I have misplaced my rose-colored spectacles; without them, life’s details overwhelm me. Alienation, anxiety, illness, injustice, and loss saturate my vision, leaving me with a sense of cold indifference. Of course, some days are better than others, especially when productivity or too much caffeine at the right time pleasantly distracts me, but interminable uneasiness hovers ever closely. This darkness belies my public veneer; my easy smile and generous laughter suggest a certain composure that lies just beyond my reach.
In M Train, a collection of personal essays, activist, artist, musician, and poet Patti Smith meaningfully thrives in and productively endures a life of vigilant creativity despite her experience of significant loss. By the time she turned fifty-six, Smith had survived her husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith; her younger brother and tour manager, Todd; her close friend and longtime collaborator, Robert Mapplethorpe; and both of her parents, to name only a few. Reading M Train, I am at once heartened and humbled by Smith’s resilience. Waking on the morning of her sixty-sixth birthday, she quietly thanks her parents for her life, “as always.” Maintaining a daily practice informed by her convictions, Smith actively exhibits, performs, photographs, speaks, tours, and writes.
Many of the M.A./M.F.A. students in the Visual Arts program at CSUN demonstrate a decided resilience in their distinct and varied approaches to making. Like Smith, their conviction and persistence demonstrate acts of faith in a world crowded with indifference and stuff. This perseverance within an environment where graduate degrees outnumber relevant job opportunities at once inspires and humbles me. These young adults could make their work independently, beyond the walls of academia; but they have chosen to come here and work within a community of others, a decision that culminates in a group exhibition. According to the graduate degree program guidelines, the graduate exhibition is in “partial fulfillment of” the degree of Master of Arts or Master of Fine Arts in Visual Arts; the balance of the degree includes each individual’s completion of coursework and a written document that articulates the graduate project. The graduate exhibition used to be a solitary endeavor; each graduate student mounted a separate solo show, one week at a time in one designated space. While this system precluded discussions about shared space, it also limited attendance; the accomplishment of completing one’s graduate degree went almost unnoticed.
The M.A./M.F.A. Graduate Exhibition brings everyone together, for better or worse. The tension between the individual and the group has to be renegotiated each year, and each cohort of graduate students embodies diversity in every sense. Coming from different countries, states, and cities, representing many cultures and ethnicities, and using varied approaches to making, including ceramics, design, drawing, installation, painting, photography, printmaking, sculpture, and video, these young artists know that if they don’t speak up for themselves, who will? They maintain a wary faith (and hopefully a healthy sense of perspective) in this process, hoping this is only one of many exhibition opportunities to come.
At the very least craft and curiosity function as threads that connect seemingly disparate works: What will this snapshot mean when translated to paint? Will repetition of this form bore or engage? Does this limited color palette conceal or evoke the inherent anger and disappointment? These questions begin to tease out the sobering content that lies within each student’s body of work. The more colorful, humorous, and playful the work, the more it acknowledges the aforementioned alienation, anxiety, illness, injustice, and loss; just beneath the surface, all of the young artists’ varied approaches to and materials for making reveal a collective sense of longing: for connection, reassurance, resolution, and validation.
In M Train, Patti Smith leads a mostly solitary existence, both at home and abroad, evoking a similar sense of longing. To “escape the suffocating aspects of [Hurricane] Sandy’s aftermath” and “visit friends with problems of their own,” Smith travels by bus from Madrid to Valencia. A pit stop along the way yields an encounter with “some guy” selling a “suspiciously limp lottery ticket.” When Smith buys it, the man orders a meal and pays for it with the money. She sees the encounter as a “good trade”; the man leaves the bar happy, and Smith feels “at one with the world,” an unlikely sense of connection. Participating in a culminating exhibition and completing a graduate degree has become a lottery ticket of sorts; it embodies an encouraging sense of faith in the process and optimism about the future.