‘Learning to Love the Bomb’: MFA candidacy exhibition to open at Black Iris

MFA candidate Elizabeth McGrady hangs framed images on the walls at Black Iris Gallery, preparing for the opening reception on Friday. Photo by Raelyn Fines

Andrew Ringle, Spectrum Editor

Black Iris Gallery is a highly trafficked First Friday spot with a bar in the back. As photographers worked on their installations for their MFA exhibition on Friday, men caused a ruckus by rolling kegs into the back to prepare for the weekend.

“I’m excited for it to be in such a public space, because we’ll get eyes and ears we might not usually get from being in school,” said Sebastien Carpentier, first-year MFA candidate. “So I guess I’m excited for that outside perspective, that outside voice that can bring to the table … things that I haven’t thought about.”

Four graduate students will present “Learning to Love the Bomb” April 5 at Black Iris Gallery.  At the show — also known as the VCU MFA Photography and Film Candidacy Exhibition — students will receive critical feedback from visitors, faculty and Margot Norton, a curator from New York.

Sebastien Carpentier is among four graduate students who will receive feedback on their work from visitors, faculty and a curator from New York. Photo by Raelyn Fines

Hannah Altman is among three other students presenting work at the exhibition. With a mix of images and fabric pieces, Altman’s display will explore familial history and Jewish identity. As her work developed, she said it became more focused on the latter.

“It’s kind of creating an ebb and flow between exact moments of ritual, and kind of this space in between — often within the home, but not always,” Altman said. “Sometimes it’s within the ritual space itself.”

Altman said she made direct references to Jewish rituals in her display. For example, one image shows candles melting on a model’s hands.

“A Jewish woman always lights the Shabbat candles,” Altman said. “It’s like a mitzvah specific to women.”

Elizabeth McGrady will display her work on conspiracy theories surrounding a Nazi base in Antarctica, the existence of UFOs and a 1946 encounter between the U.S. Navy and entities on the world’s southernmost continent. McGrady’s grandfather served as a photographer in the Navy.

“I fell into this archive that my grandfather had given me,” McGrady said. “It was put aside as kind of like a time capsule. So, when I turned 18, he had been dead for about 10 years at that point. But my parents gave it to me; they had been preserving it the whole time.”

McGrady said searching through her grandfather’s archives was like pulling little threads — she found “rabbit holes” by reading things from her grandfather and looking at his photographs. These creative leads inspired her displayed work in “Learning to Love the Bomb.” But days before the opening, she removed her grandfather’s things and started creating brand new images.

“That was really difficult, thinking about how personal these things are,” McGrady said. “It’s really hard to cut something that you feel such a personal attachment to.”

Since the work at the exhibition will be critiqued, McGrady pulled the personal notions out of her work to protect them. Altman said she acted similarly with a personal project she’s developing.

Hannah Altman stands by her work, which explores familial history and Jewish identity. Photo by Raelyn Fines

“I have another project that’s just self-portrait work with my mom,” Altman said. “That’s been ongoing for five years. But no matter what, I’ve never gotten official, professional feedback on it. I think it absolutely requires that. It needs to have that space of shelter — otherwise I don’t know what that work would turn into.”

The students started installing their displays the morning of April 2, but they agree their work is far from over.

“This project is ongoing, it’s not ending with candidacy,” McGrady said. “It’s kind of like a little brief pause in the work, but it’s still moving forward.”

Ashley Goodwin is another MFA candidate in the exhibition. Her work includes digital photographs of her partner and a pair of fish. She said the images are meant to portray wilderness as something that is both internal and external, calling them “a way to cope with the anxiety of our time.”

“I wouldn’t call this finished,” Goodwin said about her selection. “I imagine this as a book, eventually, if I could get 40 images that seem to fit to the theme of sort of a mystical world I’ve invented myself. But I’m still kind of researching and figuring out what that is.”

The displayed work was created by the students as part of their graduate school programs. Altman and McGrady agreed that strict deadlines and raw feedback accelerated their creative processes.

“Grad school is just kind of a mindfuck,” Altman said. “You just have to work so much faster, and it’s kind of a good thing. I think I’ve made so much more progress on this project than I would’ve outside of school, so I’m really happy about that.”

McGrady said the students produced their work quickly with frequent check-ins from other students and professors.

“You want to have the best work possible. And you want to be able to improve as much as possible, and grow and show them that you’re growing,” McGrady said. “Because these are people who will be your peers after you graduate, and you want the best feedback you can get.”

“Learning to Love the Bomb” opens April 5 at Black Iris Gallery and ends April 24.

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