There Is No Such Thing as “High” or “Low” at the NYU MFA Show

Spyglass, part one of New York University’s (NYU) annual MFA thesis exhibition, opens with a work that showcases its own making. Robin Gammons’s “Foldings” (2024) feel like old memories, often revisited, occasionally rewritten. Laser prints and newsprints, largely of landscapes and sunsets, are folded so that their creases carve intersecting lines throughout the composition, isolating certain passages in the same way that the mind retraces a particularly important recollection. It brought me back to childhood: cat’s cradle, origami cranes. 

It’s fitting for an MFA show, not because the works on view are elementary, but because it’s a glimpse into the early-career practices of what will become the next generation of fine artists. You can see these young makers exploring techniques, probing theory, trying things out — a refreshing feeling in a city of slick art in white cubes. The kids are alright. 

Forrest Knight’s paintings succeed most when he uses a light hand with figuration. “Self portrait as a red shoe” (2023) is my favorite of the series. De Chirico-like landscapes meet found photos and symbology that feels recognizable but personal. Superimposed atop is a massive, chalky red face, the shape of the shoe warping the silhouette of the head and vice versa. A bottle cap pressed into the cartilage beneath the rim of the ear is among the various media in the series, as is the crushed Pepsi can in a nearby portrait; oblique details like that better illuminate Knight’s interiority and lived experience than an image of his face. “Untitled” (2023), too, is a can’t-miss. It’s a tiny canvas isolated on a massive wall to the left of the first gallery (the curators ought to be applauded; as with Gammons’s work at the foyer of the show, this display stretegy works well). A faceless figure is set into the far background of an already diminutive frame, its rough, thickly bricked background evocative of the works of Martin Wong. 

The work of Samuel Alexander Forest, in what the gallery attendants refer to as the “sailboat room,” feels like a breath of literal fresh air. As you might expect, the room is dominated by a massive, slim boat: from certain angles, the sail, which winnows from a point at either end to an oblong semicircle at its thickest, looks like a Brancusi. But it’s not minimalist in any sense — being a massive sailboat kind of gets in the way of that; turn a couple inches in either direction and it’ll billow open again. Its detailing is generous, too: Rippling waves hem the edges of the hull, and pillowy ruffles lend softness to the sail. 

Forest seems to have already mastered the relationships between painting, sculpture, and abstraction — and is demonstrating remarkable skill in teasing the relation between fine art and architecture, too. He extends his exploration of Minimalist silhouettes to sculptures that adorn the walls and ornament the doorways, with works depicting the sky and sea, flesh, and vegetation. None of the edges seem perfectly flat: they have the softness of a box of tissues. These works don’t flaunt their technical skill, but assert it with quiet confidence. 

Ruoxin Sun’s works — when seen together — radiate a warm conceptualism. Those words aren’t often paired, but they’re accurate here. “Elephant in the Room/ 大象无形” (undated) feels like, well, its title, when paired with Gammons’s deeply feeling work in the project space directly to the right of the entrance, its overtly Minimalist concrete poles emitting a barely audible conversation. When I saw that piece alone, I thought: Maybe an MFA program in New York is a trap; they’re going to see the too-cold-to-touch, blue-chip work in Chelsea a little too often. It felt purposefully, almost unbearably brutalist. But given their own room behind the sailboat room, I felt that Sun’s work is taking conceptualism into a new direction it desperately needs. Cameras pointed aimlessly upward will capture unflattering angles you didn’t think you contained; a snarl of cords with an ancient-looking device (read: from the early 2000s) tucked within are adorned with adorable ceramic snails that give the technology an almost animist quality. Sun’s work, too, changes the architecture of the space: little snails wrap around the walls as if en route to explore Forrest’s sailboat, and a Yuko Mohri-coded rotting apple suspended on wire appears to bounce across a Judd-like wooden box. 

Finally, the work of Virgil Warren makes me feel like we’ve finally done something right in the art world. The ease with which this generation of artists toggles between high and low is so evident that it seems almost ridiculous to categorize things into those old boxes. Pages from comic books are collaged into the ruffled jacket of a figure. I actually spotted a check made out to Warren in one of the works (I hope you cashed it, because money doesn’t come easily in the art world). A Koreaboo impulse is most certainly afoot, and it’s darling — and accurate: Where are the references to massively relevant K-Pop and K-drama and K-everything in high art? (Excluding you, Diane Severin Nguyen, you’ve got it going on.) In the massive “Paradise 615” (2024) — 12 feet across, with an attached basketball hoop to boot — family photos are arranged in such a way that they become the post and lintel of a building at the center, helping to structure and compose the piece. 

This is work that succeeds at every level. Look closely and you’ll see the details of the pieces’ making. Step back, and you’ll see that a new generation of artists is about to burst through the floodgates — and they’ve got the right ideas. 

Samuel Alexander Forest, Robin Gammons, Forrest Knight, Ruoxin Sun, and Virgil Warren, Spyglass, part one of New York University’s MFA thesis show, continues at 80WSE (80 Washington Square East, Greenwich Village, Manhattan) until April 20.

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