Chazen Museum of Art names Cat Birk as winner of 2024 Panczenko MFA Prize
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Chazen Museum of Art names Cat Birk as winner of 2024 Panczenko MFA Prize
Cat Birk, destroy me, April 2024. 207 Rebound™ 25 silicone tiles cast from the surfaces of three paintings, upholstery tacks, magnets, miniature pony figurines, 102 x 328 in.

MADISON, WIS.- The Chazen Museum of Art has selected artist Cat Birk (b. 1994) as the 2024 Russell and Paula Panczenko MFA Prize winner. A current MFA candidate in the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s art department, Birk’s work is the focus of a solo exhibition at the Chazen open through July 14.

“My mother is a horse. An exhibition by Cat Birk” presents paintings, silicone surfaces, prints and sculpture in an exploration of how images and objects serve as catalysts of identity formation. Birk emphasizes t4t (trans for trans), the vital network of transgender solidarity and mutual aid, in an examination of embodiment and relationships. With references to organizing structures such as the grid, minimalist sculpture and queer politics, Birk presents connections between material objects and intangible social networks.

In the installation, abstraction is used in part to symbolize changing human bodies. With repetition, vivid color and malleable materials such as thick paint, molded beeswax and cast silicone, Birk reshapes, combines and mutates images as a metaphor for sculpting oneself. The artist also considers variations on object surface and the parallels in how bodies are presented to the world. Drawing inspiration from trans literature, romantic encounters and horse girl memes, Birk credits these images as playing an important part of forming their own transgender identity.

“Seeing myself in these images changes how I understand my embodiment and expands the web of relationships that forms my identity,” said Birk. “These relationships are a source of strength and comfort. I coat the surface of my body with these images like a protective membrane.”

The centerpiece of the exhibition is a full wall featuring more than 200 silicone cast works. Based on three 11” x 14” paintings, each has been cast 69 times creating multiple yet unique versions of the originals. Birk’s experimental approach with duplication recontextualizes the hierarchical relationship between copy and original. With a focus on intimacy and reciprocity, Birk’s references to the mutable and imperfect casting process speak to elements of ambiguity, surprise and beauty in nature.

“Weaving webs between image, self and community, I want this exhibition to transform my images into an emotional support t4t network,” said Birk.

“The Chazen has partnered with the University’s art department for 12 years to share innovative work from emerging artists,” said Amy Gilman, director of the Chazen Museum of Art. “This year’s Russell and Paula Panczenko MFA Prize winner Cat Birk has an important perspective to share, using abstraction to tell a deeper story of self-reflection, identity formation and relationships in an act of solidarity and support with the trans community.”

The Russell and Paula Panczenko MFA Prize is offered annually by the museum in collaboration with the UW–Madison Art Department and offers a unique professional development opportunity for award winners. The selected artist is featured in an exhibition at the Chazen and gains experience throughout the entire process of the project, from collaborating on layout and design to marketing and program development. Selected by an outside juror, the winning artist also receives an honorarium. This year’s juror was Kelly Kivland, director and lead curator, Michigan Central Art Program. Prior to Michigan Central, Kivland served as chief curator and director of exhibitions at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio and curator with Dia Art Foundation in New York. She holds a bachelor’s degree from UW–Madison and a master’s degree from the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College.

“The materiality of Cat Birk’s work reflects an interior self,” said Kivland. “‘My mother is a horse’ presents us with the encounter, or evolving need, to overcome the binding states, the containers and categories that define our own identities.”

The Russell and Paula Panczenko MFA Prize is supported by funds from the Russell and Paula Panczenko Fund for an Outstanding MFA Student.

Cat Birk (they/them) is a painter and researcher based in Madison, Wisconsin. Birk is a third-year MFA candidate in the art department at UW–Madison with an expected completion date of 2024. They earned bachelor’s degrees in studio art and art history from the College of Charleston (2016). Birk has exhibited in group shows, including at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art at the College of Charleston (Charleston, South Carolina), GHOST Art Project (Omaha, Nebraska), Redux Contemporary Art Center (Charleston, South Carolina) and Trout Museum of Art (Appleton, Wisconsin).

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