Matthew Nichols, 2010-2011 MFA Critic in Residence

We Are We Make. Joined together as this exhibition's title, these four words possess the structure and brevity of an axiom. They seem to posit a direct link between being and creativity, suggesting that the latter logically derives from the former. But unlike, say, Cogito ergo sum – René Descartes' famous equation of thought and existence – our phrase lacks a comparable conjunction; a consequential "therefore" is missing. And this, I think, is an important distinction. Because the ten students presenting work in this show are not artists by nature. Their talent is not some mysterious essence that runs through their veins like blood. That popular notion of the artist is romantic and flawed, and diminishes the hard work involved in any creative endeavor. While getting to know these students over the past several months, I have instead witnessed long hours clocked in the studio, numerous lively debates about each other's work, and a willingness to redouble energy and commitment in the face of criticism and various other obstacles. Ultimately, I think they are making brave decisions to embark on careers as artists, especially in a culture where that effort is not always valued and rewarded. So while there are no doubts that these ten artists exist in the world, they all make art by choice, with deliberation, and often with great passion.

Several artists in this group have labored to extend the tradition of figure painting. Whitney Newson confronts the viewer with visceral images of scrambled facial features, exposed organs, and tumorous lesions. Yet her luscious and layered brushwork invites sustained study of forms we might otherwise find disturbing and repellent. In Michael Manning's large canvases, human figures have recently ceded ground to the distinctive profile of a horse. Viewed in fragments, upended, or sometimes struggling under veils of loosely brushed color, these equine actors become metaphors for both power and vulnerability. Humans and animals cavort throughout the many tropical landscapes painted by Eliana Iturbe. Equal parts animated cartoon and natural history diorama, her canvases convey a strangely fertile world run amok and approaching apocalypse. An alternative reality has also been conceived and elaborated in numerous paintings by Anthony Randon. His sequential scenes narrate a protracted struggle between two imaginary bird species, and serve as an allegory for the oppression of otherness.

Other artists have found their way to less orthodox mediums. Marc D'Agusto, for example, has depicted empty, crumbling buildings in numerous paintings on conventional canvases. But he also freely experiments with mixed mediums to create architectonic sculptures that dramatize opposing forces of decay and regeneration. Much of Katelynn Altgilbers' work has likewise employed an architectural vocabulary. But she frequently uses her own body as a performative building block to embed her rudimentary structures with references to social issues and gender politics. As Gianluca Bianchino's practice has evolved from discrete paintings to more immersive environments, so has his investigation of actual and theoretical space. His recent fusions of relief sculpture and projected video entrance and trick the eye with their formal complexity. Effectively harnessing an aesthetic of disarray, Aimee Chappell-Hertog creates sculptures from old clothing, cheap plastic toys, and sundry other found objects. Her forms are vaguely figurative, thoroughly abject, and take aim at idealized notions of domestic bliss. Also working with found objects, but altering them with the precision of a skilled metalsmith, Kristal Romano makes wearable and freestanding sculptures that thoughtfully examine the arbitrary nature of value while also critiquing our mindlessly acquisitive culture.

As the most recent Critic in Residence for the MFA program at Montclair State University, it has been my genuine pleasure to work with this particular group of emerging artists. Our numerous exchanges in the classroom, studio, and gallery have been dynamic, stimulating, and deeply rewarding for me. I also appreciate the combination of warmth and respect that has greeted me since day one. So while I raise a glass to these artists and congratulate them on this achievement, I also want to express my sincere gratitude. In other words, I Am I Thank.