Joan Oh, Through

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To the class of 2013 at the Corcoran College of Art and Design, the question of “what’s next?” must loom large. Just as with any university’s graduating class, these students face an economy that has not greeted previous generations with open arms—and as the college deliberates over its uncertain future, a question mark hovers over the paths of incoming Corcoran students. But the class of 2013 is wise to put its faith in “Next,” the exhibit that attracted many students to the Corcoran in the first place.

“Next” gives Corcoran students an opportunity to show their work to visitors of its historic galleries and tourists who happen to amble by. But “Next” also stands to bring student work to important people, including art dealers like Leigh Conner and Jamie Smith, who put a lot of stock in the work of young local artists; curators like Laura Roulet and Eames Armstrong, who cycle dozens of young local artmakers through group shows; and employers like Kaiser Permanente and National Geographic, who need a steady supply of young local artists to work as graphic designers and photographers. “Next” is equal parts job fair and art fair.

For an artist like Joan Oh, “Next” represents a significant opportunity—or at least, it should, in a marketplace of ideas. Her work is a standout in the show. For “Through Their Eyes: A Series of Uploaded Travels,” Oh investigates three snapshot stalwarts: the pyramids of Giza, Niagara Falls, and Stonehenge. For her project, she compiles whole libraries of images uploaded by users on Flickr and reprints them on a grid. She’s poking at photomontage and Photoshopping, those familiar vernacular tools, but also re-photography and appropriation—fine-art tactics. In thinking about photography as a process for aggregating and cataloging, she’s working in a relevant direction.

If “Next” is also a litmus test for trends in the world of art, though, then it says that young artists are largely obsessed with the themes that have always captured art students. First and foremost, themselves. Photos by Andy Ives-Nieczyperowicz are so staggeringly vain that they may change the mind of anyone inclined to feel too soft on millennials. “Swan” encompasses a suite of photos depicting or evoking Ives-Nieczyperowicz’s chiseled ex-boyfriends; his nude figure is draped over one of them in bed. Elsewhere in what may be the same apartment, he appears in self-portraits, brooding or pouting. It could be a caricature of art-school photography. It’s a lot to stomach.

“Next” is certainly a product of a Corcoran education. The college has always been best known for its plastic arts, including painting but especially emphasizing photography, from fine art to photojournalism. The latter category includes several typical examples of white-girl-discovers-the-world photojournalism, from Emma Scott’s photos from New Orleans seven years after Hurricane Katrina to Becky Harlan’s photos from communities along the Anacostia River. Neither set confronts the privilege that these projects exude (perhaps through no fault of their own). Harlan’s shot of a man drinking Gatorade on a roof is a compelling composition, and there are other technical highlights among both portfolios.

The Corcoran has increasingly positioned itself as a bastion of graphic design, one of the more marketable art-school concentrations, but the design in “Next” disappoints. I was initially intrigued by Daniel Redfern’s searching project on healthcare design and the handful of posters that resulted; all of them featured the same blueish palette familiar from the logos of Aetna, Cigna, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, and almost any other health insurance provider. But that’s where Redfern’s project appeared to end. There’s a poster featuring the caduceus—the familiar winged rod entwined by twin serpents, the staff carried by Hermes that represents medicine in the States—and a poster featuring the single-serpent rod of Asclepius, the actual Greek god of medicine whose staff represents healing everywhere else in the West. It’s hard to conceive of better metaphors for demonstrating healthcare disparities between the U.S. and the rest of the West, and the persistent use of blue to evoke healthcare is interesting—but Redfern doesn’t take his ideas anywhere.

Where the graphic-design art doesn’t earn an incomplete, it might warrant a fail. Travis Poffenberger’s “Search Engine, Semiotics, Culture” is standard-issue seapunk stuff: looping digital video, dissolving factory-feature video effects, snippets of pornography and animation and Based God. Max Matthaeus’ “Infection” poster uses arrows to illustrate the spread of the bubonic plague across Asia and Europe in the 14th through 16th centuries—just as any high-school history textbook illustration would.

The Corcoran’s reputation for flat, graphical work doesn’t preclude sculpture in “Next”—there’s plenty of it on view. One of the exhibit’s overall highlights is Jeremiah Holland’s untitled wood sculptures, which look much more like the work one sees coming out of Virginia Commonwealth University, the nation’s premier sculpture school, than anything else on view in “Next.” A set of four arches with four legs and an irregular top bar, the works come in the bold colors of kitchen gadgets. Holland’s sculptures hint at function: They’re not quite tables, but they could be coat hangers. He’s working in the tradition of contemporary furniture design, but injecting the works with modernist humor.

Jeremiah Holland, “Untitled”

It would be easy to view this exhibit through the special lens of the Corcoran’s ongoing difficulties and apparent resolution: to team up with the University of Maryland. That’s inescapable in “Next”: The exhibit, which is in its third year, was hatched after a brief period when students were not able to show their work inside the museum’s galleries. Gallery 31, a dedicated college space, emerged as a result of that particular student uproar. This year, it’s Judas Recendez’s “4SALE” sign—initially installed over the Corcoran’s façade as a protest and now repurposed inside its galleries as a thesis—that would appear to represent the current crisis. (I would have loved to sit in on Recendez’s crit session.)

Hanging a show envisioned from snout to tail by students of the Corcoran’s college is a boon to students—and to viewers, no question. But the museum gets something out of it, too; after all, it’s pretty smart for the cash-strapped institution to mount a significant show that comes at no cost. “Next,” a program that at first had the feel of a stopgap program, now looks like the way forward: Surely the students of nearby art programs, including at the University of Maryland, must be jealous of the venue and opportunity that the Corcoran makes for its students.

One of the biggest tests of the Corcoran’s apparently emerging deal with Maryland will come in the upcoming “Next” exhibitions, presuming they continue. (Maryland, unlike most art schools in the area, has a foundry; maybe sculpture at the Corcoran will go metal.) First and foremost, “Next” registers the state of the Corcoran, for better and for worse.

Due to a reporting error, the original version of this story misidentified artist Andy Ives-Nieczyperowicz as a woman. He is a man.