Hope Okere, "Phenomenonological Translations" | Photo: Josef Woodard

Among the many exhibitions on the Santa Barbara art landscape in a given year, the annual MFA exhibition at UCSB’s AD&A Museum stands apart and tends to generate a buzz of challenge to the viewer. As expected, but also in unexpected ways, the current MFA show, going by the umbrella title “Incandescent,” dodges easy expressive routes or more commercial considerations of for-profit galleries. 

Installation aesthetics rule here, as do larger conceptual issues posed through art combining media and messages in various interdisciplinary ways. And these Masters of Fine Art candidates aren’t afraid of rough edges and inventive complacency-busting tactics in their work. 

It should be noted that this year’s group is notably inclusive of artists beyond the white male American contingency, with a diversity of gender and nationality/race involved. Names alone bespeak the global reach of the participants, with points of origin in Iran, Nigeria, the Philippines, Mexico and beyond: Panteha Abareshi, Diego Melgoza Oceguera, Dannah Mari Hidalgo, Hope Okere, Lyra Purugganan, Mariana Roldea, and Lela Sharhrzad Welch. 

As graduate program advisor Alex Lukas explains, the exhibition as a whole involved artists working “on the cutting edge of contemporary artistic discourses that center identity, place, politics, and poetics.”

The political and protest directives are tucked within the folds of the show, starting with a wild style polemical painting by Oceguera in the entryway gallery, “Obliterate the Beast,” the beast being “profit.” The painting also serves as an apt thematic touchstone for a show about art not made for profit, necessarily, but for unhindered creative expression and exploration of identity and social issues.

Diego Melgoza Oceguera, “Reviviscencia Percusiva,” Video installation, 2024 | Photo: UCSB ‘The Current’

Oceguera’s own “gallery within a gallery” installation inside the museum — “Percussive Emancipation” — is a space transformed by collaged video projections, sculptural elements integrated into a host wall, and a visual mix of color and design. An implied political and cultural statement is made in a visceral way, without blatant messages attached.

Hidalgo, a Hawaiian finding new circumstances in Santa Barbara, takes command of the first, tall-ceilinged space in the museum, blending large paintings with the cozy centering aspect of a living room karaoke setup. The installation, “It’s in the Garage,” hints at the melding of domestic detachment and comfort with surreal angles, implied in a paradoxical “double image” overlay.

Tapping into expressly current event status, the subject of campus unrest concerning the Israel/Gaza tragedy and divestment protests — which relates to UCSB’s own ongoing encampment — makes its way into Rodela’s edgy-cheeky installation “Jumbotron XXIV.” Specific references to UCSB abound, in school colors, flags and half-satirical nods to Gaucho athletics, and a component of three video monitors encased in AstroTurf includes a reference to “UCSB Divest.”

Dannah Mari Hidalgo, “It’s In the Garage,” 2022, Acrylic and oil on canvas, 72in x 96in | Photo: UCSB ‘The Current’

Nestled amidst the Gaucho-mania of Rodela’s display, in the corner of this gallery space, Purugganan’s “from the ground up (the house extends forever)” deploys a minimalist approach to notions of home and personal grounding. She uses such simple materials as treated bricks to lace embroidery and personal space-implying screens, with a sly ulterior agenda in tow.

A still from “movement:::Water / movement:::Support,” choreographed by Hope Okere | Photo: Hope Okere

Creating her own immersive atmosphere in the dim-lit back gallery, artist and dancer Okere’s “Phenomenological Translations” explores her Nigerian roots through art and also her work as a dancer. Dance movements are projected via video on gauzy fabric sheets and tent-like structures, examining her sense of “Afro-futurism with Orisha spiritual references.” The end result is an impression of dreamy mythos in a softly-lit space all of its own.

(Okere will perform her choreographed work “movement:::Water movement::: Support” at the Red Barn Gallery, at the old UCSB gym, on Saturday, June 1 at 8 p.m.)

By contrast, Abareshi’s brashly colorful and mock-playful “A Closed System” is a loaded assemblage piece, like a microcosmic urban setting with toy train-like facsimiles of buildings and imposing structures suggesting medical and political power structures at work behind the facade of order. 

Unease of a different color emerges in the gallery mostly devoted to the multi-media sculptural and video construct of Iranian Shahrzad Welch’s art. Suggestions of a bondage-referential dance enlivens the room in a gritty way, reflecting the sense of dark beauty amid dysfunction in the work.

Once again, the MFA show offers much to admire, inspire, perplex and speculate upon. It’s a must-see for any aware art-watcher in these parts. 

As an added bonus to the multi-sensory experience of taking it all in, the museum basks in the pleasant cognitive dissonance issuing from Hidalgo’s faux karaoke scenario. On a loop, we hear the dulcet cheesy tones of the pop tart of Bread’s soft rock classic “Everything I Own,” while pondering serious artistic manifestations, both fine and rough.

UCSB’s MFA Exhibition, “Incandescent,” is on view at the UCSB Art, Architecture & Design Museum through June 9. Gallery hours are Wednesday–Sunday: 12–5 p.m.

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