Remaining Themselves: The 75th CIA Student Independent Exhibition

Derek Walker, Remain Myself, on view in the CIA Student Independent Exhibition.

The 75th annual CIA Student Independent Exhibition is of unusual interest, not just for all the perennial art and education reasons, but also as creative testimony to the deep impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on students and on artists generally.

Organized by a student committee, the works on view were selected by a group of artist/educator jurors recruited from around the country. Their picks reflect broad standards of expertise, but they also explicitly, “recognize the mindful, the ingenious, the ambitious, and the curious as invaluable labor during extremely fraught times.” From the rumpled felt buttocks sticking out of a pair of jeans (“Assless Chaps” by Frank Hadzima) suspended near the Reinberger Gallery’s entrance, to the haloed, flayed and pierced figure depicted in the digital illustration “I Am So Tired,” by Eden Begley, the show visits issues of gender identification and body awareness, while proposing, piecemeal, a strikingly odd mythography of contemporary(-ish) saints and satyrs, tortured by confinement or exploding from their prisons. The forty-five student artists include painters and illustrators, sculptors and jewelers. Expressed through this wide range of materials and approaches, fragments of autobiography and familiar artistic forms and tropes give way to more trackless vistas, redirected by fatal trends and capricious cultural storms.

Megan Lubey, Girl Scout Law

Among those revisiting a less crisis-dominated past are Megan Lubey’s mixed media meditations about youthful ideals and experiences. Her “Girl Scout Law” is a mish-mash of materials including gushy pale pink and scout-green paint, cementing a potpourri of crafty doodads, from spools of thread to beads and tiny alphabet cubes. The miniature multiplicity and unforgettable textures of any childhood swirl together here into a richly evocative batter. To seal the deal, the short, serious words of scouting’s creed are pushed into the overall gooey-ness, as if  with a stick or the handle of a wooden spoon: ON MY HONOR I WILL TRY TO SERVE GOD AND MY COUNTRY  TO HELP PEOPLE AT ALL TIMES AND TO LIVE BY THE GIRL SCOUT LAW.

But not everyone remembers being quite so highly motivated. One of the exhibit’s more in-your-face transgressive paintings is a cartoonish  oil on canvas composition by Amani Williams.  Titled “Day Drinking,” it shows a solidly-built, nude young woman viewed from behind and slightly below. She grins over one shoulder as she fills a small bottle with a stream of urine. She’s located outside somewhere in the bushes, with trees and green grass. From a painter’s standpoint the work resembles an early Nicole Eisenman or Dana Schutz, because of its cheeky observational stance and a quaintly brash, mid-20th century Disney/cubist approach to form and color.

Nudity and urination aren’t always frolicsome, though, as seen in another oil on canvas work by Paxton Enstad, “Waiting for a Stall.” A young man, naked, sits cross-legged between two floor-to-shoulder style urinals. He looks out with a sidelong stare at the viewer, as he extends one arm straight up, his hand bent sideways as if he were imitating the flushing handles and mechanisms on either side. That is, he is impersonating a urinal – make of that what one will. He doesn’t seem exactly happy about it.

Michaela Quirk, Nurse Cherry

Equally ambivalent is the comic, googly eyed blue stare of “Nurse Cherry” by Michaela Quirk. The garden gnome-sized figure made of a resin and wood, silicon, foam, rhinestones and who knows what, has dropped an NT95 blue hospital mask, while stuffing an oversized hypo under her arm. She’s loaded with vaccine and groggy with over-work. Roll up your damn sleeve!

There are even a few remarkably good straight-ahead paintings in the mix. Derek Walker’s large acrylic on panel “Remain Myself,” shows the long, lean young artist resting his eyes, listening to earphones as he extends his legs clad in rumpled skinny pants and his red-laced sneakers along the cushions of a pink silk couch. His right foot scissors up a little, his right elbow rests on the stuffed couch back, and his hand curls over the top of his head, where he wears a satiny pink cloth that reads almost like a helmet.  His windbreaker is dark, except for a wide red stripe running up the front. His left hand is in his pocket. The background behind the couch nearly matches the broken black tones of his sweatpants, breaking more into gray with vertical wallpaper patterning as the work moves leftward.  The relaxed yet poised young painter, his sneakers, and especially the palpable couch, embossed with a sleepy stuttering of little white squares, are rendered with mesmerizing facility, and conviction — like an oath of patience posted on the walls of time. Even the title is good. After all, “remaining oneself” is the main job of a human at any point, especially in eras as interesting as these. Walker’s portrait is a pitch-perfect song of graceful equilibrium.


The 75th Cleveland Institute of Art Student Independent Exhibition was on view February 12 – March 12, 2021 in the Reinberger Gallery, and remains on view online at


The opinions expressed on CAN Blog are those of the individual writers. Art is somewhat subjective. Well, somewhat. But yes, everybody's a critic.

Leave a Reply