Circumstances bring people together. Some of these situations are happenstance, while other bonds are occasioned by the structure of our lives — school, family, jobs — within which the group and individual liaisons that form have the potential to create a sense of community and collective identity. Such connectedness is proposed by the ten artists who will receive their Master of Fine Arts degrees from Mills College in 2009 by the choice to name their MFA show Young Americans.
When I first learned that the group had selected this name for their exhibition — and by extension for themselves — it resonated with memories of the close knit Young British Artists, who had attended the same college in London and emerged during a time of economic crisis in the UK. However, unlike the more scandalous YBAs, the artists who comprise Young Americans — Joe Berryhill, Steuart Pittman, Annie Vought, Modesto Covarrubias, Gina Tuzzi, Leigh Merrill, Andrew Witrak, Esther Traugot, Kate Pszotka, and Brian Caraway — are more closely linked by their desire for a sense of freedom, security, and social capital afforded by the proximity their school community affords. And yet, because their group name situates them as citizens emerging within a national context, the implication is that in addition to their collective experiences as youthful Americans — with the burden of history this implies — this identity also affords them an intrinsic
right to personal freedom.
Although it is problematic to generalize about groups based on a handful of individuals, these ten emerging artists are a microcosm of the larger macrocosm of their generation. With this in mind, it is meaningful to consider what matters to them; what are their hopes and fears, and how they see the world. One fundamental concern expressed through their work is the desire for a sense of security, articulated in various metaphoric and formal ways. Kate Pszotka’s fascination with the idea of home and stability has motivated her deep consideration of family members, whom she represents iconographically with everyday objects. Her signifiers are often empty containers, realized as paper cut out line drawings. Grouped in uneasy, teetering groups and piles on the wall, they speak to the precarious nature of our relationships and our desire to be emotionally filled. In related ways, Gina Tuzzi’s oeuvre is populated by simple, seemingly naïve structures — houses, barns, huts — that are stacked on trucks to become rolling homes. Some of these
imaginative mobile dwellings rest on tree trunk pedestals, reinforcing the sense of personal dreamscapes. The surrogates that populate Tuzzi’s paintings and drawings — a bear in a flannel shirt, long haired men with landscape beards — underscore a sense of safety and comfort in the mythic past of coastal California.
Esther Traugot’s work expresses her immersion in the utopian potential of the natural world, deeply influenced by the intentional community in which she grew up during the 1970s and 80s. Although her crocheted tree sweaters and seed coverings and forest of trunks with projected flower pattern coverings suggest a romanticized relationship with nature, these handmade objects also articulate a tension between nature and culture, as well as Traugot’s serious desire to protect and preserve the disappearing natural world. By contrast, Leigh Merrill explores the relationship between fantasy and reality in our constructed environments. Whether blending urban and suburban architectural and landscape styles or cut and artificial flowers, her seamlessly composed arrangements of disparate fashions and species reflect the hybridity of contemporary life. Merrill’s large scale photographs also present shifting ideas of beauty, revealing our inherent desire to construct and control the
natural and manmade worlds.
Modesto Covarrubias has spent a great deal of time creating rooms and shelters as means to define and express his fears, insecurities, and sense of vulnerability. Whether filled or empty, these emotional spaces — as well as the photographs of anthropomorphic creatures he creates with wax and salt — are quiet and
intimate, suggesting his desire to preserve and contain a palpable but wordless experience of memory. Although Andrew Witrak’s work also expresses his insecurities and fears, he does this by posing impossible and slightly ridiculous solutions to the question of what can provide some fleeting impression of safety or egress. By thwarting the use value of protective objects or compromised symbols of escape — lifejackets sewn together, stilts made of flaccid rubber, a beeswax boarding pass — his work consistently begs the question of whether means of safety or escape can ever be more than an illusion. The self-revelatory nature of Witrak’s objects relate to Annie Vought’s translation of found, handwritten letters to wall-mounted versions created with cutout text. Reminiscent of the tradition of silhouettes, Vought’s liberation of these correspondences from their backgrounds allows the unique penmanship and use of language in each letter to reveal the ways we express ourselves to one another, becoming fragile portraits of each author.
The tension between order and chaos and an exploration of how animate experience can be distilled into visual experience are central to Joe Berryhill’s work. His gestural paintings suggest numerous possible concurrent interpretations — swirling sea life, natural detritus blown about from a storm — compressed into a moment. Steuart Pittman’s abstract paintings demonstrate his strong interest in geometry and color relationships. Sometimes evocative of architectural forms, Pittman’s excavation of the language of abstraction reflects what he calls “a longing for quiet beauty in a chaotic, high-speed age.” Brian Caraway also reveals a consistent de-
sire to reconcile formal concerns — color, the grid, and Platonic solids — with conceptual ones. Rather than separating these into different or competing areas of exploration, by creating tools and rules to implement his
work, Caraway ties such process-based actions as daily documentation of his hair growth over a year and the optical play of light on painted monofilament. He intrinsically relates these disparate investigations through texture, as they conceptually and perceptibly change over time.
The focus on private studio explorations, concern with personal history, and the creation of intimate spaces for reflection, all underscore the shared desire among these artists to assure some sense of control over their lives and art. As artists who have come of age in the extraordinarily volatile circumstances of the 21st century, their general retreat from social concerns and focus on more individual modes of expression seem a natural response to the overwhelming course of world events; a means to make sense of and stake a claim in their separate and collective futures.