Curator’s Note

An Asterism*


* Noun: 1. (Astronomy) A prominent pattern or group of stars.

             2. (Typography) A group of three asterisks (⁂), used to separate sections of text.


With its pair of meanings, the word asterism holds two distinct possibilities for envisioning the relationships between the parts of a composite entity. On the one hand, the astronomical form implies a perceived connectivity; on the other, the typographic symbol signals delineation. The duality of this term evokes a tension that is apparent within the format of MFA thesis exhibitions: such culminating presentations bring together artists from a degree program to show their work as a unified cohort at a moment of transition, just before the group disbands and each person begins the next phase of their career post-graduation.

Rather than attempting to cover over or resolve this incongruence, this exhibition proposes an asterism as a metaphor to describe the convergence of the fifteen members of the Parsons FIne Arts MFA class of 2022 within the gallery. Taking the asterisked note following the title as a model for how two dissonant meanings can exist alongside one another, An Asterism* calls for reflection on the ways that both dimensions inherent to a thesis exhibition are intertwined. How do resonances across this group of artworks reflect the fact that even as these artists have taken part in collective dialogues throughout their time at Parsons, they each have been working independently toward the turning point of the program’s completion? To what extent might this cohort’s emergent patterns inform what they carry with them into the subsequent stages of their practice? And, more broadly, how do these artists grapple with seeming contradictions, not only as they negotiate their positions within institutional systems, but also as they engage with the complexities of contemporary subject matter in their work?

Within the overarching asterism of the exhibition, there are numerous threads between and across artists—call them the imagined lines that connect individual stars to form an observable shape in the night sky, or the paragraphs that join together to form a passage of text before a section break.

For instance, several artists explore the potential of world building—the act of imagining realms that posit new configurations of references drawn from history, lived realities, and fantasy. Mauve Martineau’s 20 Church Street (2022) draws from the recent past to project possibilities for desired futures. Named after the address of a home that nine trans and nonbinary individuals (including the artist) temporarily transformed into a site of growth and transition, the work transposes the promise of the place onto a representative series of domestic objects. Martineau animates these elements to function as a set and costumes for a performance by their housemates that reconstitutes the community, if only fleetingly, within an alternative context. In his installation My body, our soul, this world. (2021–2022), Darian Stewart stages vibrant portraiture celebrating the ecstasy of queer Black experience in community-centered settings amidst sculptural forms that evoke the trauma of oppressions that he and his peers face. Through this juxtaposition, Stewart underscores the capacity for collectively generated spaces to act as havens for self determination outside of dominant systems.

Rachel Yeoh’s paintings Keeper and Imposition (both 2022) envision scenes of speculative worlds in which recognizable mythological figures coexist with a fictional creature of her own making. Conceiving of these works as responses to the ongoing pandemic and associated ruptures of social systems, the artist imagines a refuge in which fantastical beings serve apotropaic functions.

Ye Cheng draws on sensations of distance and detachment to conjure new worlds in a series of paintings and in a video and artist book titled Memory Map (2022). The works combine mediated representations of existing places with cultural motifs and architectural forms, resulting in renderings of hybrid spaces that exist in the zone between reality and invention, present and past, physical and digital.

Another connective path links artists whose works probe the implications of bodily presence and absence, calling attention to how these states reflect societal systems, collective practices, or acts of individual preservation. Paula Martin Rivero’s piece Untitled (2022) examines instances in which bureaucratic language tracking human rights violations excises direct reference to the human subject. Taking the “List of potential fundamental rights violations during operations of Frontex (the European Border and Coast Guard Agency)” as the source material for an interactive game, Martin asks viewers to confront the types of verbiage that obfuscate the central issues and effects of the ongoing migration crisis.

With her installation every forty two times, one. (2022), carolina muñoz awad introduces a series of organically shaped sandbags as relational extensions of the body—objects that individuals can handle in various ways to guide physical, emotional, and interpersonal experiences. At select times throughout the exhibition, the artist will invite viewers to activate these forms. In between performances, a three-dimensional grid holds the objects, setting up a contrast between a uniform support structure and the fluid nature of the bodily interactions that determine their placement across it.

Through its scale and arrangement, Lipika Bhargava’s installation For you and me (2022) suggests a gathering of figures. However, rather than marking solid corporeal forms, the ceramic components appear to trace the body’s external or internal contours. Apertures on each piece further underscore a missing presence as they await currents of breath to vivify their latent potential as instruments. In the series of drawings Painters, people, and philosophers (2022), Ghazi Sikander Mirza uses collage-like compositions to depict Shia Muslims gathered for religious rituals in Pakistan. Creating shapes out of the empty spaces between people, the artist highlights the ways that self and surroundings blur in the dynamics of a crowd.

A third grouping of artists shares an investment in animating everyday things to act as ciphers for lived experience. With her works Can you write me a poem? (I) and (II) (both 2022), Kris Peng Siyun follows an associative logic in composing visual poetry out of familiar items. The artist’s sculptures propose a mode of object-based communication that acts as an intermediary between the subjective contents of thoughts or memories and the shared understanding built through interpersonal dialogue.

Lily Moebes binds remnants of cotton sweatshirts to planks of plywood in her installation I wanna be safe (2022). Evoking two forms of constructed armatures that offer protection for the body—quilts and modular scaffolding structures—the work explores the power of quotidian materials to act as physical and emotional buffers between individuals and the world around them.

Rengu Zhang’s installation This Is for Us to Share (2022) brings together a grouping of multilayered sculptures made of disused clothing items from her personal collection. With garments standing in as surrogates for the artist across different moments of time and experiences, the work presents a core sample of accruing traces of personal history.

Zhiyi Zhang trains her attention on often-overlooked, utilitarian mechanisms, such as screws or door handles, to create the series Tool Portraits (2022). The artist decouples these objects from their functions and installs her outsized recreations in unexpected locations throughout the gallery, prompting viewers to reconsider their assumptions about the role these tools play in daily life.

United by their research-based methods of inquiry, a fourth set of artists investigates the boundaries between self, systems, and natural and technological materials. Through the interactive installation Disposable Utensils (2022), Tianyi Sun gives spatial form and sensorial nuance to the experience of traversing digital space. Suggesting a parallel between eating utensils and the technological tools that underpin digital programs, Sun points up the structures that mediate human interaction across both physical and dematerialized platforms.

Drawing on his familial ties to the coal mining industry in Kentucky, Austin Casebolt contends with the entanglements of environmental degradation, economic reliance, and physical wellbeing. The artist draws on the natural resource as conceptual and material substrate: the painting Exchange Rate (2022) uses saturated layers of paint mixed with bituminous coal grounds to suggest fraught interpersonal dealings within the natural landscape, while the sculpture Executive desk (2022) collapses the site and commodity of business transactions.

Zoë Fitzpatrick Rogers’s ongoing project Untrained Amateur (2021– ) unravels the logic at play in the New York State Department of Health’s standards for how residents interface with local waterways and the pollutants within them. The components of the installation represent both frameworks for and results of experiments to understand the impact of environmental toxicity on human health beyond the parameters set by state guidelines.

An alternative function of the typographic asterism is to indicate when a work is untitled or when the title (or author) is withheld. This use of the symbol suggests the possibility of reading An Asterism* as a thesis presentation that resists the fixed meaning associated with naming. Embracing the omission of a title as an act of agency, the exhibition invites artists and viewers to form their own unique interpretations as they trace patterns across artworks and imagine what might be yet-to-come after the section break.

— Alison Burstein