Sunday, November 30, 2008

A Captain's Desk

On a recent trip home, my father proudly showed me one of our family's more infamous heirlooms, which had recently come down to him. Known amongst the relatives as the "Captain's Desk," it was built for my great-great-great-great-grandfather, Ebenezer Cooley (really, shouldn't everyone have someone named Ebenezer in their family tree?).

He was born in 1768 in Sunderland Massachusetts, but lived most of his life in Norwich, Connecticut, where he died in 1838. Good ol' Eb really was a captain with a ship of his own that he used to ship goods to and from the West Indies. So he likely imported his own exotic hardwood up to Connecticut and had a local joiner make him a desk.

Of course, what most excited my dad about the desk was its "secret" drawer. As in many desks of the period, the small central door opens onto an arched cavity, but the decorative bit of woodwork at the top of the archway is actually a drawer that can be pulled forward.

What my dad didn't know is that once you take that drawer out, you can also pull out the side walls of the cavity. Each "wall" is actually a thin wooden box with about an inch-wide hollow slot. It was pretty great to see the look on my parents' faces when I revealed this extra layer of secret compartmentation to them. I guess I really am learning something about antiques!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Chipstone House

Taking a class in another department is always valuable, not only because you get to work on something totally different, but also because it inevitably makes you appreciate your own department all the more. This is being brought home to me again this semester, now that I'm taking a class taught by a folklorist in the Landscape Architecture department on "Cultural Landscape History, Theory, and Preservation." I was sort of hoping for a class about the history of landscape design, featuring the likes of Capability Brown and Frederick Law Olmstead, but mostly what we talk about is the preservation of historic buildings, because for better or worse that's what our preservation programs privilege.

But at least that means I can do a project on architecture, which I get to talk about but rarely. The working title of my final paper is Curating the Cultural Landscape: Chipstone House as Historical Property and it will examine Chipstone House, a 1949 neo-colonial mansion and its surrounding grounds, located in the Milwaukee suburb of Fox Point. The first question I want to raise relates to the discipline of landscape studies, and asks how J.B. Jackson’s definition of landscape as a collection of defined spaces relates landscape to other types of collecting and curatorial practices. J.B. Jackson is a seminal figure for the study of vernacular landscapes, but it feels like his groundbreaking ideas haven't sufficiently carried over to curatorial practice. This is particularly pertinent to Chipstone House since it is now the headquarters of the Chipstone Foundation, which curates the collection of early-American decorative arts begun by the house’s original owners, Stanley and Polly Stone. If we take Jackson's point that the interior and exterior landscapes of Chipstone House are collections, then how have they been curated? And how do these landscape curatorial practices relate to those used to curate what is better known as the “Chipstone Collection” of decorative arts?

My secondary point is about the role historicism played in the cultural landscape of Chipstone House. It was designed by Andrew Hepburn, an architect whose firm had been charged with restoring Colonial Williamsburg, and it's more or less a domestic version of Williamsburg's Governors Palace (above). Chipstone House clearly relates to a wider American interest in an idealized colonial past, but what I want to suggest is that Chipstone’s emulation of the historical properties in Williamsburg constructs history itself as property, as cultural capital or a commodity that can be bought and displayed.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Keramic Art of Japan

Last year I came across this book Keramic Art of Japan in our art library, and I've been more or less obsessed with it ever since. It was published in England in 1875, and it's basically an illustrated catalog of Japanese ceramics in various public and private collections. But the illustrations! In addition to photographs and photolithographs, it has the most extraordinary chromolithographs I've ever seen in person. They were done by a French firm and each image required a whole series of hand-drawn lithographic stones, one for each color and shade. They are so detailed, so colorful, so three-dimensional and yet so flat: their quality is almost magical.

This semester I'm finally getting to indulge my interest in Keramic Art of Japn by using it as the object of my final project for my class on "Dimensions of Material Culture." This will force me to look at the book as a material object: its size, bindings, printing, typography, etc., everything that isn't its text or its images. As an added bonus, I'm also giving a preliminary presentation on Keramic Art at a research colloquium on "Photography and the Technologies of Empire and Race" that's part of a Visual Culture Center conference here at UW-Madison. So I'll get to talk both about how all the images (even the chromolithographs) make use of photography, and how the book relates to England's imperialist attitudes towards Japan in the late-nineteenth century.

It's these later aspects--how the book uses mimetic technologies like photography and chromolithography, and how the book relates to Japonisme as a colonial discourse--that make me interested in using Keramic Art of Japan as a focus for my MA paper next semester. Specifically I want to compare what's going on in Keramic Art with the ways in which Japanese people were mimetically copied and mimicked by the English in popular illustrations and plays like Gilbert & Sullivan's The Mikado (as I discussed in my presentation for UCLA's Graduate Symposium on the Remnant). I have a hunch that one of the reasons Japonisme is under theorized in the scholarly literature is that Japonisme is thought to have been about decorative arts rather than figural representations. Even in my own department, with its emphases on material and visual culture, vases and parasols just don't register as having the same political consequences as images of people. Leaving aside that this plays right into nineteenth-century ideas of Japanese art as "merely" decorative, I hope that by looking at representations of Japanese people and objects in tandem I can demonstrate how they were unforunately equated.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Remnant Redux

Following the basic rule of academia that no conference paper should actually correspond to the abstract you originally submitted for it, I've written my UCLA paper along slightly new lines. I was originally planning on tying in the whole "remnant" idea by talking about how the images medievalize Japanese people, that is, represent them as living in a colorful but outdated feudal society. But the problem with art history is that, contrary to popular belief, you can't just claim that the image looks like whatever you want. You need actual visual evidence, enough to convince a room full of people that they can see in the image what you can see. And the more I looked at these images, the less evidence I saw of medievalizing tendencies.

But what I did see more and more in the images was a certain theatricality. Platforms and stages, curtains, audiences, subjects directly addressing viewers: everything suggesting that Japanese people were seen not just as remnants of an "old" Japan, but also as performing remnants of their ancient civilization for western audiences. What's interesting about this emphasis is that these exhibitions were still seen as authentic, as providing a picture of "real" Japan, even when the exhibitions were frankly discussed as performances. Much like how a "staged" photograph was considered much more realistic in the 19th century than it would be today.

If westerners saw Japanese culture as more or less a performance, than the inevitable outcome is performances like Gilbert & Sullivan's The Mikado, in which "Japanese" culture can be performed not just for westerners but also by westerners. And in the inevitably unequal power relations of the time, Japanese people were not given the same privilege of being able to perform western culture. In fact, Japan was aggressively westernizing at the time, reforming their government, education system, and military along western lines, wearing western clothes, etc. Some of these policies were praised in the West, but others, particularly wearing western clothing, were openly ridiculed. So we get things like this image, which was an apparently hysterical picture of Japanese men in western dress, when it first appeared in an English periodical in 1877. It's humor lies mostly in how the man on the right is trying to get on his horse on the "wrong" side, and how the men on the left have top hats and clothes that don't fit properly by English standards. Images like this one confirmed the idea that Japanese people belonged in their "ancient" costumes and would never be able to out-westernize the West.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Japonist Remnants

There's exciting news on the academic front: Lina is presenting at her very first conference. It's just a graduate symposium, but it's being held in the sunny locale of UCLA. I really liked the paper idea that I proposed for the conference, so I'm very excited that is was chosen, but now the problem is that I actually have to write the paper!

The theme of the symposium is "Remnants," which I can only assume was dreamed up during some sort of beach-side drug-induced powwow. It's a typical term for academia in that you thought it referred to something fairly specific, something left over or a surviving remainder, but once you try to define what might be and not be a remnant you realize that the term could encompass literally everything. As the symposium's organizers themselves pointed out, the entire "field of art history can be conceived of as a discourse of the remnant."

So the challenge in submitting an abstract to a symposium about everything is how to make your paper topic sound like it fits the theme without (a) sounding like everyone else's abstract and (b) using the word "remnant" 15 times in one paragraph. I wanted my topic to relate to Japonisme, but I also wanted the opportunity to write about something new, something I hadn't had a chance to discuss yet in my seminar papers. So I returned to some images I had come across last year that depict Japanese women for a western 19th century audience.

Basically, the abstract points out that even though some scholars have argued that Japonisme (the western interest in Japanese arts and society beginning in the mid-19th century) helped objectify Japanese people as having certain essentialist characteristics, visual representations of Japanese people have rarely been analyzed for how they might have contributed to this problem. So my paper argues that images of Japanese people that circulated in the west represented them as remnants, that is, not just as the remains of another far away culture, but also as the remains of a long ago civilization. By constructing Japanese people as remnants of an "old" Japan that was still going on, Japan gets constructed as a place living in the past, as a decidedly non-western, non-modern place.

I'm particularly into this image, which I found more recently, that represents a "Japanese Village" that was set up as a kind of amusement park in London. Newspaper articles from the time suggest that it was incredibly popular, with an average of 3,000 daily visitors, so popular in fact that an eager entrepreneur decided to set up an "Indian Village" along similar lines. Despite the different political relationships England had with India (its preeminent colony) and Japan (merely an economic and military dependent), the cultures of India and Japan were presented to the English public in sometimes similar ways. My favorite example of this is the Great Exhibition in Brussels, in which the English pavilion contained both an Indian village and a Japanese village, the latter graced with a statue of Queen Victoria. You really can't make this stuff up.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Frackelton's Dessert Plates

The spring semester has come and gone, and although I mentioned them in my last entry, somehow I never got around to actually blogging about Susan Frackelton's Dessert Plates. This set of small (about 6" diameter) porcelain plates hand-painted by Susan Frackelton c. 1890 was the subject of my seminar paper for a methods & theories of material culture class. For those who don't know, "material culture" is a catch-all term for physical objects that aren't really considered art but that academics still like to study, for example, dessert plates.

My department (and art historians generally) maintains an annoying division between material culture and visual culture, as though visual culture doesn't take material form and material culture has no visual component. Everything I want to study (e.g. fashion, furniture) could be considered both material and visual culture, because they are often material objects that people use but are also culturally constructed and circulated through predominantly visual media (like magazines).

But that's a tangent for another time! Once again I seem to be trying to get out of writing about Frackelton's Dessert Plates, much as I was all last semester. For whatever reason I just couldn't get excited about these objects or the paper I wrote on them.

Sure they're prime examples of the nineteenth-century china-painting craze, which makes them exemplary of popular yet marginalized "women's" arts. Sure, they incorporate Japanese and other self-consciously artistic motifs, making them part and parcel of my developing ideas on Japonisme and the Aesthetic Movement. They are even rather pretty, and remind me of a prized set of china currently owned by my mother that at least two out of her three daughters have their eye on. But a twenty-page paper? Really?

Somehow, I managed it, and the professor duly praised it, but I can't help feeling like I was just going through the motions. I figure it was good practice for my future career as a museum curator, when presumably I will have to write many a catalog entry for objects that I find neither beautiful nor interesting. But don't let me influence your own opinion of these pieces of material/visual culture. Just ask yourselves, if you had twenty pages to fill, what would you say?

Monday, May 12, 2008

Goldsworthy Redux

Two years ago I had the amazing experience of being an intern at the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington, an experience that was partially documented on my previous blog "The Starbucks Experiment" (so named because my day job, literally my 5 am to noon job, was at Starbucks). As readers of that blog know, my main project at NGA was to conduct research on Andy Goldsworthy, a contemporary British land artist who had recently completed a permanent work in the Gallery. However, Goldsworthy is better known for his "ephemeral" works, which usually involve tramping through the landscape and created a sculpture out of leaves or something that will disintegrate in a matter of time. What's interesting about these supposedly ephemeral works is that Goldsworthy always photographs them, as though to create a permanent record, gives the works a title and sells the photographs to the public in gallery-grade prints and mass-market books.

I've found myself thinking about these photo-works again in my visual culture theory class on "Word & Image," and conveniently enough, for our final project we were asked to revise our thinking on something we had worked on previously. This has given me the perfect opportunity to pour over my Goldsworthy research, which is much more voluminous than I remembered. It's basically my mini Arcades Project, about 50 pages of single-spaced typed notes, most of which are block quotes from various sources, organized under often-amusing headings like "how is Goldsworthy's work post-modern?" Even more amusing are my own comments, which reveal disturbingly simple ideas about words & images like "images are silent, words speak." How could a good art historian write such a thing!

So, for my paper I'm analyzing word-image combinations in Goldsworthy's most recent book,
Enclosure. And although they bring up lots of thorny issues that we've raised in class, I find myself coming back to the one word-image issue our class didn't address: titles. I never realized before how titles constitute Art (with a capital A). Example: Judy Chicago's Dinner Party designates an installation piece that is a work of art, as opposed to say, what you had to celebrate your birthday. But other objects that art historians study for their historical and aesthetic significance do not get italicized titles and, by implication, are not Art. Almost all decorative arts fall into this category, so that a set of works I'm writing on for another class are captioned as "Susan Frackelton, Dessert Plates, hand-painted porcelain, c. 1890" and not as "Susan Frackelton, Dessert Plates." What amazes me is the great lengths that art historians have gone to in order to preserve this "artist's name + italicized title = artwork" equation, routinely making up artist's names and titles like "The Master of the Apocalypse" (yes there really is one) or Still Life with Goblet.

Goldsworthy manipulates these conventions to distinguish between documentary and Art photography. Most of the photos that show the construction of his more permanent works are given simple captions. But when the photo is of an ephemeral work, that is, a work which no longer exists outside the photograph, then the image is designated as Art and captioned with an italicized title. I won't argue with the sheer convenience of italicizing titles of artworks, the way a simple change in typeface lets the reader know that the author means Judy Chicago's installation and not a form of hospitality involving the main meal of the day, but Goldsworthy's titles also show how they can be used to ease anxieties about what is and is not a work of art. Those conventions for separating art from non-art are worth questioning, and I'll argue with them in my own way, by boldly writing a seminar paper in which Susan Frackelton's Dessert Plates are italicized, each and every time.

Thursday, May 8, 2008


Taking a medieval art class on "Pilgrimage and the Cult of Saints" seemed like a good opportunity to learn about my (sort of) namesake, St Catherine. There are actually two, St Catherine of Sienna having been named after St Catherine of Alexandria. I was more interested in St Catherine of Alexandria, not only for being the "original," but because I knew there was a recent reincarnation of her "cult" in the haute-couture houses of 20th century Paris. This cult was the subject of a Hollywood film staring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward called A New Kind of Love. Joanne Woodward plays Sam, a hard-working, short-haired career girl who gets mistaken for a man by Paul Newman's character, Steve. Sam works at a New York department store and is in Paris to attend the fashion shows, where she gets roped into the St Catherine's day festivities.
St Catherine is a patron saint of unmarried women, so that on her feast day, November 25th, couture houses gave lavish parties for all their unmarried models and salesgirls. Famous singers (in this case Maurice Chevalier in a cameo role) entertained and handed out special hats to the Catherinettes, those women who were at least 25 and still unwed. Not only is my first name Katharine, but this year (today in fact) I'm turning 25, and naturally I'm not married. So basically I've just been working on the history of myself.

After drinking and dancing at these parties, the Catherinettes marched to St Catherine’s shrine—actually just a statue on a street corner—left a bouquet of flowers, and asked for her to help them find husbands. Even though Sam claims to be uninterested in marriage, she drunkenly climbs the ladder to Catherine’s statue, which is on a building’s second-floor fa├žade, and admits her private yearning for a husband. She then has a vision in which Catherine tells her to (what else?) go to Elizabeth Arden.

I couldn't exactly write my medieval-art seminar paper on a 1963 Hollywood film, but I was interested in how St Catherine, a virgin martyr who never married herself, came to be seen as a good person to turn to when you want to catch a husband. It turns out that unmarried women began visiting St Catherine shrines to ask for husband-hunting help since the 14th century. The explanation seems to be that around that time, Catherine became celebrated for her mystical marriage to Christ. Although this mystical marriage was usually depicted between the saint and a baby Jesus on Mary's lap, it was sometimes shown with Mary officiating at the marriage of St Catherine to a very handsome adult Christ. Historians figure that medieval women considered Christ the ultimate husband (always turns the other cheek, etc.) and since St Catherine was the paragon who got this heavenly spouse, she became the premiere saint of unmarried women.

So, I looked at a series of images of St Catherine and scenes from her life to trace how these changes affected the visual culture. This first one is called a vita icon, a portrait of the saint surrounded with narrative scenes. What interested me was the extent to which the saint was portrayed as a model of masculine behavior. Catherine was famous for being intelligent, eloquent, and highly educated in theology and the classics, and this icon emphasizes her ability to preach, convert pagans, and verbally defend her faith, just like any male apostle or bishop.

This altarpiece made a good transition. It retains this emphasis on Catherine's "masculine" behavior but includes the first known visual representation of her mystical marriage to Christ. This narrative takes place in the first four scenes on the upper-left, and depicts Catherine visiting a hermit to ask whom she should marry. He gives her an icon of the Virgin and Child and tells her to pray to them. They appear to the saint in a vision, and Mary tells Jesus to look on his new bride, but he refuses to do so. Catherine goes back to the hermit to be baptized, and in the next scene Mary weds her to the baby Jesus.

In the kind of awesome meta-move that academics just love, this next panel is a devotional image of St Catherine's mystical marriage to a handsome adult Christ that includes a donor portrait of the Franciscan nun who commissioned it. In other words, the nun (on the lower right) commissioned this panel painting so that she could use it as a devotional image that would aid her prayers for her own mystical marriage to Christ, and the nun's practice is a perfect imitation of what Catherine was depicted doing in the earlier altarpiece. Considering how sexualized the rhetoric around these "mystical" marriages got, it would be fun to see this kind of image as medieval nuns' porn, but do I really want to see my "patron" saint has a tool for sexual fantasy?

Saturday, April 5, 2008


And courtesy of Matthew Francis Rarey:

Monday, March 31, 2008

Spring Cleaning?

For the past month, my fellow residents of Madison, WI and I have been wondering if today will be the first day of real spring. March has been less "in like a lion, out like a lamb" and more "in like a piranha, out like a barracuda," but seasonal changes, though subtle, have definitely occurred. Some signs of spring in the land of the long winter:

Proving that there really are only two seasons: winter and construction. State Street is torn up for some sort of pipe extraction installation exercise, reducing pedestrian space by about 90%, but at least we know that winter is on the wane!

Not to mention that the bulldozers look lovely dozing in the fading light.

The lakes are still frozen, but at least the huge banks of accumulated snow and ice have melted away. Like receding glaciers, they've exposed hidden treasures and left rubbish in their wake, so that I keep expecting to see a mammoth tusk on my way to campus.

We may not have any blossoming trees or actual flowers of any kind, but I'll settle for green shoots like these that are finally starting to emerge. And to really seal the deal, these two ducks camped out on my driveway and calmly let me take their picture, as if to say in a pompous tone: "We claim this ground for spring."