T. G. Kleininger
pocket sundial, 1700s
The Dr. Maurice L. Jones Timepiece Collection, 1952.0063
Similar to how Ann Hamilton and Cynthia Schira required time and fabric to materialize An Errant Line, this pocket sundial required fabric (in the form of string) to tell time. With it, as with the works by Hamilton and Schira, cloth and time interact in space.
This 18th-century sundial used technology made obsolete by the increasingly common pocket watch, but it offered what later clocks did not: a sense of where you are. The user of this early timepiece would have opened the small wooden case to reveal the dial and compass, then aligned the ‘style’ (a fabric string that held each side together) exactly with the Earth’s axis to determine the time. Unlike clocks that allowed passive interiority, this sundial required an outdoor location and a tactile sense of positioning.
The sundial’s requisite manipulations made time tangible, and its reliance on the environment heightened users’ awareness of their location and enveloping surroundings. In this object and the two artists’ installation, fabric and time allowed for an engagement with place.
Joel Coon, History of Art undergraduate major
Grand gates at the entrance
with arms swinging wide open,
framing a sheer dark fabric with specks of white.
It beckons me to draw close,
as it quivers with the currents of air,
one of many cloth pieces
pouring from the ceiling
and hovering just above the floor.
It is situated among other opaque panels
with black marks on white ground.
Only from close proximity,
is the woven nature apparent.
The forms conceal and reveal.
Some panels are sewn back to back,
while others divulge the two-sided nature of cloth.
The content abstracts and obscures,
like reading a newspaper
with a small magnifying lens.
I pass over the gate’s threshold,
into a forest of fabric.
The width of the room
consumes the field of vision.
On the back wall text appears,
white words on a black ground,
the language of fabric, weaving, and collecting.
The black-painted canvas mat on the floor reads, “Showing,”
in stenciled capital letters.
To the left and right are open spaces,
signaling different but interrelated places.
In the deep right corner,
scraps of fabrics, samples and notes
all collaged on the wall.
A worktable holds more of the same,
scattered and uncategorized .
The black painted canvas mat on the floor reads, “Making,”
in stenciled capital letters.
On a computer monitor,
patchy horizontal bands of colors
vibrate quickly across the screen.
Paired with the vertical motion of machinery,
the camera angle changes.
It is the conception of fabric on a loom.
Turning around to face the opposite wall,
my eye meets a repetitious puzzle of black and taupe.
This weaving engulfs architecture,
in signs and symbols
in shapes and forms,
a map to follow
a letter to read.
In the deep left corner,
objects housed in cylinders wrapped, tied, and tagged
all stored on the wall.
A wooden repository holds more of the same,
organized and categorized.
The black painted canvas mat on the floor reads, “Saving,”
in stenciled capital letters.
On a low black pedestal,
crisp patterns in blue and white
rhythmically pulse across the weft.
The strips stitched together,
the cloth has been cut from the loom.
Turning around to face the opposite wall,
my eye meets a repetitious puzzle of boxes and numbers.
Vessels for storage line the wall,
of all shapes and sizes
a vase for flowers
a kettle for tea
a basket for barley
and moccasins for feet .
Here, the journey through is complete.
A large enshrouded grand piano occupies one side of the Spencer Museum of Art’s Central Court. This gallery contains Ann Hamilton’s figura, one of two installations in An Errant Line. A pink satin garment wraps around the piano’s perimeter, tethered to the gallery walls with four visible wires. Its pigment mimics the colors in the floor tiles and the prints that cover the walls. The drapery’s luminous folds reflect hues of varying brightness as the observer walks around the mysterious instrument. The fabric frustrates the viewer’s gaze by concealing the bodies of the piano and performer, offering only a glimpse of the legs and feet of the instrument, bench, and player.
Kneeling down, the observer is able to see the piano’s glossy ebony finish as well as the details of manufacture. Made by Carl Bechstein’s company in Berlin, Germany, this piano was played by Franz Liszt during his final European tour of 1886. A descriptive panel in an adjacent room notes that Liszt, in addition to his virtuosity as a pianist, composer, and teacher, was a devout member of the Franciscan order. Incidentally, it was St. Francis who brought the presepio figure tradition to prominence in 13th-century Italy after renouncing the material wealth of his father’s fabric merchandizing. Hamilton’s piano garment draws on these relationships; rather than merely obscuring the instrument from view, it envelops the piano’s musicality in religious and material connections. The hazy prints of the resepio figures, afforded an elevated vantage from the room’s walls, can peer down onto the dormant piano in anticipation of musical accompaniment. They watch and wait in relative silence for the instrument’s sound to animate their environment and interactions with one another. Although frustrating to the viewer, it is the piano’s blanketing drapery that ties its musical past and present to the figures’ material and spiritual tradition.
Joel Coon, undergraduate art history and anthropology major, University of Kansas
Visitors to An Errant Line first enter the Ann Hamilton room, one of three in the exhibition, and encounter a view of harmonious, large-scale prints situated at varying heights on the walls. The Museum’s Bechstein piano is partially concealed by a rich, pleated rose-colored curtain of satin. The prints, made on Japanese Gampi paper attached to cheesecloth, display images of presepio figures produced on a scanner. The technology of the scanner generated images containing both blurred and focused areas situated against a soft, pink ombré background. The combination of blurred and sharply focused sections creates a viewing experience especially attuned to close-looking.
The presepio figures are dressed in elaborately detailed clothing and represent a range of 18th-century clothing styles, social classes, and body types. Visitors activate the images and the space, mirroring the gestures and basic positions of the figures. The figures’ hands appear in many of the prints, evoking movements and perceived interactions in space. Beginning to curl upwards at the corners, the prints continue to “live” and physically alter over time. The piano, played during the exhibition opening and scheduled for future concerts, completes the ambient atmosphere of the room. In a conversation with Cynthia Schira and Joan Simon at the opening, Hamilton suggested that the piano holds every note ever played on it. Even when silent, the instrument is a container for the memory of that music. The covered piano echoes the partially obscured figures and fits into the exhibition’s overarching connotations of revealing that which is hidden. Figura contains images of characters enlivened by air currents and visitor movements, as glimpsed out of the corner of the eye. The historical lineage of the objects is both preserved and altered.
Laura Minton, History of Art graduate student, University of Kansas
If you had to explain Ann Hamilton’s and Cynthia Schira’s large-scale installations in An Errant Line to a seven-year-old, how would you do it? Delve into a discussion about textiles? Talk about the nuanced nature of student/teacher relationships? Try to explain what in the world “errant” means?
This is what I was attempting to figure out, as I was standing before a case in a side gallery that was filled with highly individualized Italian presepio dolls.
I stared at the gestural figures, taking in the meticulous detail and wondering how I could translate Hamilton’s figura into a gallery guide for Family Day at the Museum. One doll in particular caught my eye.This male figure’s hair swooped slickly back behind one ear, highlighting a rosy cheek. Its somber smile matched the downward tilt of its head and longing sideways gaze. My eyes ventured down the doll’s tweed-like top to its eloquently expressive hands. Each finger was bent with purpose and emotion.The striking pose of the hands seemed to be the focal point of the piece, enticing the viewer in to examine the posture further. After thoroughly analyzing this figure, I walked into Central Court to view its enlarged reproduction in the scan that Hamilton had made for the wall.
I looked at the pink ghostlike image of the doll and noticed it was mostly blurred except for two distinct areas: the face and hands.These body parts claim attention in Hamilton’s print just as they do in the presepio figure itself. Immediately my mind began to race with possible points of discussion regarding pose, mood, expression, and technique that could be used for this family-oriented project. My question about interpretation seemed to be solved. It was all in the gesture.
Lauren Miller, History of Art graduate student, University of Kansas
Artist Ann Hamilton asks this question with figura. In this work, which fills the Spencer Museum’s two-story Central Court, Hamilton responds to the dual, even contradictory, nature of the Museum as a place that simultaneously conceals and reveals its vast collections.
This paradox has long surrounded museums.The best way to preserve something is to keep it sealed away, out of sight. Hamilton’s installation seeks to activate the Museum’s collections and turns our attention not to what is seen, but to what often remains unseen.
Through Hamilton’s engagement with the Spencer’s collection of presepio dolls, brought out from storage annually at Christmastime for inclusion in a traditional Southern Italian nativity scene, we are made aware not only of their presence in the museum’s collection, but also their individual personalities. Larger-than-life portraits depicting them cover the Central Court’s walls. They take on a haunting quality emerging from the misty pinkish backgrounds on which they are printed. Some have their backs turned to us. Others glance away, exposing a personal moment or reverie. Still others gesture passionately, perhaps about to engage us in a conversation.
To one side of Central Court, we enter a room in which the presepio dolls are laid out in cases. Again the dolls are specimens for examination, this time tagged with accession numbers. Here they are immortal, static, while on the walls of Central Court, they seemed alive, breathing, perhaps even talking.
Looking at the cases, one can only think to the other objects laying in wait in the Museum, and wish to know and understand them. In this museum afterlife, as objects displaced in time whose original functions have vanished, they reside. We, the viewers, may encounter them here, seemingly for eternity.
Andrea Pitt, History of Art graduate student, University of Kansas
Upon entering the central court of the Spencer Museum of Art, your eyes are immediately drawn upwards. Lining the walls, from floor to ceiling, are scores of figures dramatically represented, in various sizes and positions, in prints that in the alteration of gauzy and sharp-focused reproduction of their subjects appear soft and worn. These prints, from presepio figures in the museum’s collection, tower over visitors and transform the space into a sterile and secular cathedral.
They also act on the perimeter of your vision. With one figure in front of you, the rest form a collective group—unified in their wash of filtered light and pink tones, yet separate with their frameless borders. The effect is intimate yet distant. Whether figures stand with their backs to you or return your gaze, most offer silent conversation through hand gestures or the graceful tilt of the head. To see the actual figures that inspired Hamilton’s work in the adjoining room—small and delicate—comes as a surprise. The grandeur of these figures in the prints belies their diminutive size.
It is fitting that Ann Hamilton titled this work figura because the word speaks to many individual parts and larger intersections within the room. Figura, Italian for figure, is an apt title for the more literal-minded. Figura poetically displays the human form of the presepio dolls. The naming also speaks to something much grander and lyrical than sheer description. Figura etymologica, a stylistic device found in Homer’s epic poems, relates to language, communication, and—most notably in the case of Ann Hamilton’s works—the act of revealing the unexpected. A simple turn of a word (“to live life!”) becomes animated and new.
The artist does not bring new things into the world so much as she finds a bond between things that are already present. She finds and responds to the connective threads between what most would not notice. The lively 18th-century Italian dolls, the ornate marbled floors, the piano that undoubtedly made its way through Rome on Liszt’s grand tour, the historical and physical contours of the space, and the silent interchange made between them. She presents presence. The space inside becomes charged and still in the figures’ wake. When they leave, their absence may still linger in the room.
Samantha Lyons, History of Art graduate student, University of Kansas