Orkideh Torabi's portraits are a standout in this year's SAIC MFA show. Credit: Courtesy Orkideh Torabi

I’m of the belief that art can’t really be taught—and yet, every year institutions of higher learning turn out thousands of graduates with degrees that certify them to be masters of art or “fine art.” My alma mater, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, is responsible for setting loose more than 100 of them this year. In the close to 25 years since I got my bachelor’s degree in painting, SAIC has mushroomed—the school occupies many downtown buildings (and has increased its tuition many times over). My present involvement with SAIC has been reduced to occasional letters from the alumni association seeking contributions. I haven’t been to the school’s year-end thesis show in at least a decade, but my long absence isn’t entirely intentional—by the time I remember to check out the year-end exhibit, it’s already been uninstalled. This year I decided to make an effort and see what the kids are churning out.

It’s inevitable that an MFA exhibition that includes more than 100 artists will be a hodgepodge. On the MFA-show website there’s a section about that curatorial teams that worked with the artists to help them shape the exhibit. Perhaps because I viewed the show before the final wall labels were up, I couldn’t detect too many thematic groupings, aside from those necessitated by the medium of work displayed (e.g. an installation piece requires a room, whereas paintings just need a wall space). The effect is that of a bunch of people talking all at once.

Painting has repeatedly been declared dead for some 100 years now, yet that’s the chosen discipline of at least a third of the work on display. Coarse, cartoonish rendering dominates; whether this is intentional or due to a lack of instruction is hard to say. In professional art galleries facility is often considered suspect, so perhaps the shabby look of a lot of it is strategic. Unfortunately, more often than not it just comes off as inchoate and dull. Rudimentary building material was evident in dozens of displays: two-by-fours, plywood, and cardboard were used to prop up or support sculptures, photographs, and mixed-media installations. But over and over these materials were not transformed or masked in any artful way. It looked like shoddy workmanship and not much else. 

Still, there are a couple promising artists in this group. I returned several times to Robert Burnier’s simple, elegant, and minimal folded pieces. With most of the wall being bare, the brightly colored, geometrically irregular shapes stand out. It’s the kind of thing Robert Mangold or Richard Tuttle do so well, saying a lot by saying very little. But the pieces that affected me the most were Orkideh Torabi’s portraits. Silk-screened onto cotton in an odd, batik-like stained technique, the faces are eerily anonymous, yet somehow particular and subjective. Some seem like playing-card silhouettes, while others are reminiscent of circus posters or mugshots. Slippery, unfinished patterns lend an unsettled, mysterious demeanor. Their grouping forms a sort of rogues’ gallery, though each offender’s crime is to be supplied by the viewer’s imagination.

MFA Show, through 5/18, Sullivan Galleries, 33 S. State, seventh floor, saic.edu, free. Opening reception Fri 4/29, 7-9 PM.