Bringing Themselves to the Big City: Artsplosia, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign MFA show, at Co-Prosperity Sphere

By Jeriah Hildwine
Photographs by Stephanie Burke

I first heard of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign back in late 2003, when I was  applying to graduate school.  A friend told me that it was a well-regarded program, well-ranked by the U.S. News and World Report rankings, and so it went onto the list of nineteen MFA programs I would apply to that year.  I wasn't accepted into that program, nor any other, but I applied again the following year, to a somewhat shorter list of schools.  (Twelve, I think.)  I wasn't accepted to UIUC that year either, although I did get into several other programs and ended up going to one of my top choices, the Hoffberger School of Painting at the Maryland Institute College of Art.  One thing I learned when I got there was that an applicant, even one who does diligent research and visits the school, really has relatively little idea what a program is going to be like until he or she gets there, and doesn't really understand the experience until he or she has the benefit of hindsight two or three years later.  This potentially huge decision in an artist's life ("What grad school did you go to?") is made by a relatively immature kid (compared to the person who graduates the program a few years later) in their early to mid 20s.  It is an extension of the fact that a person who applies to undergraduate college with a given major in mind will grow into a mature adult whose life path was chosen for them by a teenager.

The questions we asked ourselves as undergraduate students at Humboldt State University, in the redwood forests of Northern California, in deciding where to apply to graduate school (and, if accepted by several, which to attend) were made along fairly predictable lines.  The reputation scores were paramount; pretty much everybody applied to Yale and Columbia; RISD and SAIC were considered quite desirable as well.  The program I ultimately attended, the Hoffberger School of Painting at MICA, was seen as a good place to go if you were a figurative painter.  We talked about funding, of course; the mythical "full ride" was a dream we lusted after, a golden apple just out of reach.  No one in my close circle of friends and fellow applicants found that golden ticket in their thick envelope, although I've met some people since who have.  And lastly, we talked about location:  what city do you want to live in?  In my case this ruled out the West Coast; I didn't want to live in LA and San Francisco was too familiar.  

In hindsight, I think we didn't give enough thought to this last consideration.  Some programs are located in obvious art meccas; any school in New York is going to help its students build connections there by simple virtue of proximity.  MICA was close enough for me to take occasional field trips to New York by train, but not to build any connections there, and exhibition opportunities in Baltimore were pretty limited.  (Grimaldis can't show ALL of Grace's former students, after all, and he's really the only big commercial gallery in town, although the city is working on developing an arts district, Station North, and so with luck this might change in time.)  Yale is big enough to have a sort of gravity of its own; the art world comes to it.  Other programs might link students into smaller art cities:  Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh.  SAIC students, of course, form the bread and butter of the local art scene, but they're not the only game in town.

It was sheer luck that landed me in Chicago; the decision to marry Stephanie Burke in 2006, her acceptance into SAIC's MFA Photo program the following year, and her decision to attend that school instead of either of the others who offered her admission.  Without her, I might have stayed in Baltimore, might even have moved back to California.  But SAIC's photography program had been her top choice, and I had no leads on either teaching nor exhibition in Baltimore, so I had no problem pulling up stakes.  Grace thought it was a great stroke of luck, ironically enough since she vehemently opposed students getting married while in her program.  I didn't know anything about the city, but in September of 2007 I arrived, and set about infiltrating the art scene.

This is what is so interesting about the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign:  its location, a three-hour drive or train ride from Chicago, makes it a sort of meta-suburb of the Chicago art scene.  It's close enough that students who wanted to could drive or take the train into the city for the openings on a Friday night, but far enough away that it would take a particularly compelling motivation to do so.  This potential isolation was mollified, from 1992 until the end of 2009, by I Space, a space in River North operated as a non-profit gallery, or more accurately as an extension of the University.  Unfortunately, financial hard times brought on by the whole world figuring out that our economy was a giant with feet of clay, possibly compounded by the "clout scandal" that was plaguing the University at the time, meant that the University was no longer able to (chose not to) continue funding the space, and it closed for good at the end of 2009.

UIUC promised to open a new exhibition space closer to the campus, and did so in September of 2010, opening an exhibition space called Figure One in downtown Champaign.  This Friday, five undergraduates, all women, are unveiling their collaborative exhibition "Everything is Anything Else," in conjunction with the Boneyard Arts Festival.  With a stated mission being "to fuel critical dialogue between students of the School of Art + Design and the broader University and local communities," Figure One isn't meant to replace I Space, which functioned much more as a bridge to Chicago's art community.

This meant that if UIUC's MFA students wanted to exhibit their work in Chicago, they were on their own.  This might not be a bad thing:  MFA programs exhibiting their students' work by default is a time-honored tradition in which I have gladly participated a number of times while in graduate school, but it's no reflection of the "real" art world, where exhibitions happen in all sorts of ways but rarely if ever by sitting back and having them handed to you.  The loss of I Space was a loss indeed, but the students in UIUC's Art +Design MFA program have taken the initiative to bring their work to Chicago, with or without the University's support.

Artsplosia ran from March 25th to April 3rd at Co-Prosperity Sphere in Bridgeport, with a closing reception on April 1st.  Stephanie and I attended this reception, and were quite impressed by what we saw.  Michael Woody displayed documentation from the so-called "100 Monkeys Principal," the darling of New Age advocates of Jungian collective consciousness, once held quite in vogue and now largely discredited (giving its presentation here a weird retro-science appeal, like the Museum of Jurassic Technology).  Nicki Werner's large, hand-painted billboard declares "I AM NOT NEGOTIATING," which of course plants the suggestion that maybe she is, or maybe the rest of us are.  (Looking at her website, she's got some other interesting projects as well; "breathing a doily into my trachea" is pretty wrenching.)  Paul Shortt's "Resist" was a free takeway of a poster, screen-printed on 18x24 construction paper, advising the reader to do all sorts of socially unacceptable things ("Pee your pants," reads one.  It ends with "Never follow directions," humorously imposing a Catch-22 on the whole premise of an instructional poster.)  Paul, if you're reading this, you can now list "Stephanie Burke and Jeriah Hildwine" on the "Collections" section of your resume (as one line like that, we just took one poster for the both of us, a pink one).  Thanks!  Readers, if you want one, click the link above, he'll mail you one "in exchange for a photo of where you place it."  

Kerianne Quick displayed a necklace and bracelet made of pieces shaped like boar's tusks, but made of an amber-colored combination of turbinado and granulated sugar.  A quick look at her website reveals that much of her other work similarly uses unconventional materials assembled into popular or craft-based forms to create a discussion about culture, labor, and class.  Jim Graham is on the opposite end of the spectrum, painting chaotic interiors with a loose, impressionist hand, but a realist's eye.  The chaos of his work reminds me, in a good way, of Caleb Weintraub (whose work is currently up in the back of Peter Miller Gallery), my fellow Hoffberger Ben Duke (who now shows at Ann Nathan), and my fellow HSU alum, great friend, and longtime mentor Erin Whitman.  Amy Giles' untitled 12" cube, painted in oils and given a high-gloss epoxy glaze, looks like a block cut from pink marble, the imagery in it appearing miraculously like the face of the Virgin Mary in a piece of burnt toast.  Dan Gratz paints landscapes from video games, framed by the margin of the monitor on which they are played.  Will Arnold photographs small town vignettes; his 2011 photograph Hints and Allegations shows a pair of smoke trails which are probably being left by Pitts Specials in an airshow with smoke generators that spray motor oil on hot engine manifolds (Do radial aircraft engines have manifolds?  What's a manifold, anyway?), but are eerily evocative of the distinctively forked trail left by the space shuttle Challenger explosion.

Ben Grosser's 2010 installation "Speed of Reality" is an absolutely engrossing environment; a fabulously kitschy couch and a bleakly modern coffee table set up a living room feeling in front of a television set, which displays footage from three small video cameras, a hypnotic, mesmerizing spectacle, like a mirror that's been drinking.  The bag of pretzels and the soda can on the coffee table are, in fact, part of the work.

Katie Latona displayed documentation (photos and greasy paper) of a project in which she baked cookies embossed with the text of her "problems", and gave them away in exchange for one of the cookie-recipient's own problems, which was subsequently baked into a cookie for the next iteration of the project.  Erica Leohner cut panels into the seats of fancy chairs and turned them into display cases for various objects.

Also represented in Artsplosia are Jung Eun Chang (a photograph of what looks like clusters of octopus eggs on a pile of Osage oranges, but is probably nothing of the kind), Justin Farkas (strange sculpture, equal parts Pop and Henry Moore formalism), Karri Anne Fischer (tender portrait photography), Motoko Furuhashi (I can't tell whether this is documentation of a site-specific painting, or a digitally-altered photographic work).  Maria Lux combines spare but lifelike drawings of animals on top of blurred (Richter would say "unpainted") paintings of their toy counterparts.  Nick Mullins makes strange objects which are probably jewelry and look like ancient artifacts.  Michael Smith does huge-ass drawings.  Laura Tanner does wall-hung fiber works.  Jessica Tolbert makes better-than-average use of Great Stuff spray foam.  Sarah Beth Woods makes wild sculptures out of all sorts of materials, which kind of looks like a tongue made of clean tampons dropping a hit of lawn clippings wrapped in a dead circus clown; I don't know if this description sounds disparaging but it isn't meant to.  In fact, each and every piece in this show held my attention at least for a little while, and are worth seeing.  This is remarkable in and of itself, and speaks very highly of the quality of work coming out of UIUC's MFA program.

Jeriah is an artist, educator, writer, and snack enthusiast.  You can see his work at www.jeriahhildwine.com, and read his columns at Art Talk Chicago and Chicago Art Magazine.  Jeriah lives and works in Chicago, with his wife Stephanie Burke.

Stephanie Burke
was born in Nevada City, CA in 1984. She received her BA in Studio Art
and Anthropology from Humboldt State University in 2007, and her MFA in
Photography from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2009.
Currently she lives in Chicago with her husband Jeriah, makes work, teaches, writes for Bad at Sports, is Editor-in-Chief of Art Talk Chicago, as well as maintaining her own blog, The Gallery Crawl and So Much More.
When not making, teaching, looking at, or writing about art, she enjoys
running around in the woods, drinking beer by bonfires, crazy quilting
and target shooting.

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