As an art history concentrator, I spend my days studying the artistic greats, trying to understand what it is that makes them great. When I encounter them, they have already been sanctified by the academy and the museum, elevated to the pantheon of figures on the art history syllabus. But in a desperate attempt to build up my mental database of important artists, it’s easy to forget that there are artists beginning their careers today who will become the master artists of tomorrow. So recently, I decided to discover the work of young emerging artists from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA).
Founded in 1876, the SMFA has served as the training ground for internationally renowned artists such as Cy Twombly, Ellsworth Kelly, Nan Goldin, and Jim Dine. Just across the street from the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), the SMFA is housed in a building designed by Graduate School of Design grad Graham D. Gund, perhaps best known at Harvard as the architect of the guardhouse next to Johnston Gate.
Right now, much of the SMFA’s expansive gallery space is occupied by an exhibit featuring the work of five participants in the SMFA’s Fifth Year Certificate Program, designed for artists who have received a studio diploma from the SMFA and who seek to devote significant time to an individual project.
Participating artist Soojin Kim’s room of deceptively banal or kitsch paintings and sculptures of cookies and crackers tantalizes the viewer, while the half-eaten sweets evoke a sense of nostalgia or loss. Kim describes her work in relation to memories of her father indulging in American candies and sharing them with her during the Korean War. Despite the unity of the subject matter, Kim’s work exhibits a remarkable range, with a Wayne Thiebault-esque canvas of peanut butter cups, a bronze relief of a bitten Oreo, and a wall of small oil paintings arranged Salon-style in unique frames, featuring portraits of commonplace snack foods like Teddy Grahams, Goldfish, and animal crackers. Kim shares the gallery with fellow student Taylor Butler, whose large, quasi-abstract canvases featuring technologically-inspired imagery like a jet-ski or a car hauler, look like watered-down versions of Kristin Baker’s racecar-inspired paintings, without the saturated colors reminiscent of Pop art.
In the other gallery, Milo Fay’s series, “If a Poet Knows More,” displays lyrical photographs of horses made using an outdated 19th-century process in which iron acts as the light-sensitive agent, creating a delicate tonal range. Meanwhile, Japanese-born artist Atsuko Ito’s split-screen video documentary centering on conductor Florencia Gonzáles reflects the artist’s own training at the Berklee College of Music prior to enrolling at the SMFA.
Finally, Hae-Shin Chung’s installation, “The Cell—The Daily Life of a Sojourner,” is an amalgam of highly intricate silkscreen prints, projected images, and readymade objects covered in hot glue. The glue sheath gives the objects a unique duality—in the light they glimmer like crystal while in the shadows they appear to be coated in melted candle wax. The work of SMFA students, however, is not confined to the SMFA galleries. Next door, an exhibit at the MFA, which opened on Saturday April 10th, features the work of the five SMFA Traveling Scholars. The scholarship, awarded to select SMFA graduates annually since 1899, funds a year of travel and study, culminating in a show at the MFA.
This year’s show features work by Lizi Brown, Michael Bühler-Rose, Liz Cohen, Wendy Jean Hyde, and Christopher Lamberg-Karlovsky. It’s surely a daunting proposition for any emerging artist to share a roof with the likes of Rembrandt and Van Gogh, but this year’s crop largely stands up to the challenge. The stand-out is Lamberg-Karlovsky whose “erasure” and “archival” series explore the issue of memory in diverse ways.
As I left the student gallery space of the SMFA to enter the grand encyclopedic MFA, I felt like I was charting the path many young artists hope their work will take. Indeed, what is exceptional about schools attached to major museums like the SMFA is that they can offer a bridge to the professional world. For the artists chosen as Traveling Scholars, the exhibit represents a unique opportunity to be seen by thousands of visitors at one of the nation’s leading museums. For viewers like me, it was a reminder that artists graduating from art school today—some not much older than I—will be included in art history syllabi in the years to come.
—Columnist Alexandra Perloff-Giles can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.