What’s next in contemporary art? Protest art, new hybrids, big ideas. Take the scene’s pulse at graduate thesis exhibitions this spring. Boston art schools have spawned artists such as Ellsworth Kelly, Nan Goldin, and Joan Jonas. We checked in on six of this year’s most promising young artists at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and Tufts University, Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Boston University, and Lesley University.
Lucy Wood Baird, 28
Photographs don’t do Baird’s work justice. Her sculpture/photograph combos play with skewed perspectives; these 21st-century trompe l’oeil pieces foil the eye as you move around them.
“I’m interested in the idea of misunderstanding,” she says, “and the interplay between how a camera sees and reacts to space, and how the eye does.”
The corner of a room appears to recede and pop out; a Plexiglas arch angles over another one — which turns out to be a photograph. A picture frame lies on the floor; you might pick it up, until you realize it’s a photo.
“People don’t expect photographs to behave the way these behave,” the artist says. “The image is more complex, and is an object itself.”
Baird cites the Minimalist artist Robert Morris and Light and Space artists, such as James Turrell, as influences — all of whom, she points out, hate having their work photographed.
“I wanted to make work that would use the image like the Light and Space artists use space,” she says.
In the end, “they become these hybrids, not photographs, not sculptures,” Baird says. “A chimera — not one animal or another. An ultimate third thing.”
Madeleine Bialke, 24
For Bialke, landscape painting is a thicket of contradictions. You can chart them through art history: Nature as allure and spiritual balm, the wild as something to be conquered, contemporary anxiety about climate change.
The paintings in her thesis show, a series called “Second Nature,” spring from an etching she made of Bald Mountain in Camden, Maine. “I like the reversal aspect of a print,” she says. “This isn’t a real place anymore.”
She painted and repainted the scene of a tree on the mountaintop, the Atlantic in the distance. Tiny marks mimicking those in an etching accumulate into forms; the whole canvas buzzes. The palette is feverish, reminiscent of the traditional Nordic landscape painting and the Canadian Group of Seven.
“These colors could be in a Scandinavian clothing catalog,” she says. “I wanted to project cultural commodity colors into a landscape.”
Bialke shrugs off reducing landscape to abstraction, but she also argues against realism. “It always confuses me when a landscape painter says ‘This is exactly what I saw,’ ” she says. “I’ve never seen a tree like this. It might be better if I said, ‘This is what I felt today.’ ”
Katie Doyle, 26
New motherhood kicked Doyle into a new aesthetic. After her son Caspar was born, “I wanted to focus on sensation, the skin to skin relationship,” she says. “It was another way to look at this glorious piece of baby.”
She attached a camera to Caspar, then found other odd places to put it: In the tub’s drain at bath time. Covered with peanut butter, licked clean by a dog.
The peanut-butter piece shows up in her multichannel installation video, “Thirteen Ways of Looking. . .,” a sensual riff on the heady Wallace Stevens poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” You first hear a rhythmic batting as hot reds and oranges flicker over the screen. Then, all at once, the lens clears of peanut butter, and you’re besieged by an eager tongue. It’s a startling shift from mysterious, even ominous, abstraction to domestic familiarity.
Stevens wrote “a poem about observation and mystery in plain sight,” Doyle says. Her video interprets each stanza with intense close-ups, abrupt perspective shifts, and rich sound.
“Stevens doesn’t bring sense into it; it’s about a divine state of mind,” she says. “I’m interested in the experience of life all around that.”
Jeremy Endo, 24
SMFA and Tufts
Last summer, after protestors complaining of racism and cultural appropriation put a halt to the Museum of Fine Arts’s “Kimono Wednesdays” program, Endo and fellow artist Azita Moradkhani staged a performance. Over several hours, Moradkhani painted a kimono on Endo’s body; he then tried to wash away the paint with hot sake, illustrating how cultural stereotypes can brand people.
Endo’s art plunges into questions of his own cultural identity, which includes strands of Japanese, Russian, and Irish.
“People think you’re Japanese-American, Japanese-Jewish, Japanese-Catholic, you can play in both ponds,” Endo says. “But a mixed cultural background produces a kind of psychosis. You need to travel to the nation of your heritage and figure out what is relevant.”
In his thesis project, a sculpture/video installation, Endo investigates his Japanese roots using, in part, an arrangement of tatami mats.
“I didn’t realize until I got my own how different it would be growing up in Hiroshima,” he says. “It was an entire world and past that strongly came to me as a ghost experience.”
Loretta Park, 28
Park’s infinitesimally detailed pieces blend elements of sculpture, painting, and textiles.
“I like the idea of the duration of making the work — fabrics take a while; painting is faster — and how it relates to the duration of looking,” she says.
“Sail,” named for its mast-like pole, prompts a desire to explore in what unfurls on the floor below. It’s full of surprises, a treasure trove of unexpected knots, dizzying colors, and layers and juxtapositions. The materials include plastic lacing, colored hot glue, beads, pushpins, and yarn.
“I don’t know any traditional textile techniques,” Park says. “This all came from tying knots, braiding, sewing.”
For “Seat,” she learned woodworking, and built a paint-splashed, right-angled form on a base of yellow Plexiglas and wood, then added yarn. It is what you want it to be: A chair on a sled, a laptop, a skyline. A sculpture, a painting.
Many of her pieces are riotously colorful. She points to bold tones in Korean fashion and architecture as a possible influence.
“I’m thinking about color relationships, the balance between form and texture,” she says, explaining her intuitive, step-by-step process. “If you’re not having fun making art, then you shouldn’t make it.”
Anthony Young, 27
SMFA and Tufts
Paint, sure, but gunpowder and bleach are central to Young’s toolkit.
“I was thinking of gun crimes and gun violence, and the black male, the black body.” he says. He experimented with gunpowder to paint images of black men. Although the powder isn’t explosive, it can eat through the page. In one painting, it makes a hole in a man’s head.
“The holes come,” Young says. “You can’t plan it. I like that unexpected twist.”
Before the gunpowder, Young painted with bleach on raw black canvases, then added oil stick. White eats into the black. In “Apparition,” it creates a toxic aura around a man gazing at the viewer with beseeching — or accusing — eyes.
“Bleach burns or disintegrates. Or whitewashes,” Young says. “The very thing that’s destroying the image creates it.”
For his thesis project, he says, “I am looking at images of black men from film, animation, porn — the fetishized image.”
“I want to show the history of the black body. How it has been portrayed in American culture, and creates a false imagining of what black masculinity is,” he says. “I’m trying to think about how those images stick to the black psyche.”
2016 MFA Thesis Exhibition. Through April 24.808 Gallery, 808 Commonwealth Ave. 617-353-3371, www.bu.edu/cfa/2016-mfa-thesis-exhibition/
Massachusetts College of Art and Design
MFA Thesis Exhibition 2016. Through May 7. Bakalar & Paine Galleries, 621 Huntington Ave. 617-879-7166, www.massart.edu/Galleries/Bakalar_and_Paine_Galleries/MFA_Thesis_16.html
College of Art and Design, Lesley University
MFA Photography Exhibition: Borderlands April 27-May 1.Roberts and Raizes Galleries, Lunder Arts Center, 1801 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge. 617-349-8002, www.lesley.edu/exhibit/mfa-photography/
School of the Museum of Fine Arts/Tufts University
The Cyclorama Show: MFA Thesis Exhibition. May 17-20,Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont St. 617-369-3656, www.smfa.edu/cyclo-showCate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the artistic style of Robert Morris.