The artists in our annual spotlight of talented MFA candidates scrutinize technology, motherhood, the natural world, and the communities that formed them. They’re studying at Boston University, the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University, Massachusetts College of Art and Design, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, and Lesley University College of Art & Design. We met and chatted in galleries and their studios.
Yukai Chen, 24
Growing up queer in Xiamen, China, Chen found roundabout ways to explore his identity.
At an opera, “I was amazed by a performer who is actually biological female,” he said. “She would dress up like a male character and sing boldly and powerfully on stage.”
Then, “I was obsessed with video games . . . because I can change my character to female. I can also change my character to a male,” he said. “I can change my character to a non-human creature. It just gave me a lot of freedom.”
At MassArt, photography has been Chen’s platform to integrate childhood influences and perform his true, evolving self. In his series “The Factory of Desire,” he said, “I’m trying to bring the unseen desire to the stage.”
The stage begins in his apartment, where he creates elaborate sets and performs for the camera in costumes reflecting opera, animation, and the Buddhist temple he grew up attending with his family. His photographs collapse traditional definitions of gender and play with notions of what’s real.
“When people think about a camera, all they think about is reality,” he said. “But I transfer this to blurring the boundary between reality and the virtual world.”
Megan Arné, 29
A mind map on Arné's studio wall has “WORRY” at the center. The painter and her husband have a 4-year-old and a 1-year-old; her work expresses the nitty gritty of motherhood.
When she first arrived at BU, pregnant with her second child, she said, “It was really hard to juggle home life and the studio.”
A series of small prints symbolizing her toddler’s foods proved a watershed.
“It’s progressed from compositions with these shapes into having them become other symbols — for the female body, for childbirth, for breast-feeding — and using them to make patterns,” she said.
In one series, Arné charts the sleep of family members. In the “Two Births in Orange” series, she layers food symbols to evoke “the birth canal, the shapes of the breast and the vulva, and cells dividing,” she said.
Paintings integrating her studio and home life are a mixed blessing.
“I’m working constantly. When I’m at home with my kids I’m tracking their sleep, what they’re eating. I’m tracking my guilty thoughts, my emotions, making little charts,” she said. “Then when I come to the studio, I’m still in the same mode.”
Her art reflects the invisible labor of mothers and caregivers. During our studio visit, she wore coveralls. Emblazoned on the back: “Milking It.”
Tristan Lajarrige, 23
Photography and Performance
Lajarrige wants to overthrow the creeping, surveillant pervasiveness of technology.
“I’m using it every day, but it’s also using me,” he said. “I’m going to try to render it useless by hiding from it.”
He borrowed a 360-degree camera and set it to shoot every 10 seconds, as he ducked behind trees in the woods. At home, he ran circles around his computer to avoid being photographed. He plays hide-and-seek until the camera battery dies, then mounts the photos in grids that invite us to see outside the tunnel vision between human and computer.
“It felt really satisfying to trick the camera,” he said.
For his thesis project, Lajarrige examined his tendency to document and post his life on social media.
“I’m participating in this surveillance subsystem,” he said. “That’s kind of scaring me.”
He traveled to London and San Francisco, but instead of photographing Big Ben or the Golden Gate Bridge, he pointed his camera toward the sky.
“I let the camera shoot a picture every second until it dies. While it’s taking pictures of the sky, I’m free to see the scenery through my eyes instead of through the viewfinder,” he said, “and really try to be present in this moment.”
Azin Majooni, 41
Majooni, an Iranian artist, came to the US after getting a PhD in visual communication.
“After a long time working with computer and designing,” she said, “I wanted to have something more. Touch. And I wanted to have something very far from the computer.”
At UMass, she said, “Paper just grabbed onto me. I went inside it, and I couldn’t come out.”
Her large-scale works reflect the desert of central Iran, and women there who conserve water, selling traditional crafts to maintain ancient, underground aqueducts called qanats.
Majooni’s “Qanat” undulates across the floor; its wavelike form echoes water’s currents and the curves of the desert. “The Divinity of the Waters” represents Anahita, the Persian goddess of fertility and water. Each piece has holes in it; those in the figure are red-rimmed like bullet holes, representing the violence in life. The ones in “Qanat” signify life-giving breath.
Pulp-painted water froths and erupts in the wall piece “Revival.”
“I wanted to show a complicated cycle in a harsh, warm, and unbelievable place with the name of desert. There are many peoples that have different struggles, but they have hope,” Majooni said. “This is their hopes.”
Steve Aldeus, 40
As an art teacher at KIPP Academy Lynn, Aldeus points high school students toward careers in studio art, but he didn’t have one himself.
“You’ve got to practice what you preach,” he said. So he went back to school. His thesis show is in June.
At Lesley, he focuses on reclaiming Black history. Aldeus, who lives in Melrose, worked last fall with the Melrose Historical Commission on “Mining Melrose,” in which he portrayed Black figures from local history.
In a new piece, “Fractured Journey,” Aldeus paints a Union soldier inspired by Major Wesley Furlong, of Melrose, who fought with the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. He collages in old newspaper clips and maps, and frames the soldier with the outline of a man. The effect is one of peering back through generations.
A collaged painting on a rusty saw depicts an anonymous athlete above shreds of an old basketball. The work considers the complexities of Black representation in sports. Aldeus sees the saw as being like an athlete.
“When you first get one, it’s brand new and it does what you need it to do. But after a while, it gets wear and tear and it breaks,” he said.
His work, he said, falls in three buckets: “The past, how Black people are represented. The present, Black identity. And the future. . . . that’s the space where I can try different things.”
Sammy Polinsky, 26
“In seventh grade, I won the superlative of most likely to be on Comedy Central,” Polinsky said.
Her art uses cultural touchstones to riff on Jewish humor. The Jewish artist, who said she’s not very religious, is particularly drawn to iconic food.
A pot of “Matzoh Bong Soup” laced with green herbs evokes “teenage rebellion and the idea of wanting to be part of something but also not wanting to be told what you’re going to be a part of,” she said.
Her “Single Use Candle” series includes a drooping menorah. “This is the overbearing weight of being the chosen people,” Polinsky said, “which I thought was funny because there’s so much trauma that comes into what that means, but there’s also so much pride.”
Much of her work is uncomfortably comic. “B’rit Bat Baby Blanket” is embroidered like a diary page with one of her childhood fears: “I always write to an audience just in case I die and someone publishes my diary just like Anne Frank’s dad did.”
“Jewish people have a lot of experience being othered, as do many, many different kinds of people,” Polinsky said. “Jews are just famous, I think, for making jokes about it.”
2023 MASSART MFA THESIS // PART I
At MassArt x SoWa, 460 Harrison Ave., through May 14. (Part II: May 20-June 4) https://calendar.massart.edu/event/2023_massart_mfa_thesis
MFA THESIS EXHIBITION 2023 — BEEN HERE BEFORE
At Tufts University Art Galleries, 40 Talbot Ave., Medford, through May 21. https://smfa.tufts.edu/events-exhibitions/virtual-exhibits/mfa-thesis/2023-been-here-before
2023 MFA THESIS EXHIBITION
At University of Massachusetts Dartmouth CVPA Star Store Campus, 715 Purchase St., New Bedford, through May 13. www.umassd.edu/cvpa/universityartgallery/
Cate McQuaid can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.