Our class chatted about putting up blog posts sharing our research inspired by the exhibition An Errant Line at the Spencer Museum of Art on the University of Kansas campus. I’m going to be researching the installation work of Cynthia Schira, focusing particularly on the woven pieces. Schira’s use of digital technology in her weaving process allows her to create some quite distinctive pieces, pieces that would be much more difficult to create without the computer-assisted looms that she uses. Since the 1980s, Schira has been experimenting with computer-assisted looms, first in Germany, then in Canada and the U.S. Some of the looms are completely automated and Schira spends most of her design time using computer programs such as Photoshop and JaqCad Master to create binary files that are then sent to the looms. Other looms (such as the one in Montreal, Canada) are not completely automated and Schira physically does the weaving. For An Errant Line, Schira partnered with Oriole Mill in North Carolina to design pieces for two different automated looms. These looms allow Schira to have a lot of control over threads in order to create large, distinctive weavings.
For this exhibition, Schira explored two ways of creating imagery. She continued to work on the notion of codes and ciphers, motifs that she’s been playing with for several years. She looked at writings about weaving and terminology applied to fabric to create a large piece filled with words that repeat and overlap. Viewers can read parts of words and sentences and create their own meaning out of traditional textiles terms. For other weavings in the exhibition, Schira used works from the Spencer collection for visual inspiration. She scanned presepio figures from the collection and used details from their clothing, blown up large to create textural and idiosyncratic hangings. Another eighty-foot-long, six-foot-tall black-and-white weaving incorporated motifs from maps, quilts, ceramics, whatever caught Schira’s eye when she was exploring items in the Museum’s storage (with curatorial help.)
Schira’s decades of experience with computer-assisted looms show in her facility with woven mark-making. All of the works are made with black and white threads, the junctions of which create subtle grey tones and textures. There’s no overwhelming color to distract from the patterns, symbols, and subtle textures created through the intersection of soft, cotton threads.
Carla Tilghman is a weaver and a graduate student in American Studies at the University of Kansas.
Artists constantly seek the right position to place an artwork. This position is metaphorical rather than literal: how can the artwork be interwoven perfectly into the texture of the physical and historical surroundings that houses it? In other words, how can it be used within the process of seeking an identity?
In the early 19th century artists such as Thomas Cole used landscape as a vehicle for defining American identity. Without a long, rich history for the country, both the sublime vistas and more intimate landscapes served well as visual references to represent the newly cultivated land. Later in the 19th century, Walt Whitman argued against the use of the Hellenistic style for American government buildings to remind people of the greatness of the Greek past. Whitman’s reasoning was that such a classicizing style was outside the frame of the country’s history and identity. American buildings should instead, he insisted, be non-referential. Frank Lloyd Wright, in his prairie period in early 20th century, developed the notion of “organic principle” in order to find an appropriate relationship between his projects and the landscape: the house, for him, was a breathing, organic being.
Efforts to define social and national identity continue in the realm of art. Modernism pointed to society-wide consumerism while minimalism went for non-referential features. In the 1960s and 1970s, various social movements formed to promote human rights and other issues. New media artists felt they found the right identity for their artworks in the restlessness and anxiety in the society.
Ann Hamilton’s process of reading architecture in order to fit the artwork not only into the space but also into the anthropological, historical, and socioeconomic contexts is, in fact, another means to find the right identity for each of her artworks. Instead of reaching out into the larger political or social context, she chooses a smaller bed into which she “plants” her artwork. By so doing, the duration of the fragmentary memories of the architecture or the physical context becomes the soul and identity of her work. Imprinted with the artist’s language, the works find their own unique identities in different places.
Xing Zhao is a History of Art graduate student at the University of Kansas.
Technological means of artistic expression have become increasingly common. How do artists use these elements, and what does it mean when an artist chooses sophisticated or current technologies versus outdated or obsolete technologies? In An Errant Line, installations by Cynthia Schira and Ann Hamilton provide examples that the specific technology an artist choose affects the work’s meaning and the viewer’s experience.
Cynthia Schira, a textile artist, regularly employs sophisticated digital technologies to program an electronic Jacquard loom she uses at the Oriole Mill in North Carolina. For An Errant Line, the artist created a 30’ x 10’ weaving entitled etymon, in which she digitally sampled images from the Spencer Museum of Art’s collection. This sophisticated loom technology allowed Schira to weave the selected motifs together in a seamless stream of abstracted visual references that are literally connected by thread. The use of high or current technology in this case does not call attention to the technology itself that lies behind the making of the artwork but rather facilitates the goal of the artist for an unhampered visual reading of the work.
In Ann Hamilton’s figura, the digital scanning technology used to create the ghostly images of the presepio dolls raises different issues. Hamilton uses the properties of the flatbed scanner’s contact image sensor (CIS) technology, which produces images with a limited depth of field, to isolate the communicative gestures of the presepio dolls. In this case, a technology which in some contexts may cloud communication through blurred images or words actually reveals the expressive power of the presepio dolls. It is through this knowledge that we, as viewers, can reflect on our own relationship with technology and think about it as an active, rather than passive, agent in the production of the world we inhabit.
Andrea Pitt is a graduate student in art history at the University of Kansas.
My research led me to investigate Hamilton’s efforts to explore and create community through her works of installation art. Community refers to a social group or unit that shares common values. The concept of community creation is a major theme in Ann Hamilton’s installation stylus, which opened at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis in 2010. I would suggest that there are systems of communication and community within stylus and that the imitation of these same systems occur within a website created by the Pulitzer to document the work. Hamilton’s goal of producing a new sense community within the Pulitzer building stemmed from her desire to replace the vibrant community that had been lost in earlier years from the surrounding St. Louis neighborhood. The placement of the Pulitzer Foundation building in that derelict neighborhood was itself part of a strategy of urban revitalization, while Hamilton’s installation, within the building, is an effort to collapse that lost community into the museum structure, effectively creating a surrogate for it.
A somewhat parallel strategy can be found in An Errant Line. In figura, the Spencer Museum of Art’s permanent collection has been only partially revealed and its objects are mediated through representations of the presepio figures. The collection has not been revealed in its entirety; rather, one sees only a sampling, which allows one to imagine a much greater whole. In this way, both stylus and figura use a selected part as a synecdoche for the larger concept at hand: in stylus, the sense of community created within the Pulitzer building represents the developing arts community that surrounds it; in figura, the selections displayed in the side-gallery represent the complete permanent collection.
Laura Minton studies art history as a graduate student at the University of Kansas.
The Event of a Thread, 2012
How can the internal and autonomous act of reading be materialized? This is a question explored by Ann Hamilton in several of her works throughout her career. Hamilton strives to translate the practice of reading into a multi-sensory experience for the viewer, and she accomplishes this in many different ways.
For instance, in her installation work entitled tropos, 1993, a person burned text from a book line by line. The attendant read each line of the book before permanently erasing it, which signified the literal absorption of the written material. Hamilton often physically alters books in her works that explore the phenomenology of reading in order to emphasize the tactility of books and call attention to the process of reading.
In The Event of a Thread, 2012, Hamilton incorporated a set of readers who read into a microphone texts, written out onto scrolled paper, written by authors including Aristotle, Charles Darwin, and Ann Lauterbach. Hamilton discussed her inclusion of the readers: “Suspended in the liquidity of words, reading also sets us in motion….The rhythm and breath of someone reading out loud takes us to a world far away.” This incorporation of a live reader brings an audible and physical quality to the experience of reading.
Hamilton’s figura at the Spencer Museum of Art may not explicitly be about the process of reading but still addresses that cognitive process indirectly. Hamilton used a scanner to create the large-scale digital images of presepio dolls located in the Central Court. The scanner “read” the dolls’ intricate clothing and gestural poses to create the ghostlike final product. As one can see, Hamilton considers multiple aspects concerning the phenomena of reading and creates tangible works concerning the intangible concept of reading.
Lauren Miller is a graduate student in art history at the University of Kansas.
Parents unhappy with their children’s desires to enter into an artistic field as a career choice is a trope all too familiar in the modern age.
I was afraid to tell my parents that I was not going to use my medical degree, which they had so generously paid for, opting instead to go back to school to become an artist. I did not muster the courage until about a month before graduation, and their reactions were predictably grim.
Looking back I think how helpful it would have been to have a well-known, successful artist intercede on my behalf and support my belief that I was doing the right thing for my situation. Wishful thinking, right? Surely no one would have such an experience to bolster their resolve.
Cynthia Schira was afforded such an experience. Schira’s mother had hoped that she would go to Vassar or Smith to attend college. Her mother stated that these institutions “make fine young women.” Schira, however, wanted to pursue art though she didn’t receive much encouragement from her parents or her advisors at the boarding school she attended.
Schira’s mother decided to send her to a local artist, whom she believed would talk her daughter out of these far-fetched notions of making a career out of art. The local artist she was sent to was Norman Rockwell, known for his cover illustrations on The Saturday Evening Post magazine. Cynthia recalled that Rockwell didn’t try and dissuade her;, rather he stated, “You should do what you want to do.” Reflecting on her conversation with Rockwell and his advice she stated, “And so that’s what I did do.”
Did Rockwell recognize a like mind in Schira, someone with the potential to have a positive impact on the artistic world?
If only everyone could have someone the likes of Rockwell in life as a reminder to have the courage to follow their desires.
Joshua Daul is a University of Kansas graduate student in art history