Modelling Sauk and Fox in South America: The Latin American Contribution to Ferdinand Pettrich’s “Indian Museum”
Despite the renewed attention to Ferdinand Pettrich’s “Indian Museum” in recent years, no research has been carried out on its complex transnational trajectory, which spanned two decades and included its first conception in the United States; its partial commission, execution, and first exhibition in Brazil; its subsequent circulation in England; and, finally, its institutionalization in the Museo Lateranese (later Museo Etnologico Vaticano).
This project seeks to study the decisive importance of the Latin American ethnographic and artistic contexts of Pettrich’s work. I am particularly interested in the contractual, political, intellectual, material, and formal conditions that defined the appearance of this “museum” in South America. In particular, I explore its connection to ethnographic knowledge that circulated in the region between the 1830s and 1850s and the established networks of Brazilian artists, foreign scientists, businessmen, and artists residing in or passing through South America during these years.
One of the main goals of the research is thus to discuss the extent to which Pettrich’s representations of North as well as South American natives are the result of visual and intellectual exchanges engaged within a transnational framework. The investigation is situated at the border of three connected types of circulation: that of art works, that of artists, and that of scientific knowledge and its visual models.
Systems and Utopias of Process in Conceptual Art
My book project Systems and Utopias of Process in Conceptual Art argues that the scientific concept of open systems fostered political utopias of process, collaboration, and social justice in art of the late 1960s. For the performative artwork Tucumán Arde, artists allied with sociologists, economists, workers, and unions seeking liberation from authoritarian structures of power. Open systems, characterized by interrelation and interconnectedness, gave rise to radical forms of institutional critique in Latin America that circulated to the US. Art historian Alexander Alberro describes examples of institutional critique as those “that provocatively linked previously unconnected spheres of public experience together in unexpected knots, in unexpected combinations of trajectories.” In fact, open systems are defined as the connections between various spheres of social experience. First theorized in the 1930s, an open system is a complex of interacting elements that is open to and interacts with its environment.
The primary objective of the process-based performance and installation Tucumán Arde undertaken in the Argentine cities of Rosario and Buenos Aires in 1968 was to open closed disinformation mass media circuits set in motion by the authoritarian military dictatorship. The radical scope of this months-long, storied project was so profound, it left a life-long impression on American critic and curator Lucy Lippard who met several of the artists in Argentina in September 1968, in the midst of the project. She declared in 1969, “I returned belatedly radicalized by contact with artists there, especially the Rosario Group, whose mixture of conceptual art and political ideas was a revelation.” This book argues that the concept of open systems was central to the development of art as social action in Tucumán Arde, and was a progenitor for radical institutional critique globally in the late 1960s.
Muralism, Racial Discourse, and Cultural Anthropology in US Black Art, 1936–1955
My project explores how US Black muralists adapted cultural anthropology to articulate particular racial identities in and beyond the nation-state during the late Jim Crow era. Considering artists Charles White, Hale Woodruff, and Thelma Johnson Streat, I draw out the impact of anthropology’s research practices and lively academic debates about racial and cultural identity on US Black muralism of the 1940s. Influenced by the Mexican Muralists’ investment in anthropology, these muralists deployed anthropological tools such as ethnography, theories of diaspora, and cultural baselines; adopted anthropological methods such as Katherine Dunham’s dance anthropology; and consistently used anthropological texts as references. Cultural anthropology provided these artists a way to combat biological essentialist approaches to race while also highlighting legacies of Black culture as the basis of group identity. This project addresses a lacuna in social art histories of US Black art between the concept of the New Negro of the 1920s and the Civil Rights Movements and Pan Africanism of the 1960s. Focusing on these artists reveals an underappreciated dimension of Mexican muralism’s influence on American art and provides a new take on the rhetoric of US cultural nationalism and belonging.
Alien Skins: Transplanetary Arts of the Americas
Alien Skins is the first book to explicate how artists of the Americas have used speculative aesthetics to imbue the alien in visual culture, science history, and legal studies with empowering ends. By reimagining the “borders” between the cosmos, citizenship, and alternative futurity, Latinx artists adapt speculative forms allowing for another articulation of creativity “on the horizon,” demanding an art theory and method in future tense. Proposing a vision from the skies, this vertical alignment of Latinidad resists earthbound definitions of identity and culture. Instead, they offer what I term “transplanetary” art of the Americas, borderlands that are organized beyond Anthropocene terms. Being not of this world but of others, these artists suggest that Latinxs have always been “alien” in American and Latin American art history. By reoccupying the repugnant language of the illegal alien, they transform xenophobic calls to build walls, militarize national borders, and separate families in a regime of state violence.
In an acrobatic, otherworldly aesthetic process, these Latinx creatives span variant space-time arrangements, frequencies, and cosmologies. Emphasizing not the “new” or “now” but rather the “not yet” or “to be seen,” Alien Skins undercuts contemporary studies of Latinx art with a speculative critique of the field. As a result, this study helps explain the uncredited yet influential impact of the “space age” onto Latinx cultural expression. In short, they ask: “In space, who is the real alien?”
Fellow Travelers: The Artist-Researchers of the Rosenwald Fellowship, 1940–1950
This dissertation is the first to consider the Rosenwald Fellowship, a grant-giving program that allowed African American artists to complete research travel for projects of their own design. It examines the way that travel and research became critical parts of artistic practice in the 1940s, how artists’ “fieldwork” was funded, and the importance that this mobility held specifically for Black artists. It centers the work of five artists singled out by the Rosenwald for their exceptional abilities: Jacob Lawrence, Eldzier Cortor, Elizabeth Catlett, Rose Piper, and Haywood “Bill” Rivers.
Across four chapters, “Fellow Travelers” follows these artists on journeys to the American South, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Europe. The first chapter uses the varied work of Jacob Lawrence to map the complex field of patronage in the 1940s, examining the practices of translation and negotiation that Lawrence developed in response to an emergent need for Black artists to work strategically in relationship to various funding structures. Each of the subsequent chapters follows the itinerary of one or two Rosenwald fellows as they crossed paths with other streams of movement, examining how Cortor’s work can be seen in conversation with exiled Surrealist-circle artists circulating between New York and the Caribbean (Chapter 2); considering Piper’s and Catlett’s relationship to the musicians traveling along the so-called “Chitlin’ Circuit” in the US South (Chapter 3); and exploring how Rivers fit within the flow of Black veterans and students to postwar Paris (Chapter 4). Each chapter considers the artists relationally, as friends or members of a workshop circle, as well as participants in wider circuits of movement forged by fellow travelers—many of which wound their way beyond the boundaries of the nation. Finally, it takes seriously what distinguished these artists, making them different from tourists or migrants―namely, the way they positioned themselves as researchers. Their practices, evolving in conversation with disciplines like ethnography or sociology, reveal a moment of entanglement between the arts and social sciences that upends narratives of modernism focused on medium specificity and disciplinary specialization. “Fellow Travelers” brings this understudied moment to light, focusing in particular on the new patterns of movement―of people, objects, and money―that made it possible.
Unquicken the Pace: Albert Pinkham Ryder’s Ripening Paintings
My dissertation is an attempt at understanding the unusual temporality of Albert Pinkham Ryder’s creative process. The artist was famous for his extreme slowness in completing paintings, laboring endlessly on the same canvases for years, even after they had been sold or sent to exhibitions. Although there is a substantial corpus of literature on Ryder (notably by Elizabeth Broun, Sarah Burns, Lloyd Goodrich, and William Inness Homer), scholars have largely overlooked the meaning of Ryder’s relationship to time. I argue that his life and working habits were symptomatic of the temporal paradigm that guided his painting.
Ryder’s working time was an interplay between active moments of actual painting and more passive periods in which making was replaced by happening (such as in the drying process) that included phases of “empty” time of resting and incubation. My first chapter examines how Ryder used delayed time as a tool of resistance against the measuring and monetization of time and as an instrument for balancing power with his collectors. The second chapter explores the biological concept of ripening, advocated by the artist himself to legitimize his slow creative process. The third chapter investigates the idea of finish as a provisional condition. I argue that Ryder’s paintings, which he did not date or sign, are not unfinished but finished too many times; each reworking brought forth the past into the present, thus updating an older painting.
Timescapes: Geology and Place in Contemporary Art
My research explores the intersections of time, place, and natural history in the work of four contemporary artists engaging with sites of American history. Through close attention to materiality and process, this project turns to geology and theories of space as interpretive methods for considering works of art. This dissertation builds on interdisciplinary scholarship, including eco-criticism, critical race studies, and environmental justice. During this fellowship, I will focus on my first two chapters that explore the relationship between race and landscape in America.
In chapter one, I ask how Sally Mann’s photographs of the American South relate to sites of trauma, particularly through her use of dirt taken from those landscapes and sprinkled on her photographic negatives. Chapter two investigates the relationship between Mark Bradford’s Pickett’s Charge (2017) and the Gettysburg Cyclorama (1883) through Bradford’s stratigraphic layering of paper and its subsequent destruction. Chapter three turns to the remnants of mineral extraction in Tacita Dean’s film JG (2013). Finally, chapter four looks at the relationship between intimacy, land, and global warming in Roni Horn’s works with water. Throughout, my dissertation considers contemporary art in the age of the Anthropocene, examining how these works explore the reciprocal interweaving of human history and the Earth’s history. My research investigates how art can elicit deeper understandings of the ways the intersecting forces of climate change, colonialism, imperialism, and racial violence are inscribed onto the earth.
A Perfect Union: Ottoman-American Visual Media and the Art of Affiliation in Nineteenth-Century America (1835–1895)
Long before there was a substantial Middle Eastern community in the United States, Khachadur “Christopher” Oscanyan (1818–1895), an Armenian-American from Istanbul, worked tirelessly to cultivate good relations between America and the Ottoman Empire. A writer, lecturer, entrepreneur, and diplomat, Oscanyan used a range of media not only to try to “correct erroneous impressions” of the “Turks,” but also to cultivate what we would today call “intercultural understanding” and, through it, a strong American investment in the Ottoman Empire.
My dissertation is a transnational cultural biography of Christopher Oscanyan and the ways in which he leveraged a range of American visual media and national affiliations to encourage and promote imperial reform in the Ottoman Empire. In what ways did an American audience understand and view Oscanyan and his imagery: his photographs, tableaux vivants, object displays, illustrated writings, and personal costume? To put it another way, how did Oscanyan and his images fit into an American visual landscape, particularly during the antebellum and Civil War years, when he was most active? Additionally, what does Oscanyan’s transnational career tell us about the practice of national affiliation among non-state communities in the mid-nineteenth century? How do Oscanyan’s acts of affiliation relate to his pursuit of visibility and legibility?
Drawing from scholarship across fields, from American and Ottoman history to Museum and Cultural Studies, I analyze Oscanyan’s unique contributions to American lecturing, photography, newspaper writing, publishing, and performance culture. I also consider the extent to which the failure of Ottomans like Oscanyan to establish an imperial federation reveals the rising power of a totalizing nation-state model that increasingly obscures Oscanyan’s complexities and renders impossible his vision for the future of Ottoman-American relations.
Lockwood de Forest, The Ahmedabad Wood Carving Company, and the Global Circulation of Luxury Goods
An 1885 issue of The Decorator and Furnisher helps capture the transformative experience of entering the dazzling world of an Orientalist interior in the United States. “In passing from the street…to the door of Mr. de Forest’s rooms, everything is Occidental and common-place.” Upon entering “his door,” however, “you have stepped into another world, you have gone East, far, far into the Orient.” The artist and designer Lockwood de Forest (1850–1932) filled his New York showrooms with exotic items such as Gujarati furnishings, Syrian ceramics, and Egyptian carpets, reducing objects from around the world to compositional elements within a unified aesthetic environment, disconnected from time or place. As art historians have shown, Orientalist interiors were imperial visualizations of the East made for Western consumption. While instructive, this approach remains focused on the creative vision of American artists and designers, discounting the agency of craftsmen, dealers, and other agents within North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia who knowingly produced and exported luxury wares, furnishings, and ornamental works for Western use. My dissertation aims to decolonize these interiors and their histories by reconstructing the social and material networks that facilitated the global circulation of luxury goods, arguing that late nineteenth-century Orientalist interiors in the US both required and produced these systems of circulation.
To recover the dynamic exchanges that produced these interiors, I have chosen to focus on the work of the Ahmedabad Wood Carving Company (AWCC) and its position within American “artistic” interiors. Jointly founded by de Forest and Indian merchant and philanthropist Muggunbhai Hutheesing to produce luxury woodwork and metalwork for export to the US, the company and its work provide a rare opportunity to consider the material qualities, transnational histories, and cross-cultural associations of such interiors through the objects that made them up. My dissertation traces the AWCC’s teakwood furnishings and metalwork from production to consumption, registering the creative agency of designers, craftsmen, patrons, and consumers as these objects moved through workshops, showrooms, department stores, and the domestic spaces of America’s elite. My approach accounts for the agency of Indian actors in North American interiors, while also revealing how the movement of luxury materials, objects, and aesthetics extend and define uneven relationships across the world.
The Crisis of the 1850s: Western American Land and Landscape, 1848-1861
The Mexican-American War added a massive amount of territory to the United States, disrupting the balance of power between slave and free states and forcing Americans to confront whether slavery should be allowed to take root beyond their nation’s former borders. The debate over slavery’s expansion might have been an abstract one if not for the images, produced by artists assigned to the government-sponsored surveys that spread across the American West in the 1850s, that were distributed to Congress and the public. My dissertation examines the way these landscape images, perhaps anodyne to the modern viewer, were suffused with evidence of the power of sectional conflict and charged with the power to shape the country’s future. I argue that while Northerners opposed to slavery’s westward expansion were genuinely interested in the content of these images for what they conveyed about the varied landscapes of the West, pro-expansionist Southerners betrayed, through their indifference to visual descriptions of Western landscapes, a plot to achieve political and economic dominance over the North through the addition of more “slave states” and the construction of a transcontinental railroad linking Southern ports to the Pacific. Despite the overt political inflection of the US-Mexico Boundary Surveys, the Pacific Railroad Surveys, and other government-sponsored expeditions of the period, the drawings and prints produced for their official reports have yet to be studied in terms of their reflection of and influence on the sectional crisis that defined the 1850s. In our current moment of intense partisan discord, my dissertation offers perspective on another defining moment of seemingly insurmountable political conflict in our nation’s history.
Figurative Sculpture and the Crafting of Identity in Postwar American Art, 1960–1990
My dissertation examines the methods by which West Coast ceramic sculpture troubled aesthetic and cultural conventions of the statue, the monument, and the figurine, renegotiating sculpture’s historic limitations during the late twentieth century. I argue that artists trained in studio ceramics defamiliarized the conventions of modern sculpture, effectively politicizing human forms at a time of bodies’ participation in three wars, brewing social movements, and protests.
My goal for this project is to argue for the conceptual sophistication of figurative ceramics within the history of postwar art by bringing attention to the important but understudied works of artists on the West Coast, including Robert Arneson, Viola Frey, and Patti Warashina. Supported by the postwar boom in teaching positions in newly established college and university art departments, such as the University of California ceramics departments at Berkeley and Davis, ceramists experimented with new ideas and ways of making outside of the mainstream commercial system. The modality of ceramics has the capacity to formally and conceptually invest three-dimensional handmade objects with a bodily presence or weighty corporeality through the interplay of form, language, and labor. As such, handmade ceramic objects become vehicles for bodily metaphor, ideal for addressing midcentury gender and material hierarchies due to the medium’s associations with domesticity and kitsch.
The figurative ceramics that will form the focus of my study do not connote a discrete art movement so much as they describe a style of work that pushed back against self-referential, gestural art forms, such as Abstract Expressionism. In dialogue with the discourses of modernist sculpture and craft, this project broadens the sculptural methodology proposed by William C. Seitz in his exhibition, Art of Assemblage (Museum of Modern Art, 1961) to explore craftsmanship―applied manual skill―alongside issues of size and material-specificity. I utilize literary theorist Susan Stewart’s theories of scale in which she argues that bodily narratives of the miniature and the gigantic mediate our experience of the world. In mobilizing this framework, I will reconfigure clay as a medium that not only animates traditional figurative forms, but also the body.
Diasporic Art in the Age of Black Power
Diasporic Art in the Age of Black Power seeks to examine the impact of the Black Power Movement on visual art as it emerged in the political, historical, and social contexts of the United States and the Anglophone Caribbean in the 1960s and 1970s. In particular, it aims to identify instances in which the iterations of the Third World Left in the US and the Caribbean crossed paths and determined a need for internationalism in Black creative expression that worked in tandem with the political radicalism of that era. Diasporic Art in the Age of Black Power aims to determine whether or not these artists were able to create a connective notion of a trans-Black aesthetic that was distinct from American art and Caribbean art altogether and that could ultimately find an affiliation with art of the Third World. Within this trajectory, the international reach of art created in Kingston, Jamaica, or Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, could be vast. Despite the fact that abstraction created in the Western world may have been perceived as universalist, the art created by Black Caribbean and American artists may very well have been just as universalist in the Global South, which holds the majority of the world’s population.
Mierle Laderman Ukeles and the Politics of Social Reproduction, 1969 to Present
This monographic dissertation frames five decades of installations and public performances by Mierle Laderman Ukeles (b. 1939) within an expanded conception of “reproductive labor.” Originally designating the renewal of labor power through domestic work and childcare, reproductive labor was theorized by socialist feminists in the 1970s contemporaneously with Ukeles’s early art. Marxist-feminist discourses have since elaborated social reproduction to encompass a wide range of undervalued activities that preserve systems necessary for material and social life, from nutrition and community to public infrastructures and a viable biosphere. Likewise, Ukeles’s practice progressively broadened the domain of her self-designated “maintenance art” from her personal experience as a mother and housewife to art institutional, civic, and ecological scales.
My study contextualizes Ukeles’s works vis-à-vis the US transition from New Deal–era and Great Society programs to the austerity measures of early neoliberalism. Touch Sanitation (1979–80), Ukeles’s signature collaboration with New York City’s garbage collectors, was developed and conducted in the wake of the city’s fiscal crisis and subsequent rollback of social services. I bring this sociopolitical framework into conversation with contemporaneous art historical discourses on postmodernism, arguing that Ukeles’s “maintenance art” offers two parallel critiques. In challenging modernism’s heroic, masculinist myths of creative originality and aesthetic autonomy, I contend, Ukeles’s work also interrogates neoliberal ideologies of progress and rugged individualism, which were newly amplified in the US during the 1970s–’80s to support the escalation of free markets and disinvestment from the welfare state.
Disability on Screen: Medicine, Art, and Experimental Film Cultures
My project examines visions of disability, deformity, and illness in cinematic works produced in avant-garde, experimental, and other non-mainstream film cultures. In particular, I juxtapose those cultures’ conceptions of impairment, incompleteness, and “defect” with medical films in which questions of disability are also treated, less with representation in mind than anatomization and diagnosis. A comparative study of these film genres permits an encounter with the ways that implicit and explicit ideals of difference, cultural hierarchy, and notions of otherness play a part in the social pathologization of disability. At the same time, I explore how such non-mainstream and experimental depictions of disability give form to an alternative horizon of possibilities―one in which people or characters who have historically been labeled freaks, geeks, monsters, curiosities, and cripples resist normative understandings of wholeness and perfection, thereby overturning conventional approaches to human variety.
My research at the Smithsonian Institution speaks to both the medical/disability and the film/artistic foci of my project. Working under the guidance of Katherine Ott at the National Museum of American History, Saisha Grayson at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and Josh T. Franco at the Archives of American Art, my analysis will critically interrogate the public perception and inner organization of discourses on disability, deformity, and difference inside and in affiliation with medical, social, journalistic, and artistic practices and institutions.
Desert Places: The Visual Culture of the Prairies and the Pampas across the Nineteenth Century
This thesis examines the visual culture of the North American prairies and the South American pampas in the long nineteenth century. Both regions were understood by settler colonists to be “deserts”―wastelands bereft of “civilization”―yet these grassland frontiers played a crucial role in the social construction, political ideology, and artistic development of both continents. Moving critically between maps, photographs, prints, and paintings, I argue for the necessity of looking at these zones as hemispheric desert places. The four chapters of this dissertation are divided thematically and focus on key tropes across these deserts: the construction of desert emptiness and indigenous erasure in the first photographic albums of the prairies and the pampas; race, archive formation, and anti-Blackness in the mythology of the gaucho and cowboy; nineteenth-century modes of looking and white performativity in George Catlin’s apocryphal South American period; and the desert as an ambiguous contact zone marked by racial, sexual, and geopolitical border crossings in images of frontier captivity and abduction. For the SAAM fellowship, I will be working on chapters three and four, which function as a self-inflecting pair in their convergence of Indigenous and settler bodies, perspectives, and epistemologies.
Anila Quayyum Agha
A Place to Call Home
My research at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Archives of American Art, will include studying major holdings of contemporary artwork, craftwork, and documentation of artists and craftspeople. Although particular interest will be given to individuals who have immigrated to the United States from the South Asian and African diasporas, I will also look at American-born artists who have been influenced by Asian and African motifs and creative processes. Research into artists engaged in political and social dialogues through their artwork, principally African American artists, will also be undertaken. A variety of materials will be explored, from interviews and artist archives to historic textile pattern samples and large-scale contemporary art created in the last several years. I will incorporate research from these sources into concepts for future artworks and learn from the variety of production methods and materials researched during my residency.
Full Dress: Masculinity and Conformity in Antebellum America
In early nineteenth-century America, masculine formal eveningwear evolved into a uniform ensemble of a black tailcoat and trousers and a white shirt, waistcoat, and bowtie: a style that has changed little since. In my dissertation, I investigate the origins of this style of dress in order to consider broader relationships between masculinity and power.
Focusing on the process of sartorial standardization between 1820 and 1850, I examine the origins of the male evening suit in two ways: as an assemblage of material goods that adorned masculine American bodies, and as a symbol of power that emerged out of a particular historical moment. The rise of American cities, urban life, and industrial capitalism led to enormous prosperity and new ideas of equality and democracy among white men, but also to an increased instability of the masculine self, particularly as political authority and American citizenship were being redefined. I interrogate the critical shift in attitudes toward masculine adornment in the early nineteenth century, and the resultant ways in which men in early America chose to model themselves after (or in notable contrast to) their French and British counterparts as they reconceived attitudes about aristocracy, authority, and masculinity.
Antebellum American formality was a performance of class that was often disguised as the embodiment of morality and was part of a greater transition from public acts of piety to more secular performances of social status. When white American men marked themselves as critically different from both their European forebears and their Native and African American neighbors, they created newly American interpretations of both formality and civility. In this way, masculine evening suits articulated white racial formation through material choices in everyday life.
Building on scholarship linking gender studies with American social, political, and material history, I use the exterior body of the formal suit to examine interior relationships between independence, responsibility, and supremacy, focusing on themes of precarity, conformity, and exclusion. Through the examination of masculine evening suits, I consider how these connections are still being continually, materially reinscribed today.
Beatriz Cordero Martín
Beyond Guernica: The Influence of the Spanish Civil War on American Art
For Americans living in the 1930s, the Spanish Civil War was the definitive sign of the spread of fascism in Europe. Concurrently, it became a particularly attractive topic for American artists and writers, a phenomenon that resulted in no small part from the unequal nature of the struggle and the romanticization of Spain in nineteenth-century art and literature. The display of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937) at the Museum of Modern Art from 1939 to 1981 tapped into this preoccupation, captivated the public, and transformed one artistic interpretation of a specific attack on civilians into a universal icon for peace. This project aims to investigate the impact that the Spanish Civil War had on American artists from an ideological point of view. It analyzes how artistic representations of the subject evolved as US politics became more international in scope during the second half of the twentieth century. This study will also consider the significance of Guernica for artists working in the United States and the ways in which Spanish artists encouraged formal experimentation among their American peers.
Food and the Social Body in U.S. Art, 1962–1983
Starting in the early 1960s, food began to literally appear as a material across the spectrum of American art production. This phenomenon emerged in the midst of a wider cultural reckoning around food and the body, as postwar developments in food production and consumption met a newly convulsive questioning of the quality, health, and ethics of the American diet. There has been little inquiry into how the material presence of food within art production alters conventional narratives of postwar art, and little attention has been paid to the specificities of food as a complicated non-art material with its own modalities and associations. Produced by economic and political forces as much as natural ones, food generates and sustains the body while simultaneously knitting it into the social world, from the family unit to larger categories such as ethnicity, class, nation, and gender.
This project argues that artistic engagement with food in this period was deeply significant, reflecting a changing American food culture and an evolving understanding of the body. Artists like David Hammons, Alison Knowles, Suzanne Lacy, Gordon Matta-Clark and Carol Goodden, Adrian Piper, and Barbara T. Smith identified food as a special kind of material that could connect economic, political, and social conditions with biological reality. They used the material of food to articulate an experience of the physical body as entangled with, interpellated by, and sustained by its social and political roles. My dissertation brings together food studies, art history, and the cultural history of food in this period to examine the work of a group of artists who used food in dialogue with the living body in order to ask: where does the body end, and the rest of the world begin?
Is there a Homosexual Aesthetic in Contemporary Art?
This study will account for the cultural, social, and political stakes of artists addressing gay and lesbian issues who first began to publicly exhibit their work together between 1969 and 1980. I ask how individual artists across the 1970s made homosexuality the subject of their work while simultaneously resisting the labels of ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ art. Looking backward from the New Museum’s 1982 exhibition, Extended Sensibilities: Homosexual Presence in Contemporary Art, which was the first exhibition in the United States to show work by gay men and lesbians together, I investigate how collective exhibition practices and group associations of gay and lesbian artists developed in relation to the wider institutions of the art world across the 1970s. I contend that there was a tentative, exploratory, and historically contingent understanding of homosexual identities in art in the United States that developed in the period between the advent of modern gay liberation in 1969 and the beginnings of the AIDS crisis in 1981. Excavating this forgotten artistic and sexual experimentation is crucial to challenging the cultural, social, and political pitfalls of reified identity for marginalized communities in the United States in our present moment. Through an extensive program of research in the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art into a range of artists, collectives, and gallery spaces operating in the 1970s, this study will form the heart of my new book manuscript on formations of anti-identitarian politics in queer artistic practices in the United States. This book will provide a new perspective on the relationship between institutional representation and cultural resistance in American art since 1969.
Unlike many countries where the ruins of the past provide the foundation for the myths of the present, the United States has historically used its natural beauties to support a national narrative of redemption and transformation. Artists such as Albert Bierstadt, Frederick Church, and Asher Durand used their paintings to favorably contrast the heroic splendor of the new world with the European reliance on the classical and medieval past for national and political legitimacy. This linkage of the natural world with the larger American national project is far from unproblematic, particularly in its depiction of the American continent as essentially “empty,” relegating Native Americans to a world of nature rather than of culture. Its emphasis on the aesthetic or picturesque value of sites also ignores the very real interdependence between the “viewer” and the “viewed,” even as it inspires much of the conservation efforts within the United States to this day, in particular the National Parks System. I will spend two months at the Smithsonian American Art Museum researching paintings of iconic U.S. natural sites in order to produce complementary paintings of those locations that reveal both the degree to which they have changed and to explore the ways in which these paintings have informed the collective narrative of our country. These paintings of natural sites will be included as part of my ongoing project entitled The Disappointed Tourist, which is a crowdsourced series of paintings of destroyed sites that people have nominated to be painted. My goal is to produce a traveling, on-going series of paintings that honors the trauma of the loss of our physical environment (both natural and man-made) to create a positive conversation that harnesses our love for place to create collective aspirations for preservation and creation.
Native Arts for Art's Sake: Indian Arts and Aesthetics, 1900–1920
Muybridge’s Pacific Coast: Guatemala
My current book project, Muybridge's Pacific Coast, investigates landscape photographs made along the western edge of North America between 1866 and 1875. The title comes from a phrase Eadweard Muybridge himself used to market these photographs. As I show, many of the works in these series are visually underwhelming; nevertheless, he published and distributed them to an audience curious to see these locations. The book comprises an introduction and four chapters, each of which is organized around a series of photographs of a specific site that Muybridge photographed for federal agencies or their close associates as part of projects to bring the region into control and profitable production.
My analysis of these images pulls out their thematics of compromised vision and vulnerability even as I document their connection to colonial projects along the coast. Central to my work are the critical strategies of ecocriticism and postcolonial studies. Rather than seeing the work as the exclusive creation of an artist, my readings take into consideration how the landscape itself constrained Muybridge’s practice and contributed materially to the making of the pictures. Central to my argument is the fact that, while the United States had long had an interest in oceanic travel and trade in the Pacific, the expansion of west coast settlement due to the Oregon Trail, the Gold Rush, and the Alaska Purchase forced the country to reckon with treacherous coastal conditions and barriers to settlement along the geothermally-active cordillera of volcanic mountains that stretch down the entirety of the coast of the Americas. In each chapter, I explore the ecology of both the landscapes in which the pictures are being made and the ecologies of wet-plate photography comprising the interactions of light, apparatus, chemicals, glass, paper, air, and water. At the same time, I bring in Indigenous relationships to these same places as they are made visible on the pictures. Each series captured sites that were homelands to Indigenous communities, and while Muybridge and his patrons were committed to a settler colonial view of these lands as territory, the glimpses of Indigenous dwelling in mutual relationship with their environments visible in some of the works open his practice up to alternate readings. Exposing the problematic nature of a colonial understanding of land as an inert and external object to be captured and owned, my readings demonstrate the labor (conceptual and applied) needed to make land conform to this constructed perspective.
“Living on the Edge": Ceramics and the Environment in the American West, 1961–2000
The history of traditional craft media remains an unwritten chapter of the environmental art movement. This is a serious omission as the materiality of craft necessitates a direct connection to the land in order to utilize raw, natural materials. My dissertation investigates three ceramists who negotiated relationships with the land of the American West and the complicated politics of appropriating indigenous traditions of making through their objects. Winfred Ng (American, 1936–1991), a ceramist-turned-designer who, in 1961, established the storefront Environmental Ceramics in San Francisco; David Shaner (American, 1934–2002), a Montana-based studio potter who advocated for low-environmental impact firing and appropriated indigenous North American ceramic techniques; and Rick Dillingham (American, 1952–1994), a studio ceramist who worked alongside artists from indigenous nations in the American Southwest to better understand their ecologically sound production methods. I repurpose the concept of the “ethical pot”—a term popularized by British studio craftsman Bernard Leach in A Potter’s Book (1940) to describe the humility and spirituality of the everyday utilitarian pot—to consider the implications of environmental degradation. Ceramists working in the American West faced a myriad of socio-ecological issues in their practice: corporate mining, nuclear testing and waste, oil spills, an energy crisis, the (de)colonization of indigenous lands, and the cultural appropriation of indigenous histories. The earth and energy-based origins of the medium made environmental concerns a key issue for these artists. The connection between maker, materials, and the land spurred a politically radical approach to artistic production that challenged the divisions between art and life and fostered a desire for socially aware, ethical forms of making that placed these potters at the forefront of the environmental movement.
Deep Cuts: Transgender History in American Art after World War II
This dissertation asks: what happens to traditional narratives of gender in the history of American art when we consider transgender artists and works that specifically illuminate transgender embodiment? This project contends that works by and featuring Forrest Bess (1911–1974), Candy Darling (1944–1974), Greer Lankton (1958–1996), and Cassils (b. 1971) do at least three things: first, they demonstrate why sex and gender cannot be determined through visual information alone; second, they show how social and scientific histories can be interwoven to carefully assess the appearance of sex and gender transformation in art; and third, they highlight the subtleties of sex and gender that can emerge throughout art history when “male” and “female” are seen as just two of many categories of identity. Works of art made in the United States after WWII are the focus of this dissertation because the US became a springboard for contemporary global movements in art and transgender medicine after Nazi occupation forced the centers of both modern art and transsexual medicine to move from Europe to the US. Each chapter in this dissertation progresses chronologically to follow charged shifts away from terms like “transsexuality” and “hermaphroditism” in the twentieth century and toward “transgender” and “intersex” in the twenty-first.
My first chapter addresses how Forrest Bess uses abstract symbolism in his paintings from the 1950s and 1960s in ways that draw new and potent connections between contemporary transgender medicine, early twentieth-century sexual science, and medieval alchemy. The next chapter in this project examines how nude images of Darling signal intersecting histories of drag and transsexuality as well as conflicts between her expressed desire to be seen as a woman and the celebrity her transsexuality engendered within the American avant garde of the 1960s and 1970s. Chapter three contends that Greer Lankton’s dolls, sculptures, and drawings from the 1980s and 1990s picture the artist’s otherwise invisible traumatic experiences of “sexual reassignment” in ways that rhyme with the aesthetics of AIDS and addiction produced by her close friends David Wojnarowicz and Nan Goldin. The last chapter of this dissertation shows how Cassils’s performance works from the early 2000s through to the present question transsexual surgeries while also calling attention to violence committed against contemporary transgender people.
Casting Bronze, Recasting Race: American Sculpture in the Mid- to Late Nineteenth Century
This dissertation studies the role of bronze and naturalism in American sculpture during the mid-to-late nineteenth century. It considers the ways in which sculptor Henry Kirke Brown (1814–1886) and his first pupil, sculptor John Quincy Adams Ward (1830–1910), expressed a commitment to bronze and naturalism that entangled materiality and aesthetic style with national identity. The dissertation demonstrates that bronze became a significant point of interest for nineteenth-century audiences and my project will emphasize how both sculptor and viewer shared an understanding of a work’s relevancy and value through the specific material in which it was created. More pointedly, the project articulates how bronze and naturalism function as representational tools to fashion distinctively American subjects emblematic of the country’s history and values. By analyzing Brown’s and Ward’s use of bronze and their varied styles, I articulate how material and style were combined to articulate, construct, and differentiate racial identities in sculptural representations in mid-to-late nineteenth-century America. In so doing, my dissertation offers new avenues for understanding the ways in which sculptural representation, materiality, and aesthetics had an impact on racial formations within the United States between the 1840s and 1890s, a period art historian Wayne Craven has described as “America’s Bronze Age.” Thus, this study balances the social-political connections between racial imagery and sculpture produced in the U.S. during this period with materiality in order to determine how bronze and an amalgam of sculptural styles are critical vehicles in American sculpture for inscribing racial difference and hierarchy.