Recontextualizing the ordinary: Claremont Graduate University’s fine arts program presents second year show ‘Witness’

People explore and converse in the CGU Art Exhibit.
On Oct. 11th, the second-year showcase titled “Witness” opened to all members of the 7Cs and beyond. (Florence Pun • The Student Life)

Tucked between 240 House and Garrison Theater lies a gallery and project space reserved for MFA students of Claremont Graduate University. A maze of white studio spaces filled with works in progress take up the back of the building, where someone could get lost stepping into each art student’s respective lair of creation. Facing the street is the Peggy Phelps and East Galleries, meant to showcase art for Claremont Graduate University’s fine arts program.

On Oct. 11, the second-year showcase opened to all members of the 7Cs and beyond. The show was organized by 10 students as a part of completing their two year Master of Fine Arts curriculum. Complete with a reception of wine and snacks, the gallery was filled with artists, their loved ones and other members of the 7C community. The student-selected theme was “Witness.” 

“Instead of just declaring a particular medium that you’re going to work in, you have the option to work in any medium and installations are encouraged. And so you’re able to really expand your practice in any direction that you should choose to go in.”

Tara Tavi SC '92

According to current CGU student and Scripps College alumna Tara Tavi SC ’92, the program is very interdisciplinary. 

“Instead of just declaring a particular medium that you’re going to work in, you have the option to work in any medium and installations are encouraged,” Tavi said. “And so you’re able to really expand your practice in any direction that you should choose to go in.”

Tavi works with creating three-dimensional scenes within books, as a way to immerse the viewers of her art into the imagined worlds that jump off the page. The first book she used for one of these projects was “The Little World of Don Camillo,” which was from a Scripps browsing room. 

“A friend of mine had used old books to put his money and his passport and things in,” she said. “And I just thought that was such a clever way to have your whole world inside of a book.”

Tavi has been making art within books since her time at Scripps and is currently finding inspiration in the artificial beauty of Los Angeles as seen through spending time by a pool. Fascinated with the idea that everything around you becomes more beautiful when you’re beside a pool, she likens this blissful ignorance perpetuated by beauty to a strategy of ignoring climate change. One of her paintings within a book captures a woman swimming with flames on the edge of the water. 

“I think that with climate change — especially being in Southern California — you don’t really realize the water’s boiling while you’re in it,” Tavi said. 

Tavi also noted how the curriculum at CGU allows her to explore other media she would not normally otherwise explore. She spoke to people from CGU during her undergraduate years, which ultimately led her towards coming back for her MFA. 

Her other pieces on view are two paintings, and she is currently working on double-sided collages that are set in light boxes to display the double-exposure effect. Tavi was inspired to paint astronauts in tandem with her showcased book art, citing the isolating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“During COVID, we were, at that point, having to rely on government information. We didn’t know that much,” she said. “And so the pieces are about isolation and about being an astronaut and basically being an experiment, just like the first cosmonauts were. It’s about how we just had to have faith in our institutions so that we could come out on the other side.”

The theme of “Witness” was inspired by the various political events that have come to the surface in the past few years. Artist Jen Greenwood has commented on this theme in her own art. 

“Often in photography, you choose to either be the participant or the observer. I do both. So my art is all about how I witnessed something,” she said. “And then I can’t get it out of my mind. And then I metabolize it, and somehow it becomes art.” 

Greenwood’s pieces paid homage to the trees that fell in a windstorm in January, and a neon sign meant to allow for meditation on casual stereotyping, which reads “You don’t look Jewish.” Greenwood saw experimenting with neon signs as a way to communicate the harm of passing comments. 

The process of putting on the show was a communal one. Each artist developed their own distinctive style and came together to create a show that portrayed the progress of the artists. The CGU program requires students to be in charge of putting together the entire show, so they delegated tasks to separate groups to handle the layout, publicity and installation of the show. 

Greenwood attests that this process was collaborative by nature, just like the rest of the CGU program. 

“I don’t see art as a solitary exercise anyway,” she said. 

The showcase featured a wide range of media, including mixed media cement pieces, oil and acrylic paintings and an installation with yarn. The MFA program offers flexibility and resources for artists to expand their practices, as well as artist studios in very close proximity to the music studios. This allows for a wider blending of mediums and the use of more experimental tactics in art that go beyond visual stimulation. 

“In my case, I see art as a way to process and problem solve what I see in the world. Others are on some kind of self exploration … journey of connecting with their past or interpreting their dreams,” Greenwood said. 

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