It’s the time of year when, as the frost giants finally abdicate their annual reign over Chicago, applicants the world over are getting their responses from Master of Fine Arts graduate programs. Since mid-February they’ve been braving the slings and arrows of “We are sorry to inform you,” “It is with regret,” and “We wish you every success,” occasionally tempered with the cold comfort of some statistic or mention of the unexpected number of applicants and their impressive collective quality. Some are still dangling, hanging to the desperate hope of a waiting list. Many, though, have been receiving their notifications of acceptance, and with those come choices, sometimes difficult. At least three people I know personally are in this situation this year, and it got me to reminiscing, second-guessing, and Monday-morning quarterbacking the choices I made in my education, and also thinking about the choices facing my friends.
Some applicants are accepted only into a single program, at which point the decision pretty much makes itself, especially if that program was one of the applicant’s top choices. In other cases, if accepted by a “safety,” the choice is between accepting admission into a program that wasn’t one’s first, second, or even third choice, or licking one’s wounds, getting back to work, and applying again the next year, in hopes of getting into a more competitive program.
I actually found myself in this situation ten years ago, in 2003, just after graduating from my undergraduate program at Humboldt State University (my degree was conferred in December 2002). I had applied, rather casually, to a few graduate schools, not really taking the process particularly seriously. Mass Art, Pratt, RISD, and Tulane University all wisely concluded that I wasn’t quite ready, while SAIC informed me that yes, their application deadline was a firm one, and that I’d have to apply again next year.
After receiving all this bad news, I finally received an offer of admission from the University of New Orleans. I had applied to UNO, along with Tulane, primarily out of an interest in its role in the Gothic subculture; even as late as 2003, I was thinking it’d be a good place to meet girls in black lipstick. I had visited New Orleans on a road trip with a friend in summer 2001, and it seemed like an interesting place: I found a porcelain doll’s arm and some fragments of what I’m pretty sure were human bone in the topsoil of a cemetery, and at the New Orleans Art Museum I saw Odd Nerdrum’s “Five Persons Around A Waterhole,” which let me tell you, when I was 21, seemed to me to be the paragon of contemporary art. I know, I know.
So I had applied out of a sort of schoolboy’s crush on the city, and I’d been accepted. By that time, though, the end of March, I’d had a sort of awakening, and had realized that despite having just received my degree, I still had a lot to learn about the actual techniques of painting. My interest was in figurative representation, but I had been pushed away from it by my instructors and classmates, probably in large part because I wasn’t very good at it. Instead, I had been making paintings that were a sort of workaround, essentially drawings on toned canvas, and these were pretty well received. My classmates and faculty were supportive, I showed some in local coffee shops and restaurants, even sold a few (albeit at undergrad-in-a-small-town-coffee-shop prices). But ultimately I knew the work was shit. Or, at least, I thought I did; in hindsight, it might have actually been an interesting direction to go in, but it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing. At any rate, by the time the schools I’d heard were good had all rejected me, and UNO had accepted me, I had decided that the work I’d applied with was terrible, and concluded that I “wouldn’t want to belong to a club that would have someone like me as a member.”
The point of all this masturbatory, navel-gazing, canker sore-licking reminiscence is that whatever choice you make, you’ll have the rest of your life to second-guess it. And, if you’re anything like me, you will. If I’d accepted that offer of admission, I would have moved to New Orleans in summer of 2003, having just started a series of large self-portraits dressed up as other people (friends, famous artists, and artist stereotypes), which was kind of clever and funny in an undergrad sort of way. A military saying is “No plan survives contact with the enemy,” and how this body of work would have gone over at UNO’s grad program will remain forever unknown. Would I have been pushed in a more interesting direction with it? Encouraged? Sidetracked? Challenged? Coddled? There’s no way to know, but thus relocated, my influences and peers all rearranged, it’s impossible to imagine that I would have gone on to make the same work as I ended up making after deciding to decline their offer and spend another year working on my portfolio to reapply.
As it turned out, I didn’t accept the offer, instead electing to spend another year working on what I thought of at the time as my first real body of work, that dozen or so self portraits. I felt pretty good about them at the time, thought I had a decent shot at getting into a more competitive graduate program the following year. I busted my ass, pulled some crazy all-nighters. I was an animal. I was a machine. All summer, I worked. Some friends and I, all in the same boat, spent Thanksgiving break in the painting studio; we knew how to shimmy across a roof and in through a window so we could paint even when campus was closed. On Thanksgiving, three of us had a little potluck dinner, using the model stand as a table. And then we got back to work. I bought Rock Star (or was in Monster?) at Costco by the case. December came, and with it, the deadlines. I applied to nineteen schools. I was rejected from every single one.
If I’d accepted that offer from UNO, I would have been finishing up my first year, instead of collecting a massive stack of rejection letters. As it was, I started a new body of work, better than the last (I actually still like a few of those paintings), and tried again, and that third year was accepted into three of my top choices: Mass Art, Cranbrook, and MICA. They were all basically good programs, and I had to choose between them. None had offered me a full fellowship, the proverbial “free ride” that MFA students sometimes get, which would have made the choice easier. (Some programs are free for anyone who’s accepted, but none of these three were.) I had a friend at Cranbrook, which was tempting, but ultimately I decided that the Hoffberger School of Painting at MICA was the best fit for me, due to its director Grace Hartigan’s emphasis on figurative representation. I started at MICA in August of 2005. A month later, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, leaving me to wonder what would have happened to me if I’d gone to UNO. Would I have found a teaching position in the area and been hit by the hurricane, or would I have found work elsewhere and dodged the bullet? If I’d been affected, how? Would I have stubbornly refused to evacuate? Might I even have been killed? More likely, I would have survived, and it’s almost impossible to conceive that I wouldn’t have made work about it, but would it have been any good?
Like Maximus said in Gladiator: “The choices we make in life echo in eternity.” The problem is that we can’t always know how our choices will echo. Whether or not the wingbeat of a butterfly can really effect weather systems a continent away, unexpected outcomes are certainly the rule rather than the exception. So maybe, as you’re mulling over your options for MFA programs, you should picture Jeff Goldbloom playing with droplets of water on the back of your hand, explaining that there is no way you can know what consequences your choice will have.
I never could have known that Hurricane Katrina was headed for the city I would have moved to if I’d accepted UNO’s offer, nor could I have known that by staying in Humboldt for another two years, I would meet the woman who would become my wife. There’s a certain hippie, New Age kind of mindset that may be more prevalent on the West Coast than in Chicago, that the universe has some sort of plan, that everything happens for a reason, and looking in hindsight at some of these consequences leads some to say, “Well, see? There you go! It all worked out.” But of course, if it hadn’t , something else would have worked out. If I’d never met my wife, I would probably have met somebody else. (Tim Minchin’s got a great song about this.) If I can draw any lesson from my experience, it’s that the most important outcomes of any decision tend to be the ones you can’t predict, and there’s not a damned thing you can do about it anyway.
In the interests of concluding with something a little more actionable, I’ll share two pieces of advice I received while looking at graduate programs. The first was “Follow the money,” that is, go to the school that will result in the least student loan debt. This is great if you are offered a full scholarship to your top choice, or even one of your top choices. But it’s difficult if you’re facing the choice between taking on a major debt load to attend a program that really feels right for you, versus getting a free ride at a school that feels slightly less right to you. Add to this the fact that some programs (Northwestern, for example, and also UIUC I believe) are free for anyone accepted, and at others you can teach in exchange for a tuition waver and sometimes a stipend to live on. It’s a tough choice, not one I ever had to face, but one that some of my friends are facing right now. One mitigating factor in favor of getting to the school that’s best for you, debt be damned, is the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. This says that, in effect, if you work full time for a non-profit public service institution for ten years, while making your scheduled student loan payments on time, at the end of that period they’ll forgive the rest of your loan debt. Considering that a.) a primary reason a lot of people pursue an MFA degree is in order to teach, and b.) that most colleges count, and that c.) you can make fairly low student loan payments on the income-based repayment plan, this means that you can go to the fancy MFA program, teach for ten years (if you can find the work, and that’s a big “if”), make modest loan payments of as little as eighty bucks a month, and then you’re free and clear. This takes some of the hurt and fear out of going to a more costly school that might offer the kind of program you’re looking for.
The other piece of advice I got, though, was that the most important aspect of graduate program was the city you’d be living in while attending. It makes some sense; certainly we see players in Chicago’s art scene who represent students and alumni from not just SAIC but also Columbia, UIUC, UIC, and more; attending graduate school in Chicago can be an entry point into Chicago’s art scene regardless of which school one attends. On the other hand, Yale’s MFA program pretty obviously has influence outside New Haven, Connecticut. Cranbrook is located in an almost monastic retreat in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, not particularly close to Detroit or anywhere else, and yet its graduates show up, doing well, all over.
I only ended up in Chicago out of sheer, dumb luck. I stuck around Humboldt for another year because I wanted to go to a school that was ranked highly by U.S. News and World Report, and then another because none of them would have me. On a whim, I went to crash Freshman Orientation to pick up on freshman girls and scam free pizza. Three years later, I married one of those girls, Stephanie Burke. She’s quick to point out that she was a transfer student, not a freshman, and also there for the free pizza. After she spent a year with me in Baltimore while I finished up at MICA, she applied to her own round of MFA programs. It was her first year applying, and she got into three excellent programs: Virginia Commonwealth, MICA, and SAIC. SAIC had been her top choice, and Baltimore hadn’t really set any hooks into either of us compelling us to say, so we pulled up our stakes and headed for Chicago. Five and a half years later, we’re rocking and rolling in an incredibly vibrant art scene, and while it’s hard for me to imagine doing so well anywhere else, the road that led here is one I couldn’t see at all from where it started.
The first time I met Aay, he was was giving a presentation at Version Fest in 2007. Aay, Ilana Percher and Rebecca Grady had just returned from Art Shanty Projects on Medicine Lake, where they installed a soft shanty/sculpture called The Soft Shop. They reinstalled this portable, cloth shanty in the Version’s basement, (where all the other art booths stood) and talked about their residency, hosting some of the same fiber workshops they had hosted in its original location in Minnesota. Since that first encounter I have benefited from Aay’s collaborative work in multiple ways. I have been to Chances to dance-dance-dance, a short story of mine was published in an on-line magazine he organizes called Monsters & Dust. I went to No Coast and convinced Aay to make some covers for the Green Lantern Press. I point this out because his work has impacted a wide audience of which I am a part. He creates public, collaborative platforms while producing a concise, independent body of work. Despite having appreciated his work for so long, I have never taken the opportunity to ask him about how these projects relate to one another, and even how he thinks about his own practice. To me, this interview is suited to the beginning of summer. It’s hot outside, the Critical Fierceness Grant is open again (until June 30th) for grant proposals, many artists and faculty alike are facing a new open schedule, and it’s good to remember the alchemical mixture in aesthetics, politics, the body and imagination.
Caroline Picard: You’ve been in Chicago for a number of years and have continued to work with different organizations—I was thinking as far back as Diamonds/Texas Ballroom for instance, No Coast of course and many others—I was wondering if you could talk about your participation in those different organizations; how your role has varied? Do you feel like your participation in different communal structures has impacted your visual work?
Aay Preston-Myint: Well, Diamonds and Texas were two iterations/sections of the same artists collective in warehouse space in Bridgeport, back in the day. We all did our share of programming and running events, mostly art shows and music, and let’s not forget parties. No Coast was a similar collective/consensus structure but centered around the concept and physical space of a bookstore, shared studio space, in addition to an open community workshop. When I look at these and other organizations I’ve been involved with (the online curatorial project Monsters and Dust, the experimental cultural center Mess Hall, and the microgrant/queer dance party called Chances), the difference is not so much in work or ‘roles,’ but the content of each project itself. These are ventures that have all been run by consensus to serve a specific audience or community. As such, roles can shift depending on interest, ability, and the needs of our contingents. I think the impact on my own work has been that I have a desire to engage, entertain, and encourage dialogue through my practice. I enjoy using color, a richness in materials, humor, mystery/seduction, and participation to engage the viewer. Creating a gravitational pull, drawing people into an active space — that’s what all the organizations I work with have done.
CP: Do you categorize different aspects of your art practice?
APM: In a way those divisions (solo work, collaborations, and design/commissions) are often a matter of convenience — an easy way of categorizing, but the nature of the work is different too. I think my solo work has more of a clear narrative, using conceptual, material, and stylistic threads that weave in and out of the work. Collaborations of course deal with similar concepts and interests. However that work tends to take on forms, processes, or issues that I don’t always deal with on my own because of the influence of my partners — each collaboration tends to stand apart. The design work, while perhaps more aesthetically my own, is a whole other beast, often because it’s not used in an art context, and also because the content is decided by the client and maybe even pushed to the background. I think each category exhibits a different kind of development over time, and it can be interesting to compare how they are disparate but also influence one another. From the subject matter of my solo work, to the clients I choose to design for: there are connections that become apparent when you zoom out.
CP: Will you talk a little bit about your relationship to materials?
APM: Responding to materials have always been a key part of my work. For a while when I drew it was almost like I had an issue with attention span; I needed something to respond or anchor myself to, a fabric, wallpaper, a photograph — I disliked drawing on a blank surfaces. Now it’s more about responding to the social, historical, or affective associations with an object or material — rope, a flag, hair, light, even scent. I think in a body of work like mine — which is so about embodiment — the choice of materials is really key when interpreting form.
CP: I’m also really curious about your Hybrid Moments Project—can you talk about that a little?
APM: Hmm, yes — as you can tell from the text banner series that I made a couple years ago, I like to use pop songs as titles and content sometimes. After I made the first series of screen prints, Hybrid Moments seemed to be the right phrase to contain my work at the time — I think of the title more as a container than the name of a single “project.” I think it still works for the prints and maybe some of the discrete/smaller sculptures, but not so much for the larger sculptures anymore. But in general, it’s the body of work I’m engaged with now. The works make propositions of what mutating, unpredictable forms that community, identity, and the environment—both built and natural — may take on in an unspecified future moment — all through the lens of a critical queerness.
CP: Do you have a static, projected future point that your work is speaking to? Or does that future-vision shift, depending on what your working on?
APM: The future I depict is definitely mutable and unpredictable, that’s kind of the crux of my whole viewpoint. I think part of the criticality of my work is that our projections of the future never match up to what we imagine — I use mutation as a metaphor or allegory for that unpredictability. As soon as one struggle is overcome, new power relations form in place of old ones. Often abuses and rivalries emerge instead of coalitions. The future I imagine is always out of reach.
CP: It makes me want to ask the same question about your lens. Is your lens of critical queerness also static? Do you apply that lens to the present as well? Or is it solely intended as a future-looking tool?
APM: Going off my last answer, the lens definitely applies to the present. Our current struggles are direct results of what we desire or imagine our future to be. I think the It Gets Worse series points to those connections/disconnections. Is marriage a queer issue? Or are supermax prisons and police states a queer issue? Both? Is one more urgent than the other? Why? The national discourse is really far behind with regard to what’s actually being said, thought, and done in queer communities across class, race, and trans/gender lines. How can we make the definition of queer issues — and following that, queer identity — more fluid and open in order to more successfully meet the challenges of the future?
CP: And your SMILE series too—that struck me, partly, because of the element of performance required. I was thinking about it because in Hybrid Moments you seem to be interested in gestures and the significance of those gestures, but then in that instance (am I right?) the resulting work is divorced from living people….
APM: That’s a great question because I think over time those two projects have influenced each other in ways I hadn’t anticipated and, at least in my mind, they aren’t differentiated anymore. The first iteration of SMILE was, I think, the first iteration of my continuing and relatively “mature” body of work. However at that time it was still lacking a specific goal or agenda in terms of content, despite having established the visual style and material concerns. I started Hybrid Moments soon after this, and through those works I began to lock down the kinds of gestures, characters, and ideas I am interested in. Queerness, futurity, power relations, color theory/theories, toxicity and mutation to name a few. So when I did SMILE a second time (at SFCamerawork in September 2010), it became folded into what had become my practice. Some objects that were previously presented as sculptures became props for SMILE — because all these works now inhabited the same world. I was delighted to see some of the situations in my drawings accidentally re-enacted in performance, and in turn, I’ve used the gestures and actions performed in SMILE to create new drawings (e.g. “Totem Ascending”, which was included in this year’s threewalls CSA). The SMILE performances have also helped me to rethink the concepts of figure, site, and the object/viewer relationship in my sculptural work.
CP: Can you talk more about how you experienced your practice coalescing? It’s interesting to me, because it sounds so evident to your process — like the way you differentiate a “mature” body of work and then that you talk about figuring out your material/styalistic concerns before realizing the ideas you were honing in on…like, how did you discover queerness, futurity, power relations, color theory/theories, toxicity and mutation as a central series of threads?
APM: For me, this happens in two ways. I think the first was the development of a certain intuition, in conjunction with a recognizable imprint or style. When I work, I start with a specific idea, and I gather the materials I need to make the object real, but at a certain point in the execution it seems almost like alchemy, like spinning a solid substance out of air. The work begins to outpace my thought, which is a good thing. After a while, you make enough things and you can kind of sit back and look at what makes them all tick. Almost everything I was making had some connection with the body or a body-to-be (figure-based drawings, costumes, stages/arenas), and it made sense to go from there. Futurity and mutation — bodies as agents of change, and subject to change. Power relations —‚ how our physical bodies place us in a hierarchy arranged around gender, color, etc. Queerness — an embodiment of difference or otherness. There comes this juncture, this arrival, where you are able to say, this is it, this is what I’m talking about.
The second part has to do with the research elements of my practice — looking, reading, writing. As I was working on my written thesis I was isolating these core concepts (embodiment, utopia, queerness, etc). The commonalities between the different works I make, and the works of others that I am influenced by. I started making lists, thought maps, and diagrams which would explode these concepts and then bring them back together in different configurations. With the encouragement of friends and teachers, these sketches and diagrams eventually became works in their own right.
CP: Do you draw a connection between power relations and color theory? Like how certain colors will dominate others; there is an inborn, albeit relative hierarchy. Is your list of conceptual concerns similarly linked? Or do you see that list as a body of distinct, non-relating concepts?
APM: Oh yes, there is definitely a connection. However, in my research I don’t talk so much about the optical domination of one color over the other, as much as looking at the social constructs and hierarchies around color. I’m interested in how colors carry associations with certain emotions, objects, situations, and even social and political movements and attitudes. I’ve been especially invested in mixed colors, day-glo colors, and pastel colors — my written thesis was titled “Who’s Afraid of Pink, Purple and Brown?” in contrast to Barnett Newman’s “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue?” I’ve done an artist talk solely on the color pink. It’s a pretty amazing color, not enough people take it seriously. Transgression, difference, queerness, sex, repulsion, obsession, fantasy….it’s all there in that one color.
APM: I think that grad school has been really invaluable to my process….until now I’ve never been able to totally commit myself to developing an artistic stance or worldview, and turn that into a cohesive body of work over time. I can really reflect on how one piece relates to the next, and engage in intense and productive critique from myself and others at a level previously unreached. As hinted at above, I’ve also been able to take advantage of scale and material in a way I hadn’t had the time or financial backing to do before. I’ve been really fortunate to attend a program (UIC) that fosters community, improvisation, self-critique, and collaboration, due to its size, and in particular, the awesomeness and warmth of my cohort. In that way, it really hasn’t been too much different than my DIY experiences. I think my class in particular has truly been like family.
CP: What are you working on right now?
APM: Interesting that you say that — well, the fact is, I’ve just graduated and am looking forward to a lot of travel this summer, and not really sure what kind of work awaits in the fall (residency? teaching? design? working at a bar? these are all options). This means that for the time being, I’m not going to have the large scale modes of production, storage, and display available to me during graduate school — so I unfortunately might have to put the brakes on the large sculptural work for now. It’s strange how time, place, and life situations can have as much, if not more, impact on the work you do as your own concept/process. That said, I’m focusing on prints, drawings and the web at the moment — things I can do at home and at my shared studio at Roxaboxen in Pilsen. Mostly developing the imagery in the Hybrid Moments prints and the It Gets Worse Series — my long-time No Coast collaborator Alex Valentine and I will be taking these and other print/book projects to the Tokyo Art Book fair in July. Also, I can finally put my nose to the grindstone on Monsters and Dust — which you yourself have also made an awesome contribution to. Our next issue is way overdue. But as soon as I get enough space I think I’d like to start working on a “living vomitorium” idea that has been at the back of my head for a while.
CP: How do you determine if a show with your work is successful?
APM: I guess there are a few ways. Of course people might just like the whole thing, which feels great, but I’m often excited when people respond to the work that I’ve had the most doubts about, or the piece that I almost didn’t include. It reminds me to continue thinking outside of myself and to trust other people’s input. If the work motivates people to ask challenging questions rather than just congratulate, that’s great too. I also think a work is successful when people ask funny questions or give things names – “Is that a gloryhole?” or “I like this hair donut,” or “This one is the great birth mother, right?” or “What’s that smell?”
You can see more of Aay’s work by visiting his website.