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When artists graduate from art school, they face long odds. Artists take odd jobs—walking dogs, waiting tables—as they try to find their footing. They’re prioritizing the sense of self-identity or calling that comes with making art, placing their college bets with full knowledge that career fulfillment isn’t going to happen right away.
Which would be fine if art students weren’t also paying the historically high tuitions associated with far more lucrative careers. Art schools are caught in the same swell of costs as the rest of higher ed—but art careers have never merited tuition costs of $70,000 per year. So art schools have adjusted course, namely by closing up kilns and darkrooms, opening untested degrees and programs, and making a lot of promises.
NEXT—the annual thesis art show at the Corcoran School of the Arts & Design—is a picture of an art school part-way through this bracing transition. As ever, this student show excels in photography, the category that for decades has distinguished the Corcoran as a wizard academy. The show also features some of the expanded offerings since the college came under the wing of George Washington University. To the Corcoran’s credit, this class is likely the most diverse in the school’s long history. But in places, NEXT shows the seams of the Corcoran’s awkward transformation.
One of the show’s standouts is Keara Wilson’s “Slaves to Masters,” a grid of 24 black-and-white photographs of African-Americans, their backs exposed to the camera. Inspiration for the piece came from a famous Civil War picture by William D. McPherson and J. Oliver that shows the scars across the back of an escaped slave named Gordon. Their photograph dates to 1863; the Corcoran was founded a few years later. The picture was reproduced widely in propaganda for the abolitionist cause and Union campaign (as Gordon had enlisted). Wilson’s piece declares that black people must still bear witness to the lashes of white supremacy. Moreover, her sensitive and sensuous portraits show that the photograph still has a role to play in this project.
Easily the most arresting piece at NEXT is the towering sculpture in Case Baumgarten’s “Moon Daisies.” The outsized statue of a panhandler, hand outstretched, hood pulled over his ballcap, mimes the classical bearing of Michaelangelo’s “David.” But the statue’s fugitive materials, specifically insulation foam, jab at the gap between the dignity of being and the hopelessness of homelessness. Two paintings, one of a tent encampment, underscore Baumgarten’s earnest appeal.
Very few paintings are to be found otherwise. The north wing of the Flagg Building’s ground-floor atrium is occupied by a jumble of interior design maquettes. Several are promising, like Lily Hoffman’s proposal for a natural science show exploring the weird world of tree-root systems, or Leilani Campbell’s exhibit on the afterlife in Afro-Caribbean cultures. The presentations run together, housed too closely under a structure that is chock-a-block with drafts and sketches. For an exhibit on exhibit design, the lack of clarity is a fatal flaw. (Helen Jackson’s sumptuous dinner-plate still-life photos, hidden away along the north wall behind the frenetic curatorial-practice section, are all the richer as a reward for surviving the melee.)
Elsewhere, Ninalauren Khaiat’s “Composing the Decomposing,” a photojournalistic profile of a taxidermy studio, may haunt viewers, especially one darkly comic shot of three different sets of glass eyes arranged on a log. Quincy Mata’s “Home” has the newest look in NEXT: It’s a collage of digitally produced, comic-like illustrations depicting scenes from D.C.’s LGBTQ community. Collage might not be the final format this work should take, but the dance-club beat breaks through every illo. There are lukewarm exercises on view in NEXT, too, including a project by Alan Schmid pairing portraits of gender non-conforming figures with their preferred pronouns, and an awesome but noisy fashion installation by Areej Itayem. Both series need editing. (As a famous Corcoran’s alumnus directs, “Make it work.”)
The point of NEXT is to point to the future. I see a reckoning looming: How to justify the increasingly outrageous tuition costs for the student-consumer? This will be another bet, one undertaken this time by GW’s top executives. The next pivot at the Corcoran may mean opening studio art classes to all students, scrapping the BFA track, and even more austerity measures in the budget. This would mean adding insult to injury: While the university has completed several steps in the badly needed rehabilitation of the Flagg Building, it has also dispersed the longtime faculty who comprised the school’s character and forced students and staffers alike to endure intolerable physical conditions during construction.
Or maybe the Corcoran can succeed where almost no other art school has. At least the Corc is not alone: Art schools all over are suffering. Plenty have stalled out at the buying-3D-printers stage. If only visionary leaders had instead de-escalated years ago, recognizing their role as a vocational school—and in the Corcoran’s case, the nation’s premiere institute of photography.
At the Flagg Building to May 20. 500 17th St. NW. Free. (202) 994-1700. corcoran.gwu.edu