—mining the discomfort, and beauty, and of the fugue state that is the search itself.

“Being-at-home…is not the ‘primordial phenomenon.’ ‘Not-being-at-home’ is more fundamental. To be not-at-home may mean to be at hotel,” writes Wayne Koestenbaum in his wonderfully meandering book Hotel Theory. I was reminded of this formulation while contemplating the works of this exhibition. To be “at hotel” is to be (perhaps unhappily, perhaps in joyful liberation) both situated and in transit. Being “at hotel” suggests, like many of the works in this exhibition, how a place of vacancy can become, suddenly, home—and vice versa.

At first glance, Hoang Vo’s installation offers a sense of domestic refuge. Images of interior scenes hang on an abstract wallpaper, signalling the viewer into a space of presumed safety. The images and wallpaper are in fact composed of digitally manipulated photographs of the artist’s face that were taken by femme members of his community. Vo has distorted these images, abstracting his visage into shards of color that he then reconstitutes into vaguely pastoral compositions—a bouquet of flowers, to name one. Titled the Medusa series, the works suggest the potentially deadening outcome of being identified too easily in a society addicted to imaging. You could turn to stone. In response, Vo disappears into his work, erasing himself. Yet, he simultaneously permeates the entirety of the work: there is no negative space in this installation, he is foreground and background at once.

A similarly astringent domesticity emerges in the sculptural works of Karen Dias. Throughout her works, Dias places an attention on the lines demarcating inside and out, a metaphor for the ways in which nationalism weaponizes feelings of belonging and estrangement. In We Watch From The Margins (2020), a spiraling helix of dried chili peppers traverses the space like a coil of barbed wire. A spice familiar to the cooking of her native India, the chili is both redolent of home and, in such quantities, potential pain. A line of razor blades embedded in the gallery walls traces the contentious border between India and Pakistan in A Red Line Under A Blue Sky (2021). In Smoke and Mirrors (2021), a large-scale cyanotype, Indian nationalist symbols find themselves emptied out, drained of their violent potential. Abstracted into voids, the shapes hold the space the sun literally cannot reach.

If the void is a site of negation, it can also double as a vessel—a space of prospective plenitude. Gabrielle Randall’s practice—which spans video, photography, and sculpture—delves into the artist’s experience as a queer Black woman to explore the body as a container of simultaneous pain, pleasure, and power. The video chronic / a ritual for release (2021) opens with footage of a chest—perhaps the artist’s—rising and falling in quick rhythm. A refrain plays throughout the video: “breathing is a form of worship / breathing is a form of resistance,” the voice repeats, like an incantation. Randall positions the lungs as an opening into the vessel of the body—a body coursing with sensations and alternately permeable to and armored against the outside world. In the sculptures Beloved and The Velvet Rope (both 2019), she fashions yonic forms of clay and adorns them with hair; their torqued curves, like shells, merge inside and out.

In Di Wang’s sculptural installation Empty (2020), three clay sculptures rest, delicate and bulbous, atop common bathroom items: a scale, a toilet, and a plastic stool. The sculptures are modelled on women’s reproductive organs. Wombs and ovaries and fallopian tubes isolated from the rest of the body, they suggest a state of loss and trauma, and, as the title suggests, profound emptiness. These hollow, disembodied organs nonetheless radically claim space and force a reckoning, breaking open the sometimes toxic privacy of domestic space to rethink the true nature of home. This search for a space of refuge extends into Hermit (2021). One of a series of wearable sculptures, it forms—like the shell of a hermit crab—a moveable home that sometimes, as photographs of Wang wearing the sculpture suggest, you might need to don inside your own house. Constructed of fragile paper, this is a carapace that challenges its own premise.

Akofa Norman’s paintings also display a concern with spaces of healing and interiority, asking the viewer to consider the myriad forms such spaces might take. Abstract and built up of densely impastoed layers of paint, textile, and stitching, these works do not illustrate healing as much as embody it, the repetitive physical processes of their making key to their therapeutic potential. Though abstract, the body is everywhere here, evoked in the flesh-like tones and mottled, vulnerable surfaces of the works. Often rent with chasms and holes, the paintings balance beauty and abjection, presence and loss. Norman’s experience as a deaf
woman informs the message of these works, exploring the ways in which the body can hold information and express emotion just as well as, and beyond, speech.

One of the most precarious but pleasurable human states is that of sleep—a pause from waking reality in which control recedes and the subconscious takes over. Rita Song’s four channel video (Untitled, 2021) explores the liminal moments between sleep and wakefulness. Black and white footage of hands digging in the earth (excavating a dark cavity at the center of the screen) is blurred and layered with animated drawings of hands doing the same action. In another section, we see the artist’s hand tracing calligraphic ink lines atop the shadow of tree branches in the snow, the ink bleeding into the surrounding expanse of white. Throughout, the work is haunted by the pervasive sense that reality and our means of processing, recording, and expressing it cannot ever fully align.

If Song’s images revel in the hazy blur of memory, Hoor Imad Sherpao’s The Room of Personal Mythology (2021), a video installation and accompanying book, focuses on the traces and fragments of images that return to us intact, again and again, imprinting themselves in our psyche. Sherpao is trained in classical Indo-Persian miniature painting, and her intricately rendered drawings depict characters and visions that she subsequently transforms into digital animations, weaving these elements into elaborate imaginary worlds that recall childhood memories of her ancestral home in Northern Pakistan. Red curtains repeatedly spread wide; a door opens and shuts; a chicken hops across the screen; eyes blink awake. The work posits the mind as a stage upon which images and characters appear and recede, and memory the twisting plots that we assign them.

The notions of “memory” and “searching” take on distinctly contemporary valances in the paintings of Kat Meese Jostad, which explore the messy entanglement of the virtual and physical realms. The works typically start with handpainted forms inspired by her navigation of cyberspace; these are digitized, scrambled and recombined into new compositions, and then painted again onto canvas, with the selection of color determined by an algorithm written by the artist. A legacy of “systems art” informs the works, but the artist’s hand is most definitely present, muddling the borders between the passivity of ceding control and the texture of individual agency. The newest painting is “programmed” by an algorithm written by Jostad that determines the percentage of which a person fits into the following “absurdist” categories, based on their image: hero vs. villain; sartorialist vs. normcore; optimist vs. pessimist; and leader vs. sidekick. Trained initially on the first 5,000 images that resulted when these terms were searched on Google, Jostad then turned the camera on herself (she’s 35% optimist) to create a self-portrait of sorts. Throwing the presumed neutrality of computing and algorithms into question, Jostad suggests the ways in which any answer might be predetermined by the way we ask the question.

Latent in Jostad’s work, as in many of these artists’ practices, is a question of how to truly recognize oneself within the tangles of the mind, memory, or cyberspace. An exploration of this uncertainty drives the practice of Cai Shen. Upon finding herself confined to her apartment, like so many of us, during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Shen began working at a minute scale, using the labels and price tags of various purchases as substrates for carefully rendered self-portraits. Upon each, she painted her face in miniature, sometimes fragmented—as if peering through the proverbial looking glass and ending up back in the heart of our capitalist reality, its absurd mandate that individuality can be defined through modes of consumption on full display. A critique of the ways in which we conflate our self-worth with commodities, Shen’s repetitive self-portraits also literalize the compulsive means by which we attempt to locate ourselves through the objects we surround ourselves with.

Koestenbaum again: “A hotel is an arbitrary collection of human beings,” he writes. “Like other city-structures (stores, arcades), hotels throw strangers together in chance arrangements.” In this sense, the hotel might not only be a metaphor for the thematics that reside within this constellation of works, but also an apt way of thinking through the experience of school itself, in which you are placed in close intellectual proximity with an assortment of what are, mostly likely, total strangers. And yet, despite that—and despite the isolating effects of the pandemic that forced this class online for the majority of their graduate education—they managed to turn the hotel into some sort of home. No vacancy.

Jody Graf, guest curator