The basement of 48 Winthrop on November 15 was not your typical party scene. Artists and viewers chattered indistinctly about discomfort and artistic intent, all dressed in thrifty formal clothing and sipping on jalapeño margaritas. The room was filled with strange and subversive juxtapositions: a visceral life-size charcoal portrait that you would expect to see at an exclusive exhibition opening in the MFA against the backdrop of a grimy, stained, grey brick wall; cohorts of Tufts students having a fervid discussion around a video installation in a student basement rather than playing a fervid game of beer pong.
The group responsible for this exhibition was Polykhroma, a collective of students unaffiliated with Tufts who curate art exhibitions to showcase student work in an accessible way. Polykhroma’s most recent show on November 15 tackled the theme of discomfort. Showcasing student work from across the Boston area, the exhibition filled the basement of an off-campus student house with an astounding turnout of more than 100 people.
By blurring the boundary between the artistic and the social and subverting the traditional notion of a minimalist, white-walled gallery space, Polykhroma not only democratizes art for the Tufts student body, but also brings together artists and passionate students from around the Boston area to foster community.
Jillian Impastato, a founding member of the group, explained how Polykhroma came together in December 2016. “There were a bunch of people on the board of the Tufts University Art Gallery (TUAG), and they wanted to do a show of student artwork. The TUAG said no, and the students were like, ‘that’s dumb, let’s do it ourselves.’ There were some Art History majors, a few dual-degree people, but there were also plenty of people who weren’t academically pursuing art, so it was really cool that we could come together and make these events really accessible.”
A primary reason for the creation of Polykhroma was the lack of accessible spaces for artistic engagement both within the Tufts and the Greater Boston student communities. Jamie Brewton, a sophomore student in the Combined Degree Program who exhibited a video installation at the show, was drawn to Polykhroma because of the lack of space elsewhere for SMFA students to show their art. “This is such an objectively good thing,” said Brewton. “In the SMFA, you’re either part of a class show or you enter a competition to get your art seen. I feel it is a sentiment that a lot of Combined Degree students share: we make giant portfolios for our review board, for credits and classes, but then we can’t even show our work to anyone.”
Polykhroma is intended to be casual and invitational, unlike most white-cube gallery exhibits that have historically been dominated by upper class White men. Polykhroma also strays from the formal, often quiet and asocial environment of a gallery space by making the exhibit part-party, part-exhibition.
“It’s a nice balance between seeing art and going to a party…it’s more of an organic community moment because you can meet friends and talk about the work with them while also enjoying the music, which makes it a more engaging, positive, and communal experience,” said Priya Skelly, a junior at Tufts and a member of Polykhroma. “It feels very empowering to me.”
Skelly also explained the process through which Polykhroma collects and chooses the work to be exhibited. Artists who want to exhibit work fill out a Google form circulated on various social media platforms. The group then comes together, goes through each submission and democratically decides which pieces are to be exhibited.
Impastato explained the lack of hierarchical structure within Polykhroma, saying, “[W]hile I’m the longest standing member, we…think that being a collective is really important; there’s no president or vice-president or anything.”
Polykhroma’s separation from Tufts as an institution not only allows them to exhibit work with students across the Boston area, but also allows them certain freedoms that they would not otherwise have. They can serve alcoholic beverages, hold the events as late as they like, and exhibit artwork that may not be deemed appropriate by the University.
“It’s what we are making and presenting. It’s not layers and layers of bureaucratic red tape, and there’s no funding and donors and all of that. But there’s not a lot of budget. Selling drinks can offset the cost of hooks and poster putty. But if we lose any money, then we pick it up ourselves. So we’re trying to be very self-sufficient,” said Impastato.
Brewton also discussed the merits of Polykhroma not being affiliated with Tufts, commenting that it was refreshing to see the huge number of people who came to the show and engaged with the art. “I got a bunch of people’s numbers and it was a really good networking opportunity. I also got a text from a freshman that I met a really long time ago saying ‘I really liked your work’ and that was such an amazing feeling that I hadn’t experienced much before.”
Brewton’s video installation, placed at the entrance of the show, commented on the sexualization of Asian women. Brewton is the protagonist of the video, dressed in fluorescent green and pink clothing and makeup that matched. The props and background of the video mimicked her kitsch aesthetic, and the audience watched in puzzlement and mild discomfort as she ate an entire cake. The gluttony and crude vulgarity of Brewton eating an entire cake subverts traditional moral and sexual stereotypes of Asian women as petite, delicate and childlike. This subversion is emphasized by its juxtaposition with the video’s aesthetic, which conforms to Asian female stereotypes.
“I could easily see how a student on a Friday night would not even think twice about the statement and view the art at its face value, which I think is a little bit dangerous, but probably a necessary thing,” Brewton explained. Misinterpreting artistic intention sometimes does a disservice to the work, but Brewton elaborated that this is a small price to pay in the face of the benefits Polykhroma brings in terms of accessibility.
While Polykhroma satisfies the demand to show more student work, it also exists as part of a larger ecosystem at Tufts. Impastato referenced numerous aspects of the Tufts art scene. She mentioned art shows in apartments curated by SMFA students, the Art Sale, the Tufts Art Gallery, which people can go to for free, the Tower Gallery, and advocacy groups, such as Active Minds, that showcase student artwork. She added, “I think it’s important to see these as satellite sites, since there’s art being showcased everywhere.”
Polykhroma has created an atmosphere in which students can curate and create art outside of rigid gallery settings, producing content that meets the viewer where they are, regardless of background or previous exposure. Only a group such as this could manage to turn a dingy off-campus basement into a shrine of creativity that encourages students to display and consume art in a way that is socially intimate, inclusive, and accessible.