Art in the Round

Graduating M.F.A. students learn the art of creating exhibitions and put it to use for a show at the Cyclorama in Boston

Shannon VanGyzen shows off wallpaper that is part of her art installation

By the time master of fine arts students graduate from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA) at Tufts, they’ve mastered not just the creation of art, but the ability to install their work in virtually any exhibition space.

Case in point: the Cyclorama at the Boston Center for the Arts. A late 19th-century circular structure—originally designed to house panoramic murals—it is the site of the school’s fourth annual Cyclorama Show, on display May 18-21. Thirty-seven graduating M.F.A. students are showcasing their final thesis projects in painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, film, video, performance, multi-media installations and more.

“The exhibition creates a wonderful snapshot of what is going on in contemporary art at this current moment,” said M.F.A. program director Mary Ellen Strom. “Anyone with the slightest interest in contemporary art will find it very exciting to learn what these young voices are thinking about and doing.”

The M.F.A. program is interdisciplinary at the SMFA. Students are encouraged to work across media in the fine arts as well as across disciplines in the humanities and sciences, said Strom. “They are also challenged to understand contemporary debates of the art world by reading and discussing critical and cultural theory,” she said. “These dialogues come to the surface in their work, which is really just about being an awake human in one’s moment in history.”

Showing off the art of today in a historic site adds another dimension. “It’s been a phenomenon of maybe the last 20 years that many international biennials exhibit artists’ work in historic buildings,” Strom said.

Shweta Sengupta with her thesis installation, "Anomalies of the Unhomed," at the Cyclorama. Photo: Alonso NicholsShweta Sengupta with her thesis installation, "Anomalies of the Unhomed," at the Cyclorama. Photo: Alonso Nichols
The sightlines in the Cyclorama building are created so that viewers can see all of the works in relation to one another and in relation to the building’s architectural details. “We didn’t want to do a large show that has cubicles in it, and looked corporate like many art fairs do,” she said. “This is a rather odd building, and people are able to meander through it and see the work as they walk up the stairs here or encounter big sculptures there.”

While a state-of-the-art gallery might be likened to a blank canvas, a historic space brings with it a whole assortment of preexisting narratives etched onto every surface through the years.

SMFA graduate students learned early on in the program about the restrictions and requirements of installing artwork at public spaces. The students met with professional contractors who offered suggestions for safe and secure constructions.

Ea Domke poses for a photo with a self-portrait component of their thesis during the installation process at the Cyclorama. Photo: Alonso NicholsEa Domke poses for a photo with a self-portrait component of their thesis during the installation process at the Cyclorama. Photo: Alonso Nichols
Shannon VanGyzen constructed her installation Hang in There with furniture, curtains, paint, horsehair, wallpaper, velvet, pedestals and a three-channel video. Her piece, she said, invites viewers to step into a designed home space where anthropomorphized household objects mimic and subvert notions of the American Dream.

Bringing her work into the Cyclorama, VanGyzen carefully heeded specifications for installation in the historic space. Fire regulations were of particular concern. “I make assemblages out of old, reclaimed furniture and domestic fabrics—all of which are not the most flame-retardant of materials,” VanGyzen said. To be on the safe side, she purchased flame-retardant velvet and wallpaper and treated her sculptures with a flame-retardant spray solution.

The art students were forbidden to use materials like glitter that could get on paintings and into the crevices of the historic building. “Before I knew that, I was using a ton of glitter in my artwork, and I had to eliminate it from my sculpture practice,” she said. But she figured a workaround: she’s making glitter a major component in her video, “where the subject in the video eats and expels spoonfuls of glitter,” she said. “It’s a win-win situation.”

Shweta Maria Sengupta’s installation, Anomolies of the Unhomed, is constructed of metal, chiffon, embroidered fabric and thread. With these materials, she has created larger-than-life sculptures in the form of textile patterns like paisley, bleeding madras and chintz palampore. Walking around them transforms viewers into Lilliputians.

“My title was inspired by Homi Bhabha’s definition of unhomed—it is not to be homeless, but rather to live a life where the borders between world and home become confused,” she said. “In other words, the familiar and the unfamiliar break down.”  

Having a good strategy in advance to handle a space’s specs freed the artists to deal with other concerns like transporting the works to the exhibition space.

The metal frames on Sengupta’s artwork—and their scale—make transporting them difficult. “The delicate fabric on them doesn’t make it any easier,” she said. For the Cyclorama show, she has a team of students helping her move her work.

Nedaa Mulla works on installing her thesis piece, "Vision," at the Cyclorama. Photo: Alonso NicholsNedaa Mulla works on installing her thesis piece, "Vision," at the Cyclorama. Photo: Alonso Nichols
VanGyzen is having a similar experience. “My sculptures will be standing on blue velvet-covered pedestals,” she said. “These pedestals are highly crafted and minimal so I am concerned about scuffing the velvet in transport and installation, as they are heavy and cumbersome to move. There is definite truth in the value of teamwork. I know that I can overcome the challenges presented, especially with the help of my fellow artists.

“The professors and my cohort in the graduate program at SMFA at Tufts have truly helped me develop and expand as an artist, thinker and cultural producer,” she added. “The Cyclorama show allowed me to hone in on my artistic visions and focus on presenting my work in an effective, site-specific installation.”

The Cyclorama at the Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont St., is open Thursday and Saturday, May 18 and 20, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Friday and Sunday, May 19 and 21, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., with a public reception on Friday, May 19, from 7:30 to 10 p.m.

Rob Phelps is a freelance writer based in Quincy, Massachusetts.

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