Master the art
A current art exhibition explores the diversity of work created by graduates of the University of Nevada Reno’s MFA program
For a show called Common Fate, the current exhibition in the Truckee Meadows Community College Main Art Gallery is surprisingly diverse. The artworks seem to have more in contrast than in common with one another. There’s a rugged, outdoorsy assemblage sculpture; a collection of unusual, elegant book designs; and a big, bright, colorful video loaded with pop culture images. There are two painters in the show, but one paints small, carefully rendered oil portraits and the other paints large, colorful acrylic abstractions—one of which is based on a video game character.
What the six contrasting artists in the exhibition have in common is that they’re all graduates of the University of Nevada, Reno’s Master of Fine Arts program. It’s a small, young program, first launched in 2006. The participating artists in the exhibition constitute six of its seven graduates.
“We all are very diverse,” says Peter Whittenberger, the artist responsible for the colorful video. “We come from different places artistically and around the states.”
“I think it’s refreshing to see the variety of work in a show like this,” says Jeff Erickson, the outdoorsy sculptor.
In addition to the works by Erickson and Whittenberger, there are a pair of travelogue-like videos by Jeremy Stern, paintings by Ahren Hertel (the oil portraitist) and Kim Musser (the acrylic abstractionist), and book arts by Katy Govan. The TMCC gallery is large enough that most of the pieces seem to exist in their own individual spaces.
“I like that it’s a sparse show,” says Tamara Scronce, who curated the show. She’s a sculpture professor at UNR and chair of the MFA program. “That allows the work to have its own autonomy and let that diversity play off each other.”
The possible exception to this principle of autonomy is Whittenberger’s video, “Simple #1,5,6,8,” which, by virtue of being large, colorful and constantly changing, tends to attract the eye before the rest of the work. It’s a video of a fluttering hand which appears to pet, as one would a dog, a variety of animals, political figures, athletes, musicians, objects, advertising mascots, cartoon characters, and just about any other conceivable category of thing. It’s bizarre, hypnotic and funny.
“Originally my idea was a piece about how we interact with the world physically with our hands,” says Whittenberger. “Originally, it was going to be a video of me petting different things, and I decided that of course I didn’t need to be in the video. That’s why I went the animation route. As I started to gather more and more subject matters, I decided that they needed to be random. It was either going to be from one genre or one specific aspect of the world, you know, sports or politics, or it needed to be a little bit of everything. So I went with the little bit of everything route. I think there’s around 172 different subjects.”
Erickson’s piece, “Exalted in Might Most Merciful,” is a material-oriented assemblage that brings together stones, cast aluminum, mirrors, and, almost hidden in the piece, a rabbit tail, something delicate hidden in the sturdy materials. Erickson describes it as an artifact of some chance encounter, possibly with a coyote.
“Coyotes leave the tail, just the tail, cottontail rabbit tails just kind of blowing in the wind,” says Erickson. “I find them perfectly nipped off. And I think about what occurs—obviously something happened—and it’s the fact of that encounter that I’m interested in.”
Kim Musser has two paintings in the exhibition. One is a non-representational exploration of color. The second is an abstracted representation of the character Master Chief from the Halo video game series.
“I wanted to do something representational that was still along my interests and still in my style—my abstract-y, graphic, bold colors-and-lines style,” says Musser. “I love playing video games, and Halo is one of my very favorite video games.”
Interestingly, though Master Chief is usually depicted with the more detailed, realistic graphics of contemporary video games, Musser’s approach transformed him to flat blocks of colors almost reminiscent of the 8-bit era.
“I wanted to abstract him,” says Musser. “I wanted it to be that when people saw it, they’d go, oh that’s a Kim painting—but wait, that’s Master Chief! You know, kind of see him as the second thought. Like, that’s a colorful painting, but wait, there’s a figure in there. I wanted him to be sort of hidden.”
Making the grad
“What I got excited about is that they are all still making artwork,” says Scronce, of the program’s graduates, and the impetus of the exhibition. “They are all still pursuing their careers as practicing artists and most of them are pursuing very connected professional activities that are about them being artists. I consider that, first and foremost, a pretty significant marker because … it is very easy for life to pull you away from art practice.”
For Scronce the success of the program is determined less by the academic accomplishments of the graduates—getting tenure-track jobs—than their artistic accomplishments.
“Students aren’t necessarily pursuing an MFA degree solely to earn the credentials to teach at the college level,” she says. “Part of the point of graduate school is to facilitate ourselves as artists. … It’s this intense period of time that you are just expected to eat, breathe, sleep, be and become the best professional practicing contemporary artist that you can be.”
The program is still developing. The university recently provided the department with studio spaces for the grad students in the Jot Travis Building, the former student union.
“We’re still a relatively young program,” says Scronce. “We’re gaining more and more attention and levels of success on campus. The new graduate student spaces in Jot Travis are an example. That’s being financially supported at the university level because they have a belief in our program that’s due to the level of success that we’ve accomplished.”
The program has attracted students from throughout the country and even internationally. According to Scronce, none of the current grad students are originally from Reno.
“As professional practicing artists, I do think that people who are coming here to study, while they’re here studying, are having an impact. Our students are doing volunteerism, they’re creating projects, they’re doing stuff that is additive to our community. … So that’s bringing artists into our community who weren’t here, and they really are folding in and taking ownership of this place.”
Current and former graduate students cite the interdisciplinary nature of the program and the innovative faculty as primary draws to the program.
“The faculty members here are fantastic,” says Emily Rogers, a photographer and second year grad student, originally from the Detroit area. “I think whatever your medium is you should research the faculty and chose a school that has someone there that you could potentially use as a mentor. And UNR definitely has it. … I’ve met so many people and collaborated with so many artists here in the program. There’s just a great group of diverse students working in different mediums, painters, sculptors, photographers, so it’s been really fantastic working with other artists as well as the faculty.”
“Since I graduated, my teaching experience there has helped me get jobs,” says Whittenberger, who now teaches at TMCC, UNR and Sierra College in Truckee, Calif. “This past year, I’ve had shows in Berlin. I have a show in Milan coming up in April, England, all over the country. I think really what helpful was a having a diverse amount of faculty members and visiting artists come in, and I learned what the art world really was. … Meeting real artists from all over who are doing different things made me realize the variety in the art world, and how you can navigate it in different ways, and that’s been extremely beneficial to me.”
Whittenberger was born in St. Louis, attended the University of Montana, and was living in Oregon when he applied to the program.
“One of the things that attracted me was the interdisciplinary nature of the program. One of the things they emphasized was, ‘We don’t care what you do as long as what you decide to do, you have to do it very well.’ There wasn’t any restrictions on your medium or your direction, they just wanted to make sure you were doing it well.”