Welcome Back from HAMS President, Cameron Ewing

Greetings and thanks for checking up on the blog for the History of Art Majors Society (HAMS) at Cornell University! My name is Cameron Ewing, and I’m the president for this year, attempting to fill the (metaphorically) giant shoes of last year’s president, Maggie Merrell.

For those who don’t know about the History of Art Majors Society, our main focus each year is the curation and organization of a full exhibition at the university’s Herbert F. Johnson Museum. The society gives undergraduate art history majors an opportunity to apply their knowledge of the discipline in a curatorial context: we work with amazing pieces from the museum’s permanent collection, and, with the help of the museum, in particular our liaison Alana Ryder, help organize symposia and artist talks, as well as write and design an exhibition catalogue.

Though HAMS works closely with the museum, and with the Art History Department, it is an independent, student-run organization, meaning that students have a truly unparalleled experience to dictate and direct the exhibition process. The members of HAMS have great power and, as we know, great power comes with great responsibility, so students who participate in the group gain incredible experience of the organizational and logistical challenges that must be surmounted to successfully put on an exhibition. As part of the group’s effort to raise awareness of our spring exhibition and engage with the broader Cornell community, we also work with our student organizations and host events throughout the year, including museum trips, film screenings, and lectures.

I have been a member of HAMS since freshman year, and served as secretary of the society when I was a sophomore. HAMS has without a doubt provided me with some of my fondest memories and most valuable experiences at Cornell, and, as president this year, I’m excited to help provide other students with the kind of opportunities that have been so important to and memorable for me.

I encourage you to look at blog posts from last year, if you haven’t already, for a sense of the organization, and to keep checking in for updates on progress for this spring’s exhibition. This year, our exhibition’s focus will be ‘revolting,’ and we’ll be posting on the blog regularly about relevant artworks, lectures or events on campus, and points of contact between our exhibition and broader issues in the world. Though HAMS is, out of necessity, comprised of a small group of students, this blog is open, and I hope you will not only read posts, but also comment, sharing thoughts, ideas, and suggestions about the direction our organization is taking.

Come back soon!

Cameron Ewing

Hameron Ewing

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Framing in Negative Space by Katya Savelieva

László Moholy-Nagy’s Wie bleibe ich jung und schön? (How do I stay young and beautiful?) and Wassily Kandinsky’s Parallel Diagonals share certain abstract aesthetics of framing and are both related to the Bauhaus school.  The Bauhaus operated in Germany in the early to mid-twentieth-century.  It pioneered a new approach to studying design, giving equal importance to art, craft, and technology.  Kandinsky and Moholy-Nagy both taught at the first Bauhaus site in Weimar, Germany and thus their work exemplifies the ideals of the school. 

Through the unification of art, craft, and technology, the Bauhaus produced an aesthetic that continues to influence architecture and design to this day.  Specifically, Bauhaus focused on geometric shapes and their relation to the human body.  This aesthetic is present in both Kandinsky’s and Moholy-Nagy’s work, as they frame forms through positive and negative space.

In order to understand Moholy-Nagy’s Wie bleibe ich jung und schön? (How do I stay young and beautiful?), the viewer should approach from technical and aesthetic perspectives.  The composition, consisting of two figures and a thick circle that frames one of the figures, shows the balance of geometry and human form typical of the Bauhaus.  The implied movement of the figure on top balances the asymmetric placement of the circle on the page.  Both figures interact with the circle, creating a unity between the three elements.  The two figures can be seen as geometric forms themselves, as they frame each other in the abstract composition.

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Because of Moholy-Nagy’s involvement with the Bauhaus, this work should not be read as a commentary on youth and beauty, as the title of the piece suggests.  Rather, it should be framed in terms of its technical elements and the title left as an ambiguous edge to the compositional fusion of geometric forms. 

Moholy-Nagy’s work comes from his Fotoplastiken portfolio, which translates as “photo-sculpture.”  Thus, the piece is furthermore related to the ideals of the Bauhaus as the school believed the ultimate output of creativity to be a building.  The two-dimensional photograph gains implied three-dimensionality as it plays with framing through flattened form, positive and negative space, and the relation of geometry and the human figure.

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Like Moholy-Nagy’s piece, Kandinsky’s Parallel Diagonals also works with Bauhaus ideas of design, but to a lesser degree there is no incorporation of human figure.  Kandinsky’s composition is balanced through dichotomies of color, line, shape, and positive and negative form.  The Bauhaus curriculum relied on these elements in its Vorkurs, or preliminary course.  Kandinsky, a teacher at the Bauhaus school, utilized the color and design theories taught to first year students in his work.

The title of Kandinsky’s piece, Parallel Diagonals, furthers its relation to Bauhaus aesthetics.  The title focuses on the forms of the piece, just as the Bauhaus focused on the interaction of geometric shapes.  Thus, Kandinsky’s work of abstraction can be framed both through its technical elements of framing through lines, shapes, and positive and negative forms, as well as its greater frame of Bauhaus design. 

By Katya Savelieva, Class of 2015

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Guestblogger Katie Graves on Martin Creed’s Retrospective and “InstaArt”!

InstaArt: Martin Creed’s Retrospective “What’s the point of it?” Viewed Through a Filter by Katie Graves

 The first major retrospective of work by internationally acclaimed artist Martin Creed opened at the Hayward Gallery at the Southbank Centre in London on January 29. The exhibition, titled “What’s the point of it?”, has taken Instagram by storm. With thousands of smart phone pictures of the show shared to date, the framing of the exhibit through social media has taken on a life of its own in creating a relationship between spectator and art.

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Cliff Lauson, Curator of the Hayward Gallery, recognizes Creed’s work as “both playful and thought-provoking. Crossing all artistic media and including musical and performative elements”. The exhibit contains a range of minimalist and expressionist art that has sparked analysis and interpretation. 

Creed said in 2001: “my work is about 50 percent what I make of it, and 50 percent what people make of it. Meanings are made in people’s heads. I can’t control them.”

Perhaps he wasn’t accounting for Instagram, which debuted in 2010, added Hashtags in 2011, and since then has become one of, if not the most, widely used photo sharing applications in the realm of social media.

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“Instagammers” from all over the world are transported to the Hayward Gallery at London’s Southbank Centre, located along the Thames River and Waterloo Bridge  through their smart phones. Instagram curates a virtual exhibit of the show that incorporates image and video. For the people around the globe who cannot gain physical access, the pictures shared with Instagram without restrictive privacy settings determine the perspective- the literal filter from which you will see, experience, and interact with the exhibit.

Each Hashtag paints a unique experience of what it would be like to be on the inside, snapping a photo or video of Work No. 1092: Mothers a huge neon sign spinning out of control, or posing underneath a floating pile of 7,000 white balloons known as Work No. 200: Half the air in a given space.

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These two tags create galleries of nine images that open a window into the world of Creed’s exhibit. Both compositions emote a cheery tone full of bold color, neon lights, and excitement that pass an essentially imagined experience through Instagram onto the social media spectator. 

It feels like you are receiving a comprehensive whole, 25 years of enticing, bold work by Martin Creed. However, the presentation through social media is a fragmented version of the show: a re-appropriated stream of art brought to you by the thousands of people who mill in and out of the Hayward gallery, device in hand, from January 29th to April 27th and then some. There are over 160 works in the exhibit, but only a small portion make it to the social media big leagues.

The introduction to the exhibit states that Creed’s work “reflects on the unease we face meeting choices, the comfort we find in repetition, the desire to control and the unstable losses of control that shape our existence.” This complex funnel of intended meaning and tone is lost on the stream of images. The social media frame of reference lends towards an aesthetic experience that is provocative and entertaining in its own right.

Martin Creed may not have intended his reach to go this far, but the question stands: what is the point of it? Adrian Hamilton, writer for The Independent, states that Creed doesn’t even know the answer to, or what “It” is. “It” could very well be Instagram, or more broadly social media platforms. It was just last year, that The Hayward Gallery forbid photography of their exhibition titled “Light Show”, a rule that has been overturned for Creed’s retrospective. In the world of mass technology and social media anyone can frame the world from their perspective. With the right hashtag, anyone curate Creed’s art through their own personal device.

By Katie Graves, Cornell University Film Major, Class of 2014

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

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Abstraction through Cropping: Coplans’ Self Portrait by Kayli Callahan

Cropping and composition are integral elements to consider when breaking down the theme of framing. How the artist chooses to position the subject matter within the physical frame reflects the ideas surrounding the conceptual frame. For photographer John Coplans, the staging of the subject within the viewfinder is one of the most significant steps within his process, and because Coplans poses as the subject within many of his photographs, he directs an assistant on how to compose the image. He must dictate to the assistant the parts of his body he wants photographed, their scale, and their relation to the border of the image. He then sets the lighting, he arranges the printing, and he orders the physical frame. Coplans wrote that as an artist, he doesn’t do anything but talk. Yet, it seems that his talking is vital as it deals mostly with framing.

2000.98_coplans_1822 Self Portrait (Interlocking Fingers, No. 18) captures the artist’s intertwined fingers drawn together towards the front of the picture plane. The image is large-scale and closely cropped, removing the wrists and most of the palms. The close cropping and unusual framing presents an unconventional viewpoint of a common subject. Hands and fingertips are images encountered in everyday, daily life, but Coplans’ image presents a new take on this common subject. Fine lines and faint folds in the skin that ordinarily are barely visible on a life-size hand become thick, deep crevasses in Coplans’ 31 x 24 inch gelatin silver print. Coplans reimagines the common subject in a way that changes the original image.

 The closely focused composition and the narrowly positioned border removes most of the context that contains the subject matter. By composing the image so that the subject is obstructed, the framing begins to abstract the image. Coplans removes information from the image by closely cropping the hands, but he adds to the subject matter by enlarging the hands and creating new shapes. While the fingertips may still be recognizable in their larger-than-life state, new organic shapes and forms emerge from within the image. Coplans takes something common and ordinary and frames it in a new context, forcing the viewer to reexamine and reconsider the subject.

By Kayli Callahan, Class of 2015

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Art from Abroad: Cameron Ewing’s review of “Unstable Territory. Borders and identity in contemporary art”

When it comes to works of art, frames are invaluable tools; the way in which an artist crops a painting or photograph contextualizes it and allows the viewer to understand what the artist is trying to say. Through what he chooses to include and not include within the confines of the frame, through the point of view from which he captures his subject, and through his aesthetic treatment of the subject, an artist creates significance and meaning, transforming the unruly, evanescent world into an image or object that is coherent and enduring. In a similar way, national borders create artfully constructed states whose idealized vision of structured, orderly unity is often at odds with the lived reality of people within their boundaries. National borders are, like the frames of works of art, ways of mediating reality, and an exhibition at the Center for Contemporary Culture Strozzina, in Florence, explores the tension between the nation-state ideal of self-contained, impermeable monolithic units and the frequent reality of internal strife and conflict within, and exchange between, their territorial frames.

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London-based artists Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin address the theme of Unstable Territory. Borders and identity in contemporary art by exposing how Israel’s framing of itself as a nation differs from the reality within its borders. The subject of their video Mini Israel is an automated model of the country partially built with funds from the Israeli Tourism Office whose slogan is, “See it all – small”. The complex covers 14.8 acres and features replicas of 350 buildings and landmarks of national importance, as well as 30,000 figures and real cultivated bonsai trees. As the eerie, surreal video shows, however, this model Israel is an idealized and simplified symbolic construction of the country; Mini Israel is devoid of the wall, checkpoints, and observation tower that the government has erected in response to internal conflict, and the Arab population these have been built to confine and survey are transformed into unthreatening extras, bowed in positions of permanent prayer or statically standing watch over their livestock. The uncertainty and instability that characterize the real Israel are cropped out of the frame in Mini Israel, where the cars move back and forth on the single tracks to which they are attached and people sunbathe on the roofs of buildings forever.

Where Broomberg & Chanarin’s work displays Israel’s surreal, neatly framed image of itself, Richard Mosse’s video and sound installation, The Enclave, reveals the fractured, incoherent reality of the Democratic Republic of Congo, a region whose borders frame a hollow simulacra of a country. In a dark, enclosed room, video fragments playing simultaneously on six screens and accompanied by Ben Frost’s ambient audio composition comprised of recordings gathered in the war zone create a landscape that evokes the region’s reality of chaos. The installation sprawls out in all directions, overwhelming and disorienting the viewer by resisting any efforts to compartmentalize or frame the work. What Mosse seems to be unsettling is not so much efforts of the DRC government (such as it is) to fashion itself as the international community’s attempts to package the country’s conflicts, creating a narrative with coherence and clear moral guidelines through documentary practice and reportage photography. As the wall text accompanying his installation states, “Mosse in fact attempts to invalidate various characteristics typical of reportage photography, like the recognisability of the subjects or the matching of the subject represented and the aesthetic language”. One way in which he accomplishes this is by shooting his footage with Aerochrome film, which was developed in the 1940s to allow the U.S. army to detect armaments concealed by vegetation by rendering shades of green in shocking, fluorescent pink hues. With this technology, the DRC landscape is transformed into a sublime, otherworldly landscape, a kind of fantasy war zone or beautiful nightmare that offers no clear moral guidance for the viewer. Stripped of the frames placed around war-ravaged countries in conventional reporting and documentation, The Enclave defies viewers’ expectations for meaning or a safe perspective from which to view and understand the conflict, instead sucking them into the swirling, uncircumscribable chaos that characterizes life for citizens of the “country”.

Frames are an essential component of art and of life: they focus and direct our attention while simultaneously granting us the physical and psychological distance required for contemplation. As Unstable Territory. Borders and identity in contemporary art shows, however, there is danger in mistaking the mediated, simplified fragments the frame presents for reality. 

By Cameron Ewing, Class of 2015

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Alfred Eisenstadt’s “Nurses at Roosevelt Hospital, NYC” by Dan Clark

Upon first glance, it may seem as though Alfred Eisenstadt’s Nurses at Roosevelt Hospital, NYC is a random snapshot of a crowded auditorium.  In reality, this is a carefully composed work of art that frames the female figure in early to mid-20th century American life.

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Capturing this congregation of nurses in their ascending rows without showing a ceiling, floor, or wall, gives the image an infinite quality, as if the rows of nurses could continue forever in all directions.  At the same time Eisenstadt anchors the photo with a group of nurses supporting their heads on their palms in the lower left hand corner and a gray shape diagonally opposite. He uses these features as physical framers of his photograph to provide a stable and focused scene for the viewer. The nurses’ uniforms gradually change in color from dark grey to white as they ascend the auditorium rows, most likely marking the different ranks of nurses. Eisenstadt uses this gradient to give weight to the base of the photograph and counterbalance the many more bodies that appear in the higher rows of the auditorium. This gradient of the nurses also invokes the sense of heavenly assumption, as the women appear to rise onwards forever and become whiter and fade into the wall space.

Eisenstadt’s compositional decisions frame these women and their era. First comes the idea of monotony, that all of these women are the same, attentive, properly dressed and ready to serve. This is then contradicted by the way that Eisenstadt captures the subtle emotions and different personalities of every individual nurse. The heavenly assumption mentioned previously relates to the ideas of purity and angelic nature of women, and perhaps Eisenstadt is suggesting that these nurses are the real angels, working in the background to help others. Either way, this striking image does indeed capture that these women are individuals, even within the large crowd. The composition of this piece, which utilizes the natural lines and colors of the room as well as the actions and qualities of the people, makes it a deeply engaging photograph.

By Dan Clark, Class of 2016

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Roy Lichtenstein’s “Finger Pointing” by Lee Rice

There is no escaping Roy Lichtenstein’s “Finger Pointing.” The screen-printed image depicts an accusatory hand gesturing straight out towards the viewer, which is placed against a stark, red background. The print demonstrates how the simple depiction of a common hand gesture is able to stop a viewer in his tracks; the gesticulation is conveyed with such vigor. The hand frames its subject in a critical manner, as if they are being personally called out. Viewers have the power to make a choice: they can either confront the hand or remain discouraged by it. It is only a matter of time until the hand pins its next victim.

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Lichtenstein was one of the forerunners of the Pop Art movement. The impersonal subjects of his iconic prints fascinated critics and American society during the 1960s. His renowned Ben-Day dot pattern, used to render the hand in this piece, is meant to recall print media images. The technique calls attention to the mechanical process of mass produced work but also highlight the impersonal, artificial quality of his prints. This specific print is titled “Finger Pointing” not because it is an image of a real person’s hand, but because his technique duplicated a sign of a person’s hand.

Signs are universal, and this one in particular is reminiscent of the sign of the hand of Uncle Sam. As a personification of the U.S. government, Uncle Sam’s job was to frame American citizens in hopes of recruiting them for the army. The artist takes this sign of a person’s hand and detaches it from its affiliations to patriotism and militarism. By replicating the sign of the hand on it’s own, Lichtenstein is able to deter away from only framing American citizens – the gesture has developed into a frame that is truly universal.

This screen-print toys with the idea of framing through abstraction because even though the image depicts a critical hand gesture, the hand’s subject remains conceptual. Technically, the suspect that the finger is pointing at may or may not physically exist. We, as viewers, assume that each and every one of us is a potential target of the hand, considering the artist has given us room for interpretation. The idea of choice now resurfaces…to be framed or not to be framed? 

By Lee Rice, Class of 2016

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