Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Ivy-Colored Glasses

Student shows may normally be the exclusive preserve of the academies but the current exhibition at Gallery 339 of works by the 2008 graduating class of Yale's MFA program is this groups' second stop on the pro circuit outside New Haven. The previous stop -- a one week layover -- was at Danziger Projects in New York. The Philadelphia installation will run much longer (through September 6), the "perfect summer show" as principal Martin McNamara put it.

This is a rare opportunity for a wider audience to see what newly minted graduates of a prestigious program are doing. As it turns out, a few of them have already established a presence outside the walls of academe. One among the group, Sarah Stolfa, is represented by Gallery 339 where she had a one-woman show in 2006.

Apart from being classmates, one would expect these photographers to have little else in common but collectively they echo a number of prevalent tendencies. Primary among these is the mania for making big prints that look like photographs are expected to look these days. Small is out and apparently the considerable expense of making huge prints, on student budgets or those of anyone else for that matter, is no obstacle. Also on display here is a love of quotidian subject matter, found or re-concocted, in all its banal glory along with the requisite flat tone of disengagement, especially evident in the works of Ms. Stolfa, Jen Davis and Samantha Contis.

Many images in this show could be easily interchanged with thousands of other anonymous portraits of blank stares, disjointed slices of this American life, and overwrought tableaux vivants but not those of Richard Mosse.

Mosse's enormous compelling photographs of air disaster simulations challenge two canons. Despite their documentary approach, more is decidedly less: we simply don't know what is going on despite their straightforward handling. They also benefit from their size (two editions are available, the larger being 8X6 feet) because huge objects - airliners for example- and overwhelming events - engine fires and oil tank conflagrations -- are involved. In his hands these elements literally constitute an over sized experience. The rest of the show is filled with large prints because bigger is simply the new orthodoxy.

If student life is an inherently self-conscious balancing act between inculcating the lessons of the past while challenging accepted practices of the present the majority of these students have overwhelmingly opted for playing it safe by just trying to look like everyone else.