Asma Naeem on Black Out

Black Out Naeem book coverBefore the advent of photography in 1839, Americans were consumed by the fashion for silhouette portraits. Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now, the first major publication to focus on the development of silhouettes, gathers leading experts to shed light on the surprisingly complex historical, political, and social underpinnings of this ostensibly simple art form. Silhouettes registered the paradoxes of the unstable young nation, roiling with tensions over slavery and political independence.  Presenting the distinctly American story behind silhouettes, Black Out vividly delves into the historical roots and contemporary interpretations of this evocative, ever popular form of portraiture.

Here, author Asma Naeem discusses her interest in the form, as well as some of the surprises she discovered during her research.

The exhibit this book accompanies is curated by Naeem and runs through March 10, 2019, at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

What was the inspiration for Black Out?

The spark for Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now happened many years ago on a brilliant sunlit day as I stood in front of an antiques shop in St. Michael’s, Maryland. Tucked in the corner of the window, away from the mahogany Chippendale secretary, Federal convex mirrors, and handsome Windsor chairs, were some of the most arresting objects of early Americana that I had ever seen. The simplicity of design, the lustrous maple and gilt frames, the creamy paper, the intense black shapes cut by human hands, not to mention the intimate nature of the portraits – all of these things formed an indelible impression.

Imagine my pleasure years later when I joined the National Portrait Gallery and became a steward of one of the most stellar collections of silhouettes in the country.

Once I began researching these objects, however, different impressions began to form, impressions of an America that many of us didn’t know existed.

Why did you decide to include both historical and contemporary artists?

Once I decided to create an exhibition on silhouettes, suddenly, everywhere I looked I saw silhouettes—on signage, on book covers, on my mobile phone, and of course, in thrilling contemporary art installations by established and emerging artists alike. I knew then that I had to share these discoveries, known only to handfuls of experts, with the public at large.

What was your research process like?

I conceived of this show four years ago and it has been a years-long journey to find and then narrow down the list of objects for the exhibition. I wanted this show and catalogue to be more than your grandmother’s silhouettes, so I had to spend a lot of time looking for unique objects, both historical and contemporary. I went to many small historical societies to unearth their treasures. I encountered some of the most generous archivists and a few ghost stories along the way! I also had to spend much time accumulating all of the scholarship on silhouettes, much of which is written for antique collectors. For the contemporary works, I visited the artists in their studios or galleries when possible, and had numerous conversations about what I envisioned the show to look like and how their work fit in that vision.

Were you expecting to find so much historical material dealing with race, enslavement, and disability?

Yes, and no. I knew that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the traditional medium of portraiture, oil on canvas, precluded the less wealthy, women, and people of color because of its expensive, exclusive status. I didn’t expect to find such interesting, beautiful portraits of African Americans, the disabled, and such spunky women, particularly within our own collection here at the Portrait Gallery.

What can studying the history of the silhouette teach us about the representation of identity today?

This book will hopefully deepen our understanding of how Americans—women, men, black, white, states men, laborers—wanted to see themselves in the years of the Early Republic. We have always been a polyphonic, vibrant society. It also opens new pathways between our past and our present in terms of period notions of individualism, racial profiling, power, and even how our digital selves can be critiqued through the medium of portraiture.

Who else contributed essays to the book?

This project has been enriched and transformed by some of the most erudite minds in American art and conservation. I was fortunate to have essays written by Alexander Nemerov, the Carl and Marilynn Thoma Provostial Professor in the Arts and Humanities at Stanford University, Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, associate professor of American art at the University of Pennsylvania, and Penley Knipe, the Philip and Lynn Straus Senior Conservator of Works on Art on Paper at the Harvard Art Museums.

Nemerov and Shaw each probe the cultural contours of the remarkable worlds of unconventional nineteenth-century silhouettists Martha Ann Honeywell and Moses Williams, respectively. Knipe carefully examines silhouettes from the inside out, revealing various aspects of their material composition—about the paper, the scissors, and so forth—that many readers will find surprising.

Anne Verplanck, associate professor of American studies and humanities at Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg, who is one the preeminent scholars on silhouettes in the country, also was generous enough to write entries on many of the objects, not to mention offer her invaluable expertise to me regarding the historical art form on numerous occasions.

What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

I hope that readers will find silhouettes as fascinating, complicated, and significant in the history of American art as I do. I very much want the reader to see how silhouettes, like other forms of craft, should no longer be devalued in the art canon, and do, in fact, offer revelatory insights into how our country’s racial, social, and political history. I also would like to see silhouettes repositioned in our understanding of portraiture – what an incredibly popular and democratizing force they were in Early Republic America – well before the advent of photography in 1839. Without silhouettes, we would not have as much insight into the lives of such overlooked populations as the enslaved, same-sex couples, international envoys, and the disabled. And with the contemporary works, I’d offer silhouettes as an enduring, capacious, and utterly modern mode of expression, with their seemingly contradictory qualities of generality and specificity, blackness, playfulness, and the intersection with our social media profiles of our digital selves. The four female contemporary artists featured have created breathtaking, complex works that confirm that silhouettes are here to stay.

Asma Naeem is curator of prints, drawings, and media arts at the National Portrait Gallery.

 

Erin Monroe on Gorey’s Worlds

The illustrator, designer, and writer Edward Gorey (1925–2000) is beloved for his droll, surreal, and slightly sinister drawings. While he is perhaps best known for his fanciful, macabre books, such as The Doubtful Guest and The Gashlycrumb Tinies, his instantly recognizable imagery can be seen everywhere from the New Yorker to the opening title sequence of the television series Mystery! on PBS. Gorey’s Worlds delves into the numerous and surprising cultural and artistic sources that influenced Gorey’s unique visual language.

The book accompanies an exhibition, curated by Erin Monroe, that runs through May 6, 2018, at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut.

What was the motivation behind Gorey’s Worlds?

This book was inspired by Edward Gorey’s personal art collection, which he left to the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art upon his death in 2000. This is the first project to closely examine the artists he collected and admired. The book coincides with an exhibition of the same name, Gorey’s Worlds (on view through May 6, 2018), but the content goes beyond the scope of the exhibition. The plural of “worlds” is meant to reflect the richness of Gorey’s life and the imaginative texts and illustrations he created.

What are some the artists Gorey collected? What are some of the more prevalent themes and ideas?

I asked those very same questions when I began my research in 2014. In short, it’s eclectic and slightly peculiar, which should come as no surprise given Gorey’s aesthetic. There are 73 works of art that represent a wide range of makers. The content is primarily works on paper—prints, drawings and photographs—a few oil paintings, and a few small textiles. The artwork spans nineteenth-century drawings to contemporary art of the 1970s and 1980s. The familiar names include Eugène Atget, Charles Burchfield, and Manet. There are lesser-known contemporaries of Gorey’s, such as Albert York, and unidentified folk artists. In terms of technique, much of the work resembles Gorey’s densely cross-hatched drawings. The artwork is predominantly black and white and small-scale, again echoing Gorey’s own work.

I expect the collection to be macabre and gothic. Is it?

Some of it, while others were quite humorous and whimsical. There are many strong affinities with Gorey’s illustrations, but there are also big distinctions.

For example?

Well, for one, there are no images of children in any of the artwork he collected, whereas the majority of his stories involve children or invented animals/creatures acting like children.

How did that distinction inform your research? Did it change your approach?

It was critical, to me, to not be too literal and only look for visual connections, for example. It helped deepen my understanding of his work and accept that the relationships might be entirely impossible for someone like me to detect. Gorey layered ideas and concepts so densely that peeling away those layers isn’t easy.

Another example is how the ballet is literally absent from the bequest. It isn’t as if his art collection is filled with Degas ballerinas, yet Gorey watched nearly 160 performances a season for almost 30 years under the direction of George Balanchine. His ballet-watching, to me, helped shape his figures that are posed “just so,” deliberate, expressive, like a dancer. His drawings are typically horizontal, stage-like. Beyond that, Gorey knew of the museum’s early history with the ballet in 1930s, and this in part inspired his gift to us.

How did you learn about Gorey’s ballet obsession?

One of the writers for Gorey’s Worlds is Robert Greskovic, a dance critic and friend of Gorey’s. Robert’s essay is a touching remembrance of Gorey’s reactions to various productions, costumes, etc., and revealed the degree to which he noted every single detail that contributed to mood of the performance.

Who else wrote for the catalogue?

Given Gorey’s ties to many different cultural arenas, I felt it was important to engage different perspectives on his work. Arnie Arluke, a specialist in human-animal studies, discusses animals in Gorey’s work, and Professor Kevin Shortsleeve delves into Gorey’s connections to nonsense literature and surrealism. My essay presents principal groupings that emerge in the artwork Gorey collected, such as French art and American art, for example.

Was either of the other authors familiar with Gorey’s work before the project?

Yes and no. Kevin studied Gorey’s work for his master’s thesis, but this project presented a new angle on Gorey for him. Similarly, Arnie knew of Gorey’s work, but freely admitted that applying his knowledge to visual art was far different than the scientific research and papers to which he was accustomed.

Were you a Gorey fan before this project?

I wasn’t familiar with his work until this project. When I look back at my childhood and even teenage years, I realize I liked “Goreyeseque” books growing up.

Such as?

I loved Roald Dahl, and since my mom was Canadian, I read the funny (slightly dark) stories of Dennis Lee, a Canadian children’s author and poet; years later, I read the Lemony Snicket series. I love murder mysteries, and my favorite movie in high school was Clue. Turns out Gorey loved Tim Curry, too….

Going back to your research, what was different about this project?

Trying to get to know Gorey as a person and how he lived with his collections was a departure from my normal approach. I tracked down photographs of his New York City apartment, to look at what artwork hung where, for example. I also spent time at the Edward Gorey House in Yarmouth Port, on Cape Cod. The staff has many of the curiosities Gorey collected, such as vintage objects, rocks from the beach, tarot cards, etc. They also let me spend the night in the house, in Gorey’s bedroom! I can attest there are no bats or menacing creatures lurking about, at least none that I witnessed.

What do you hope people will take away from this book?

For the first time, readers will have a chance to step into his artistic mindset, to look at the artists that sparked his imagination. Edward Gorey is more complicated than people realize. Many assume because his work is moody and dark that he, too, was reclusive and weird. I found far more humor, more absurdity, than anything.

Erin Monroe is the Robert H. Schutz Jr. Associate Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art. She is the author of Andrew Wyeth: Looking Beyond.

L. Randall Wray to sign books at BOOM BUST BOOM

Terry Jones (of Monty Python fame) presents a new documentary called BOOM BUST BOOM, an analysis on why economic crashes keep happening despite all the tools we have to forecast and avoid them. Economic insight, puppetry, and song combine to make a complicated issue accessible to everyone. The show runs from March 11 to March 15 in NYC.

All week there will be special events to complement the show, including Q&A’s with key participants and a book signing with PUP author L. Randall Wray. He will be signing copies of Why Minsky Matters, an introduction to an economist whose ideas are more relevant than ever in our global society.

Minsky

In honor of the US premiere of BOOM BUST BOOM, we’ll be giving away copies of Why Minsky Matters over the course of the next two weeks. Simply follow the instructions in the box below and wait to see if you’ve won! Good luck to all our entrants and be sure to check out BOOM BUST BOOM.
a Rafflecopter giveaway

Affordable Housing in New York: An Exhibition

BloomLasner

From February 10, 2016 to May 15, 2016, the Hunter East Harlem Gallery in New York is hosting a new exhibition called Affordable Housing in New York: The People, Places, and Policies that Transformed a City, as a gallery component to the book by Matthew Gordon Lasner and Nicholas Dagen Bloom. The exhibition is free and open to the public.

Via Verde Bronx 2012, Model and plan by Matthias Altwicker, Alexander MacVicar. Christopher Alvarez, Kevin Kawiecki, photo by Eduard Hueber archphoto

Via Verde Bronx 2012, Model and plan by Matthias Altwicker, Alexander MacVicar. Christopher Alvarez, Kevin Kawiecki, photo by Eduard Hueber archphoto

The exhibition features original photographs by award-wining visual sociologist David Schalliol, interactive models of apartment interiors, and archival and other material that immerse visitors in New York City’s unique system of for low- and middle-income housing. Also on display are photographs from Project Lives, a program that provided cameras and photography classes to residents of public housing. The exhibition will be accompanied by several public programs, including walking tours and panel discussions.

Housing

This exhibition is brought to you by Hunter College Art Galleries, the Hunter College President’s Fund for Faculty Advancement, the New York Institute of Technology: School of Architecture and College of Arts and Sciences, The Journal of Planning History, and Princeton University Press.

Ai Weiwei exhibition at Blenheim Palace: Our UK publicity assistant investigates!

Visitors can expect to experience something different this autumn at Blenheim Palace. Tradition meets modernity as the 18th century baroque architecture of Blenheim, the birthplace of wartime British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill, is host to an exhibition of the artwork of Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei.Ai weiwei sign

This exciting exhibition is especially relevant to Princeton University Press for two reasons: not only is Blenheim Palace a stone’s throw from Princeton University Press’s European office in Woodstock, Oxfordshire, but Princeton University Press published Ai Weiwei’s ‘Little Black Book’, Weiwei-isms, last year.

Weiwei-isms is a collection of quotes demonstrating Ai Weiwei’s thoughts on key aspects of his art, politics and life, carefully selected by Larry Warsh from articles, tweets and interviews.

“Everything is art. Everything is politics.” — Weiwei-isms

Like Weiwei-isms, the exhibition at Blenheim Palace clearly demonstrates Ai Weiwei’s commitment to art as a powerful political statement, as a means of reacting against injustice, and inspiring others to do the same.

Blenheim chandelier“I want people to see their own power.” — Weiwei-isms

This certainly becomes clear as you enter the exhibition. You are given a leaflet which serves as a guide to Ai’s artwork, dispersed throughout the rooms of the palace. Despite this, none of the artwork is signposted and it becomes the visitor’s responsibility to seek it out and take meaning and inspiration from what they see.

The collection brings together pieces created by the artist over the past 30 years. It is especially impressive given that it was curated remotely, Ai Weiwei having been under house arrest since 2011. The old and new are often brought together, with artefacts from the past being reimagined in novel ways. Take, for example, the Han Dynasty vases transformed beyond recognition by car paint or by being ‘rebranded’ with the Coca Cola logo.

Blenheim zodiacHis ‘Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads’ (2010), previously displayed at a year-long exhibition at Princeton University, is also at Blenheim. This work is an ironic interpretation of the bronze zodiac head statues that were looted from the Emperor’s summer palace (Yuan Ming Yuan) in Beijing in 1860.

Other highlights include ‘He Xie’ (2012), a work comprised of 2,300 porcelain crabs on the floor of the Red Drawing Room (‘He Xie’, meaning ‘river crabs’, puns on the Chinese phrase for ‘harmony’).

While some pieces are the first thing you see when you walk into a room, other pieces are integrated more subtly into the sumptuous interiors of Blenheim Palace. The Wave Plate (2014) is seamlessly integrated into the lavish table decoration as the centrepiece in the Salon, and a pair of handcuffs made of Huali wood (2012) – a reminder of Ai Weiwei’s current situation – placed suggestively on the bed in Churchill’s birth room might escape your attention due to the large number of visitors moving from room to room, all engrossed in the same treasure hunt as you.

Blenheim crabsAll in all, the collaboration between Blenheim Palace and Ai Weiwei really does merit a visit. Ai Weiwei’s work is all the more interesting and thought-provoking for being situated in the context of Blenheim Palace and its grounds.

The exhibition at Blenheim Palace highlights the ‘clash’ of the old and new, which is indeed something that is key to much of Ai Weiwei’s work.

“If a nation cannot face its past, it has no future.” — Weiwei-isms

In years to come, the Ai Weiwei exhibition at Blenheim Palace is sure to become part of the artist’s legacy and a poignant reminder of his struggle for justice and truth.

“The art always wins. Anything can happen to me, but the art will stay.” — Weiwei-isms

The exhibition runs until 14th December.