Before American actress Jennifer Coolidge invoked “the core of the onion” in her role as beleaguered billionaire Tanya McQuoid in HBO Max’s “The White Lotus” (season 1, episode 5), my best friend in graduate school (I’ll call her Stella) wrote her Master of Fine Arts thesis as a collection of autobiographical, somewhat fictionalized, essays, entitled “Giving Birth to Onions” (University of New Mexico, 1997). In Part One, she writes about working in the produce section of a small grocery store, hauling out fifty-pound sacks of onions, slicing open their red plastic mesh with a paring knife, and reaching in to pull out the onions one by one. Because they were “frayed and dusty with mold,” Stella peeled away their paper-thin layers of brown, desiccated skin with her hands still in the bag; she delighted in each layer’s revelation, whether taut and shining or pierced and weeping, and saw that what mattered most was the process of discovering and uncovering what existed beneath the surface.
In “The White Lotus,” Tanya’s desperate declaration, “I just wanna skip all the layers, and just go straight to the crazy…you know, just show him the core of the onion,” acknowledges her visceral expectation of rejection while revealing her dismissal of and fatigue with the important and necessary process of discovering and uncovering. She wants to “…just cut to the chase” and arrive at a resolution without putting in the effort, labor, and time.
The students participating in this year’s graduate exhibition have uncovered, examined, and looked beneath the many layers of their work during their time in the Visual Arts graduate programs at CSUN; the efficacy and rigor of their art practices depend on these processes. When asked to describe their work, students may say it’s “about identity” or “memory” or “trauma,” but these words have suffered from institutional use, becoming art world shorthand for categorical concepts that are unwieldy both in their broad application and their fraught power to halt further inquiry; they do a disservice to the artist and the work, guarding the core without revealing its nuanced explorations.
Ceramics, drawing, illustration, painting, printmaking, sculpture, and lens-based media comprise the areas of concentration that students are institutionally required to identify as they matriculate through their graduate degree programs. But the beauty, and the value, of the Visual Arts graduate programs at CSUN are their encouragement toward multidisciplinary approaches and thinking. Whether that means photography students work in three dimensions or painting students use digital tools or illustration students consider time-based solutions, each of the students completing their degree this academic year has created, discussed, evaluated, and reflected on their work within the larger context of contemporary art discourse.
While this exhibition of graduate projects partially fulfills the requirements for graduate degrees, the students are also required to supplement their visual artwork with a written abstract, erroneously called a thesis in this academic context (the Graduate Project is the thing). While writing this document presents a daunting task for students who navigate the world as visual makers and thinkers, this process encourages peeling away the layers of the onion, so to speak; it sustains the act of looking at and within and thinking about every aspect of the work, from conception, to planning, to process, to realization. Writing articulates and reveals intentions and unexpected discoveries that might otherwise go unacknowledged. Sometimes the discoveries belie the students’ intentions, and the work uncovers meaningful and palpably resonant vulnerabilities. These revelations inform the sought-after core of the work.
In “Giving Birth to Onions,” Stella introduces Karen and describes her as feeling “…distanced from the world, like she was swathed in layers. She said she felt like an onion” and “…had to explain about the onion…to new people” in group therapy. Karen’s words acknowledge her commitment to leaving the layers intact, refusing to be vulnerable in the process of self-discovery. But Stella wrote, “I have learned from experience that it is the dense core of the onion, the part where the roots once grew, that holds all the power.”