What Do Dolphins and Stress Balls Have in Common?

At Hunter College’s MFA thesis show Untamed & Beautiful Pathways, on view through May 12, six artists come together to decode the beauty of modern life and the challenges that come along with it. Unfolding across the school’s 205 Hudson Gallery in Manhattan, the result is an exhibition that not only expresses each artist’s singular vision but also speaks to their fervent need for creation and daily practice. 

The show opens with large-scale paintings by Alex Choi, whose massive canvases are covered with layers of vibrant paint with finger-sized marks that claw through the strata to expose colors and patterns underneath. Choi described these works to Hyperallergic in relation to a Korean folk story that suggests children should play unfinishable games, such as toying with sand, to encourage them to explore their own creativity. Choi brings this ethos into his work, wherein he constantly updates, rearranges, and shifts the composition depending on his mood, adding thick layers and removing others until he’s satisfied with the arrangement of pigments they reveal.

Alex Choi extravaganza hunter MFA
Alex Choi, “Extravaganza” (2024), oil on wood panel, 96 x 120 inches

To the right of Choi’s paintings are works by Jacob Littlejohn, a Scottish visual artist whose work explores the wonders of the cosmos. Littlejohn cites French poet and artist Jean Cocteau, Scottish folklore, and Medieval manuscripts as his inspiration for this body of work. In one section, he condensed imagery of a star onto dozens of tiny copper plates, playing with the absurdity of the expansiveness of outer space. On an adjacent wall, large-scale canvases act as a counterpoint, speaking instead to the infinite unknowns of the universe. 

Kimin Kim’s sculptural installation hits closer to home. His thesis presentation acts as a metaphor for his family and the process of grief after his father was hospitalized for a stroke. Kim poured 300 pounds of cement onto the gallery floor and placed thousands of yellow smiley-face stress balls on top, reminiscent of the stress ball given to his father at the hospital. Kim urges visitors to step on the spongy surface, to feel how the stress balls interact with the cement, which he told Hyperallergic he calls a “binding agent” — a representation of his mother and father’s relationship.

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Kimin Kim, “Family Portrait I” (2024), inkjet print, 23 1/2 x 36 inches, amid a sea of smiley-face stress balls
Kimin Kim One for you and one for me
Kimin Kim, “One For You and One For Me” (2024), cement, stress balls, and walker parts, 24 x 26 x 70 inches

In an adjoining installation, “One For You and One For Me,” the artist references his own mortality through two stacked metal walkers, one of which was his father’s and the other reserved for his future self: Given that his family has a history of strokes, perhaps he is next. Kim paradoxically infuses the installation with a sense of playfulness through the whimsical stress balls and unconventional artistic mediums, such as cement-filled condom sculptures, offering visitors a surprisingly joyful and engaging experience despite its somber core.

Rounding out the exhibition on the second floor are works by Ryan Johnson, Jacob Lay, and Chloé Wilcox. Johnson’s plein-air paintings ask and answer the question of what it means to paint a landscape in our current moment. In this series, Johnson painted on-site around New York City, in his studio, and in nature, reflecting on the broader changing of the seasons and how to paint a slowly disappearing light source. Jacob Lay’s paintings and drawings in an adjoining room are inherently individual in their visual jumps in style but steeped in art historical references to portraiture, depictions of nude women, and cartoons. On one wall hang two nearly identical female nude portraits. Both women stare up at the viewer, each holding up a glass of wine filled to the brim as if they are toasting to us. Next to these works, quite unsettlingly, we’re met with a larger canvas that depicts a cartoon zombie chasing after a slice of greasy pizza. In both sets of works, Lay attempts to balance the uncanny and the historical with the medium of painting.

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Jacob Lay, “The Chase” (2024), acrylic and flashe on canvas, 40 x 68 inches (left) and “zoned out girl with sunflower” (2024), oil on canvas, 20 x 24 inches

Nearby are works by sculptor Chloé Wilcox, who combines a fascination with dolphins with intricate skills across various mediums, resulting in scenes that are both wondrous and filled with humor. A papier-mâché mannequin leans forward as if mid-sway, while a pod of smaller cement-filled dolphin toys can be found swimming around and underneath a makeshift cove created out of styrofoam. Opposite the mannequin, a dolphin’s head created out of a mop covered in rubber seems to poke out from the gallery floor, welcoming us to step into Wilcox’s world where, like her peers, she has no choice but to make art.

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Ryan Johnson, left to right: “London Planes” (March 2024), “Daffodils” (April 2024), and “Late Light” (February 2024), all oil on linen mounted on panel, 18 x 24 inches
Chloe Wilcox Hunter MFA
Works by Chloé Wilcox, including “Tower” in the foreground, “Reach” back right, and “Flotsam” back left (all 2024)

Untamed & Beautiful Pathways continues at the 205 Hudson Gallery (205 Hudson Street, Tribeca, Manhattan) through May 12. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

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