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Students leave imprint on Smart Museum exhibit

This November, an exhibit showcasing the talent of six students will open at the David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art. But the students’ talent won’t be evident in the artwork. Rather, their insight will be revealed in the selection and placement of the show’s more than 20 photographs, installations, and other works representing 11 international artists’ takes on portraiture. Titled Space/Sight/Self, the show will run from November 19 through January 10 and will include recent works by Dawoud Bey, Byron Kim, Jurgen Mayer Hermann, Alice Hargrave, and Holly Rittenhouse, as well as several photographs and prints from the 1970s by feminist artists Francesca Woodman and Ana Mendieta.

The exhibit is part of the Smart’s efforts to encourage collaborations among the museum, students, and faculty. Earlier this year, the Smart received a $178,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support such projects. The museum has already planned exhibits for 1999 and 2000 that involve students enrolled in art history seminars on antiquarianism and on monastic devotional practices.

The Space/Sight/Self exhibit represents the culmination of an interdisciplinary course in art, art history, and gender studies taught last winter quarter by Laura Letinsky, an assistant professor in the Committee for the Visual Arts and at Midway Studios. Called Space/Sight/Self: A Curatorial Project, the class included five undergraduates—and no studio art majors. While Letinsky came up with the idea for the class and chose the show’s overall theme, the students honed its focus and tone through their assignments, discussions, and trips to city galleries.

“It’s important for students to have experience working with real contemporary art rather than slides or reproductions,” says Letinsky, who will be a visiting artist at Yale this spring while on leave from the U of C. “There’s a notion that art is outside contemporary intellectual culture, but they saw that it is actually engaged with it.”

The quarter began with the students reading interpretations of identity by such 20th-century thinkers as Sigmund Freud and Harold Bloom. They then dealt with questions of their own identity, analyzing the effects of gender, race, class, and sexual orientation on self-recognition and on understanding others. They studied how contemporary artists use portraiture to convey their struggles with these issues, just as keenly as a writer using words.

“I wanted to establish that there is a relationship between identity and portraiture,” says Letinsky. “I wanted them to be aware of how the work is seen and its context, to see that the work is not mute and that it is a text to be read.”

In developing the show, the students researched possible exhibitors, writing essays on how the work of certain artists relates to the theme of identity. They then contributed research on the selected artists to the exhibition catalog and met through the spring and summer to decide how to present the artwork. The resulting multimedia show, says Letinsky, includes works that respond to the influence of photography on art and self-awareness.

“The works all give the audience another way of thinking about the problem of identity,” she explains. “They all investigate identity as a question rather than an answer. They challenge the viewer. The fragmentation in their work doesn’t allow for a warm, fuzzy feeling.”

For example, she says, artist Byron Kim’s Lisa Sigal/Byron Kim places a panel painted in the skin color of his wife next to a panel painted in his own. Kim is prodding viewers to ask, says Letinsky, “What exactly gets told about a person when they are reduced to just a skin color?”

Similarly, points out student curator Liv A. Gjestvang, AB’98, artist Dawoud Bey creates actual physical fractures in his photographic portraits. “Instead of capturing a single moment in the photograph,” she explains, “he takes several images over a period of time and overlaps them so that each part of the picture is a little different, and the subtle changes in his subject over time are actually visible in the image.”

Gjestvang, an English concentrator, found that “curatorial work is practical and does involve calling galleries, finding artwork, writing articles, and designing the physical space, but it is also an intensely critical and theoretical process.”

Notes fellow student curator Catherine Cooper, ’99, an art history major: “I hope that other students will realize that the whole project is about how a group of people in a classroom can discover and learn together and then present that process to the public. I just hope it makes them think.”—C.S.

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