Exhibition Visit – MFA Thesis shows – Towson University
soft.ware & Collectors: A Family History
You Wu and Kat Pfeiffer
First can you introduce yourselves and your focus during your time at Towson ?
Y: I’m from Shenzhen, China. I got my BFA in Painting with a concentration in Photography from MICA. I was painting and taking photos before I started grad school. Even the first semester of grad school I was focusing more on painting–acrylic on canvas, paper–and I was using a lot of imagery from plastic waste. However, members of faculty advised me to try to create something more immersive. At first, I interpreted “immersive” as larger scales, but then I realized to make things more immersive I needed to branch out. I started making a lot of soft sculptures and installations. That’s how I switched from 2D to 3D. I’ve now been focusing on soft sculptures commenting on labor, especially bodily labor, in manufacturing. I also currently experimenting with video as a format.
K: I have a different background than many artists I know, because I didn’t go to art school right off the bat. I actually graduated from UMBC with a degree in Information Systems and worked as a Network Engineer for two years. It was really interesting; I do love technology and it was a cool job in a lot of ways, but I always loved art so much growing up. Writing, reading, drawing, and painting have always been a crucial part of my life, so being immersed full-time in making art was something I wanted to experience. It’s been a crazy, twisting journey, but I think it’s a strength to have a different background since I can come up with out-of-the-box ideas. I focus on Illustration here at Towson, making experimental graphic novels that center on my life and my family’s history. I use a variety of media, painting, drawing, and collage to combine my poems and stories with images.
What was it like finishing your MFA during the pandemic? How did it change or affect your exhibitions?
Y: I would say, aft first, the exhibition is definitely different from how I imagined it to be. I have always wanted the audience to be able to interact with my pieces through touch; I want them to feel the texture of the objects I made. But since the pandemic started, I realized I needed to figure out different ways to present the work than what I had originally intended .Throughout grad-school, I have been trying to figure out ways to convince the audience to touch artworks in a gallery setting. I was looking at Franz West’s work, and what strategies museums implemented to convince the audience to touch his sculptures. And then 2020 rolls around, I suddenly have a new problem to solve – the virus. I can’t blame the audience for not wanting to touch things. I was definitely in-denial until last fall. During the summer, I thought things would get better, just like in other countries; and it did not! I’m still very grateful that we can actually have an in-person show, and some people can still experience our work in a physical way.
K: I went in planning for it to be an in-person show and based my exhibition around that. So I just built it hoping people could come see it, even though I had a pessimistic suspicion that it wouldn’t happen. But I am really grateful we had the opportunity to do a physical show together in the same space. And while there wasn’t a big party for the opening, people have still been able to come in and view it. Even just having one person in the exhibition is enough for me, because my show is about empathy and connecting to people. I used my experiences to create a larger narrative of what I’ve gone through, and what my family’s gone through. Setting up the exhibition space was an extension of that idea, building off the environments in my grandparents’ home. I think if we couldn’t have a physical show, I would have just built it in my house.
Y: I think part of getting an MFA is being able to figure out how to present your artwork in a physical space: planning the show, doing the promotion, writing the statement and bio, installing in the gallery, and talking to people about the show.
K: In the beginning, we made a SketchUp model of how we wanted to organize the gallery. It was a great experience, especially since I wasn’t certain how I wanted to build the show until we started planning with 3D modeling. And then, when I found something I liked, it all came together naturally. It was fun to go through that process: making the art, developing the exhibition plan, and coordinating with the gallery director.
What would you like viewers to take away from your work? What do you hope to communicate?
(TW: suicide) Y: I have strong concepts going in, however, I think when the work is out there I can’t really control how people perceive it. At a show, audiences can come up to me and talk about the work and can understand my research behind it. My focus with this show is labor, especially bodily labor in manufacturing, because I come from a town(Shenzhen) where a lot of consumer electronics were manufactured in. One of the most famous factories is Foxconn which is an Apple assembly factory. There’s a lot of unethical practices going on there and a number of the workers have committed suicide over the years. One of the works in the show is called “My Day Off,” which is a direct response to that toxic “work or die” culture. However, I think this is not a localized problem; we are conditioned to desire cheap new products.I live in this somewhat late-capitalist society–I love products, shiny new products that bring me joy. Even when I am making this body of work, I can’t help myself buying whatever Instagram promotes to me. So I want to depict that sinful joy of consuming and the grotesque behind beautiful objects in my work.
K: Mine is more literal, in a way, since all the work I made is about communicating with people. I think illustrating is a form of visual problem solving, where you’re trying to communicate an idea. So the more that happens, the more successful I feel like I’ve been. I wanted to create a sense of immersion in my exhibition, which is why I transformed the space into a room. I got the furniture and tried to make it like a living collage — a 3D version of my work. I usually do 2D drawings or paintings, but I have this kind of visual motif where I’ll do three little lines going in all directions as a texture, so I decided to replicate that on the furniture as well, using contrasting colors to make it feel like you were in one of my illustrations.
I also wanted to recreate my grandparents’ house in a way, so I put a ton of things everywhere. I went to the thrift store and got a bunch of knick-knacks that reminded me of them, objects relating to Catholicism, their hobbies, things they collect, and Pennsylvania Dutch heritage. Through painting and setting up furniture and placing those objects around the exhibition, I hope to simulate the experience of being in my grandparents’ house and being a member of our family.
My exhibition is split into two books: my illustrated journal, which is similar to an autobiography, and Collectors, a family history book that is about my grandpa. I printed a bunch of copies of both books and placed them around the room so people can experience the story in a lot of different ways. I think in viewing larger works you can sometimes feel rushed, due to the other people around you, so it’s hard to take the time to read or view it fully. But with copies of books, you can grab one and take your time looking at the drawings.
The name for Collectors comes from my family’s personality — on my mom’s side of the family there’s this running joke: “If one’s good, then ten’s better.” So there’s infinite cookie jars, knick-knacks, cars, watches, figurines, cookbooks, and ephemera that we have a tendency to gather. We also have a huge family; so, in a way, we collect family members. When I was drawing the illustrations and putting the show together, I realized that my tendency to use collage and mixed media was related to that collecting habit as well, and the name stuck.
Transitioning out of graduate school is tough for everyone, especially during this time, have these circumstances changed where you see your work going in the future?
K: While the isolation has been difficult, I think the pandemic had a good influence on my work in some ways. When I started grad school, I had this bad habit of being a people pleaser with my art and making art that I thought people wanted to see. After I stopped being in school and in that environment, I felt like I was able to get weirder and weirder with my work. So there was a little more freedom being able to work in my home without thinking anyone would see it. I had time to create a cohesive vision and started using a lot of collage, sewing, and mixed media. Even though my work is non-traditional and everything gets thrown in at once, I like it that way, and I’m just going to go forward with it. After transitioning out of grad school and into future endeavors, I will continue to embrace my own voice. It was a weird breakthrough that I didn’t expect to happen the way that it did, but I’m grateful for it.
Y: I really appreciate faculty and peers coming to my studio with helpful advice, but the act of someone coming into your studio feels very invasive; you feel like you have to explain everything (even the experimental works.) I often felt that because we were in the same physical space, I must have to present all the answers for them. So I agree that the pandemic allowed for time to slow down, and it allowed me to make more experimental works. I also spend more time thinking about my work in terms of video documentation. I did a lot of on-site/in-person performances throughout grad school and I never really thought about video performances and documentation as a format. So during this time I’ve been trying to experiment with that format with the equipment/space I have access to.
What’s next for you both? Any plans, future exhibitions, anything to promote, etc.
Y: I don’t have any future exhibitions at the moment. I have a few projects that are time-intensive that I didn’t get to complete in grad school because the turn around times are so fast. I do have things I want to pursue.
K: I also don’t have any exhibitions coming up, but I’ve been sending books off to graphic novel publishers and am hoping to hear back. I just want to keep working on that and maybe publish some smaller excerpts as zines. I’m also looking forward to making larger-scale illustrations and expanding the ideas I’ve been developing in grad school.
Top TV, Game, Entertainment pandemic picks? What are you doing outside of your studio practice ?
Y: We play Stardew Valley together–
K: –and we just got Valheim.
Y: During the pandemic I started playing survival games where you farm and live in the middle of nowhere. You have chickens and crops and…it’s just the idea of wanting to live a simpler life after the pandemic. I also binged Alone. It’s like all of us last March in the first week where we have all the time in the world and can do whatever we want, but now it’s like um I kinda want to leave, can I tap out?
K: Recently, I’ve been interested in short stories that show you a bigger picture, particularly modernist novels. Dubliners by James Joyce was a big influence on my work. I’ve also been reading Virginia Woolf–Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse are two amazing books. They’re the type of books I didn’t appreciate when I was younger because I thought they were boring and had no plot. But the point is there isn’t a plot, like how the pandemic doesn’t really have a plot; it’s just living, but there is significance in every moment.
Y: I’ve been revisiting the Political theory books I read in undergrad, like Manufacturing Consent and some of The Second Sex to see where my thesis would go. I’ve been getting into so many podcasts since the pandemic started. I really love Lexicon Valley, which is a linguistics podcast. I’m bilingual with English as my second language, so I am really interested in how languages work. They also cover current topics like defunding the police and why slogans are designed to be striking.I just started listening to Red Scare. The ladies are super funny. People call the podcast “the dirtbag Left” where super vulgar language is used to talk about politics.
Where can viewers / readers follow you on the internet?
K: katpfeiffer.com and @katpfeifferart on instagram
Y: you-wu.com and @you__wu on instagram. I do have a Vimeo account, but everything is linked on my website.