"What's it like having a career as an artist?" Michael Zheng posed this question to his former classmates at the San Francisco Art Institute as they approached the five-year mark since graduating with MFA's. In preparation for his new show The Profession, the San Francisco based artist conducted extensive video interviews with thirty-seven alumnae to discuss their experience as artists since graduation. With just a fraction of art school graduates succeeding in the gallery world, Zheng expected to wade through depressing accounts of art world misery. However, while stories of maturation through struggle were common, surrender and a sense of failure were not. "I was blown away," said Zheng, "by the passion, resourcefulness and commitment artists in this class have to living life as artists, to making work however it can be made, and to seeing that it gets shown." Curated by Steven Wolf Fine Arts, and inspired by Michael Apted's documentary series Up, The Profession will premiere at Maria Abramovic Institute West on Friday, May 21, and run through July 2. The exhibition will consist of multiple video projections of subject interviews with Zheng and a blog at http://theprofessionblog.wordpress.com/ hosted by the artist, which he hopes will serve to expand the scope of the project, allowing viewers to participate in the dialogues begun in the physical space of the show.
The Profession adds to a growing critical discourse on the contemporary art world as it expands and becomes more professionalized due to the proliferation of MFA studio programs. In the interviews, Zheng asks the artists a variety of questions--what are the challenges to maintaining a studio practice? What has been your experience with commercial galleries? How has art school prepared or failed to prepare you for careers in contemporary art? The breadth of these topics allow for a rare chance to see artists open up not only about their work but about their lives.
The Profession isn't the first time Zheng has chosen his fellow classmates as his subject. For his MFA exhibition at SFAI he produced a large red banner for each of his fellow exhibitors, their name printed in gold. The eighty-eight banners were hung parade style throughout Herbst Pavillion, filling the space above the show. The installation had strong reactions: some saw it as an act of generosity, others an attempt to steal the spotlight. Zheng admits he has a complicated relationship with his class, although it's one he hopes to revisit every 5-10 years as they all move through the art world, exploring issues of commercial success, creative challenges, financial hardship and the value of art school as a preparation for life in the art world.
Michael Zheng was born in the People's Republic of China and now lives and works in San Francisco. He has shown at the Macao Art Museum, Macao, the Vancouver Biennial, Vancouver, BC, Freies Museum, Berlin, Germany, ICA London and numerous galleries in the U.S., Europe and Asia. Steven Wolf Fine Arts exhibits post war and contemporary art in all media and is currently in the process of relocating to a new space in San Francisco. Marina Abramovic Institute WEST (MAI West) was established to help preserve performance and to increase its audience. The Institute's goal, according to its eponymous founder, is to inspire research, as well as to foster creativity and collaboration among an international network of artists, whose mediums range from performance, dance, and theater, to film, video, opera, and music. The San Francisco Institute, located at 575 Sutter St (Union Square), has a two floor 13,000 sq. ft. exhibition space and lofts for an artist residency program on the floors above. The main MAI is located in Hudson, New York and will open in 2014.