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MASTERS: You Wu

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You Wu’s studio wall at Towson University displays a printed advertisement for a bulk amount of pre-packed meals worth $6,500, enough to last through the end of the world.  Playing on the commodification of fear and capitalism’s collapse, Wu’s practice integrates technology with fibers—they are currently programming a robotic safety vest that will activate with sound when someone gets too close.

Painting used to be Wu’s primary medium, and when I saw their work for the first time I was immediately enamored with paintings that resemble technicolor aquarium landscapes. I wanted to interview Wu based on the strength of those paintings, but it was a pleasant surprise when I visited their studio and was told that the paintings were “over there,” rolled up in a corner. Wu’s practice has evolved since they graduated from MICA with a BFA in Painting in 2017. Currently the Studio Art MFA candidate’s focus is primarily making neon objects that are variations of leisure and sport products, a commentary on the commodification of health via wellness/athleisure culture. 

Wu credits Hieronymus Bosch as a significant influence, whose hyper-surreal work has greatly informed their work in graduate school. For a piece in the Creative Alliance group exhibition On the Verge: 25 New and Emerging Artists, Wu created an artificial pool where visitors could suspend reality and pretend they were engaging in a leisure activity in the midst of the crowded gallery. This playful manipulation of objects to create immersive works where viewers can have a tactile experience is the hallmark of Wu’s practice. Like a slantwise Bosch, Wu’s work subverts reality skillfully.

Since 2017, Wu has only purchased black clothing, a choice that seems antithetical to the expressive neon works they create. But after visiting their studio it all makes sense: the studio is an extension of the hybridization of their practice. The mundane and the excessive, and the delightful giving way to the severe and morbid—neon-colored body bags/sleeping bags, ineffective barbells sewn out of cloth, harnesses—this shift from the paintings they made before is at once severe and graceful. 

The studio walls are intentionally sparse to help Wu focus on whatever new thing they are making. Wu’s dedication to creation is admirable, and this attention to detail translates across their work, a playful engagement with language and craft that stitches meaning into neon fabric objects. 

Artist: You Wu
Pictured wearing: Adidas shoes, Everlane jeans, Uniqlo turtleneck, shirt dress from Zara worn as a jacket.
Instagram: @you__wu
Graduate Institution: Towson University, Studio Art MFA
Cost of attendance (including tuition, room & board): $29,198 per year (MD Resident, on/off campus)

Photos by Schaun Champion

Teri Henderson: Where are you from? Where are your roots? Where are your people from?

You Wu: I was raised in Shenzhen, China and I am an only child. It is hard to answer the rest of the questions because my family is very complicated. My mother’s family is Hakka from Guangdong (Canton) and my father’s family is Miao. However, both of their families relocated before they were even born. I don’t actually know the details of relocations, because neither of my parents like to talk about this part of the family history. I have never met my grandfather from my dad’s side and my maternal grandfather passed away. I vaguely know that these relocations are direct results of the rapid regime shifts that occurred in China in the last century: from revolutions to the wars, and from wars to revolutions.

When you came to Towson, what were you studying originally? 

When I applied, I was thinking of developing my painting. So I was working with mostly the painting committee, but since then I have started exploring three-dimensional possibilities in my work.

Why did you go to graduate school?

I think after I graduated from MICA in 2017 I was feeling a little lost. I was working a lot of different jobs and I was not passionate about the work I was doing. I used school in a different way. I wish I didn’t focus on one body of work for a whole year of school. I was thinking that I needed to go back to graduate school to really push myself in another direction. So I applied to a few state schools, because I didn’t want to spend that much money on a private graduate school. 

What were the pros and cons for you, in thinking about private vs. public MFA programs?

There’s a lot more cross-disciplinary resources for me to access at a university than at an art school. I can literally email the electrical engineering department and be like, “Can you help me with this thing?” And they can fix it in five minutes. You’re not making art in a vacuum. Even the art show here at Towson U right now [Stacy Levy: Watershed] is a collaboration between the art department and the Office of Sustainability and the biology department. I applied to three schools and ultimately chose Towson because it was economically viable. My tuition is all covered.

Oh wow. How does that work?

I have to work 20 hours a week teaching and I’m also a gallery assistant. But since I am very interested in working for a museum or a gallery, I think it’s good career development. I like that it’s covering my tuition and, at the same time, I’m learning even more by working. And they also told me that I could teach a class, and they pay me as an adjunct. I am in my fourth semester, so I am a second-year graduate student. This is a three-year program.

The teaching position is a paid adjunct position that all graduate students may be qualified for. You usually are assigned a non-major class within your discipline. For example, if you are a sculptor, you are typically assigned to teach Sculpture for non-art majors. However, if you are someone who works with multiple mediums and processes, you get to pick a preferred class. Although I primarily make sculptural forms, I am currently teaching drawing for non-art majors due to my background in painting. 

To qualify for adjunct teaching, you need to first TA for a class in your discipline while finishing a course called Seminar On College-Level Teaching. This course helps in structuring a college-level course from scratch. You will also discuss issues (personal and political) you might encounter when working in an academic institution, and how to approach these issues. After finishing the course, you just need to finish at least 30 credits to be hired as an adjunct while in school. It’s a pretty sweet deal.

I’m not spending a crazy amount of money on a degree that I’m not sure if I can go out and survive. So I think that’s one of the biggest reasons. I like this place. Baltimore is nice. I work with Current Space a lot and help them with shows and moving things around. 

What places in Baltimore inspire you the most? 

I think it’s not just the place, it’s also the people. Baltimore has really, really pretty architecture and I enjoy it, especially the area around Current Space in the Bromo Arts District. It used to be Chinatown, but before that it had been a white neighborhood. I don’t want to get into the history of it, but going there I can picture it all. I imagine a lot of immigrants used to live there. 

I think it’s interesting how people flow together here, and at the same time, I’m inspired by the resilience of people here. In Baltimore, a lot of artists are activists. That’s another reason I wanted to stay at Current because at the time I began working there they were [in the process of purchasing the building] and fighting for the space. It’s a great thing for the neighborhood. Helping out at Current Space is where I make most of my connections in Baltimore.

Baltimore might not have the glamour appeal of other big cities such as NYC, LA, SF, and Chicago. But this city is so resilient because of all the talented individuals, unique personalities, and welcoming spaces here.

Could you do anything else besides being an artist? 

I think yes, but not really, because I’m really interested in researching. You know, I could see myself being a scientist—but then again, I don’t, I cannot because I don’t want to work on a project that has so many layers of management. I think being an artist is doing research on what you want to research, but you speak in your own voice.

How do you take care of yourself?

I actually go to the gym and I have gotten into rock climbing. It’s sort of like art too, because it’s problem solving. It’s also really visually stimulating in a way. I also snuggle with my cat, Louis.

What is an average day in the studio like for you?

I take a nap in my studio as soon as I arrive. It’s needed. It’s like you are clearing the whole other world out of your body. You wake up and you’re one with your art. So I usually come in, I get my laptop out, I see what I have to do. 

What are you working on now in your studio? 

I’m working on a safety vest. I’ve been taking this interactive media class and I’ve been interested in smart tech style. I had this idea of safety, but then at the same time, it’s all about making fun of this culture. So this whole state of being on alert when someone is invading your personal space or someone’s getting too close to you. I’m going to make one with sensors and then connect it to speakers. I’m not gonna put any music in there. 

[Author’s note: When someone gets too close to the person who is wearing the vest, a high pitched sound will erupt.] 

How do you describe your practice?

Textile artist. I am currently building towards an installation that mimics the proliferating outdoorsy/athleisure stores that will be filled with my fictional goods. My fictional objects mimic the aesthetics (form/material) of this specific culture, but the objects are usually surreal or absurd, such as floppy dumbbells and fashionable body bags (for corpses). So I did this [gestures to object] as a body bag, but also a sleeping bag. If you google “body bag,” you get a few different images of the types of body bags. So there’s a sleeping bag and also a body bag. It’s a weird juxtaposition of how our culture is living through these words that have really vague meanings and [the art is] visualizations of those words. That [gestures towards wall] is a harness—there’s often a connection between sports and fetish. So you think about a safety harness and there’s also a fetishized version of that harness that looks pretty much similar. 

I am very intrigued by the fetishization of commodities. To me, the way that all this corporate lingo that ties products to “environmentalism,” “sustainability,” “equality,” and “social justice” is so hilariously ironic. The functions of these products are irrelevant anymore. It’s about what they represent, or it is about what they make you feel like you represent as a consumer. So you could see my sculptures as satire. I also just use humor as a coping mechanism in general, which has gotten me into unnecessary complex situations in my personal life.

Can you list the most commonly used supplies in your practice and where you get them from?

Textiles. I try to use fabrics from thrift stores, remnant boxes, and fabric scrap shops before I purchase brand new materials. I have recently discovered some polyesters and nylons made from recycled plastic. However, these materials are not exactly accessible due to the price or the sales model. So I work with fabric, sports jerseys, performance fabric, tiny computer/ electronic parts. I literally Google “polyester performance wear” and go to whatever store comes up. I find it fun.

Would you be able to make the work that you’re making without having gone to graduate school?

I don’t think so. I did my undergraduate degree in painting and I was still doing a lot of paintings when I first started graduate school. I did not know how to sew at all! I think I was too afraid of “imperfection.”

What has been your greatest struggle in this program? 

Sometimes it is hard to balance studio time and graduate assistantships/teaching. But I can’t really complain because I am getting tuition waivers via graduate assistantships and getting paid as an adjunct for teaching. 

If you could give a single piece of advice to an upcoming Towson MFA student what would it be? What wisdom would you impart to an individual who is in the process of applying to your institution?

They should not overlook the abundant resources that are at their disposal. That is to say, to keep an open mind in terms of material, process, and even subject matter. It’s essential to know what you are interested in doing for your MFA, but it is also important to expand your knowledge.

How have you built community at Towson? How have you built community in Baltimore?

The program is very small so everyone got to know each other pretty quickly here. Most of my connections at Towson are through school.  

Who are the artists at Towson that you have trained under that you are most proud of? What connections are you most proud of? 

I love everyone I am currently working with right now: Amanda Burnham, Jim Condron, Phil Davis, and Carrie Fucile. I have only worked with Nora Sturges for two semesters but she has been extremely helpful. I don’t know what connections I am most proud of. I just really love everyone I know.

What are your post-graduation plans?

I don’t know yet. Baltimore has been great and I really love everyone here. However, I think migration is in my blood (see family history above), and I want to try to live somewhere else for a few years.

 

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The purpose of MASTERS is to highlight artists who are studying in graduate programs in the Baltimore area, and to allow other creatives the opportunity to see what it is like to be a graduate student in the arts.

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