by Pedro Vélez
As a proud child of the graduate-school generation, I feel no shame in professing both its benefits and tragedies, especially when it comes to financial debt. Going to art grad school is a like a horse race against time: You buy space to make art, but once the lease runs out, the real race is on and all bets are off.

The School of the Art Institute of Chicago is certainly one of the best places in the U.S. to lease that extra time, at least according to the graduate hopefuls who seemed happily comfortable in their luxurious studios during a recent visit to a much-hyped "MFA Open Studio Night." Being forced to gaze rapidly over 100 artist’s spaces, trying to find a few gems, is the type of atmosphere that brings to mind Black Friday, the manic bargain-shopping day after Thanksgiving. Adding to the ominous feeling is the size of the SAIC, with more than a dozen departments spread out among four buildings and multiple floors, including the Art Institute itself, in downtown Chicago.

We got off on the right foot with Chris Bradley, a sculpture grad fixated on the suburban experience and car culture. His studio was packed with life-size assemblages and large kinetic sculptures, often using remnants from the auto junkyard, animated by electric garage-door motors. My favorite was a witty assemblage of a plastic Christmas trees -- lights included -- fitted to a car’s roof-rack, the whole thing hung on the wall, like Leo Steinberg’s "flat-bed picture plane" (first applied to Robert Rauschenberg, of course).

A few steps down the hall, in the bowels of the building, Maya Mackrandilal had a single channel video projection with sound in which she tries to merge her face into the features of a photograph of her father. The outcome is a layered sequence that is dreamy, beautiful and heavy on identity politics -- Mackrandilal’s mother is from Guyana while her father is Belgian, and she was born in Washington, D.C.

"Graduate advisors in the sculpture department leave you on your own pretty much," she said. "Sometimes it seems that they’re afraid to tell you what they think." I noted that sculptors in the department were not making monumental objects, and she reacted with surprise. "We are stretching mediums instead of objects."

The open studios drew a visit from collectors Jefferson Godard and Sebastián Campos, whose aura -- or so we imagined -- flowed from their position on the hierarchical ladder. Whether they bought anything nobody knows, but I was satisfied watching a video, free of charge, by Saya Da Jung, a student from South Korea. Saya used to study in London and recently moved to Chicago in search of better technology and equipment. "I think I made a good choice," she said. "This school is conceptually encouraging, fully interdisciplinary, and they make you think about everything."

The school’s highly respected painting and drawing department occupies the top floors, with noble views overlooking Grant Park, the Lakefront and the AIC itself. From the bunch, I remember seeing Jonathan Gardner’s strange paintings in a group show at Corbett vs Dempsey Gallery. His work is ambiguously good and purposely made to look ugly; Gardner can paint, there’s no doubt of that. The question is whether we feel comfortable looking at these works. The critic Rachel Furnari was less thrilled, seeing too much of the Chicago Imagist tradition in his work, which Gardner seems to carry proudly.

The school has a department in "fiber and material studies," too, and there Nora Maité Nieves presented a range of sculptures and paintings made with glossy glazes, epoxies and candy-colored pigments. Her work has attitude, as is clear in the pink ooze reflecting on her inverted tabletop painting (more "flat-bed"?). The New York critic Jerry Saltz was one of her advisors. "He is very positive in general and very generous with his 35 minutes," she said. Nora paused and smiled as she added, "I have been offered money in exchange for Jerry, people die to have him in their studio, but in the end his opinion is just that, another opinion."

I think Nora is ready for the art world.

Overall, I noticed in paintings being made at the school an interest in gestural, optical abstraction, text-based works and, sadly, a lot of heavy-metal-infused imagery. The school’s printmakers are doing solid work in a wide variety of media, while the photographers seemed a little bogged down in generic urban landscapes and tame pornographic journals.

I also noticed widespread interest in record players, a now-obsolete technology (thus ready for connoisseurship), and performance-art students were having a blast, putting on acts too confusing to describe. One couple made my day with a peculiarly nasty action that involved endlessly sharing chewed pieces of pie.

A few days later, I asked my undergraduate students to comment on their education in contrast to the MFA program. "We pay too much money," said Molly Shea, "but we get more opportunities and resources than other schools." To that David Alcalde agreed and said he was lucky to have been able to participate on "portfolio day," when applicants present samples of their works. "The instructors explain what kind of work needs to be included in the application and they tell you right away whether you are ready or not for art school."

PEDRO VÉLEZ is an artist, critic and still in debt from his graduate days. He teaches one course in the Film, Video and New Media Department at the SAIC.