May 4, 2011

Curating Iconic American Images

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The Sun chats with student curators Kristen Ross ’11 and Katherine Finerty ’11.

Every year, the History of Art Majors Society mines through the Johnson’s vast collection, with the hope of turning a small selection of works into an exhibition. This year, the search culminated in an exhibition entitled iCON; Consuming the American Image, currently on display in the basement of the Johnson. Yesterday, the Sun sat down with club president Kristen Ross ’11 and vice president Katherine Finerty ’11, to discuss the exhibtion’s main themes.

The Sun: What does the History of Art Majors Society do?

Kristen Ross: It’s a group comprised of history of art majors. We essentially begin working, at the beginning of each school year, on a show. We devise a show theme, which requires a lot of thought, and then we look at images from the Johnson’s collection throughout the year and curate an exhibition, which goes up in the spring.

Katherine Finerty: And it’s really exciting because the Johnson has an incredibly diverse and comprehensive collection. We’re usually limited to prints and photographs, but within that, we have a very wide selection, through which we develop a theme. This year, the theme was icon. After choosing the theme, we become more focused and create essays, taking more theoretical and conceptual approaches to the images that we choose.

Sun: How did you decide on the theme for this year?

K.F.: We wanted to do something really accessible and exciting for the entire scope of our audience, whether they be art history majors, professors or people who don’t normally go to museums. We were thinking about things that are really integral to our visual culture, and icons kept coming up — the idea of consumption, celebrity, role models, and how diverse visual images shape how we construct our identity both individually and collectively.

Sun: Ok let’s move onto the exhibit itself. I’d say that this image by Roy Lichtenstein is the most recognizable for me. Did the Johnson Museum already have this in their collection?

K.F.: Everything featured in the art exhibition is from the collection, which is very impressive. I’m excited that you jumped on that image, because we’ve used it as an icon for the exhibition. One of the most important conceptual approaches for our show is to engage and implicate the viewer. Featuring this work, called the “Accusing Finger,” by Lictenstein, pointing at the viewer, makes them ask: “what does it mean for me to be in this exhibition space considering and confronting not only these images, but myself?”

Sun: Right. A lot of other images are of people — Jackie Kennedy, the guys on the motorcycle, etc. This one doesn’t necessarily seem to fit in like the others.

K.R.: I think that it definitely fits in within the icon theme, especially if you think of the Uncle Sam poster by Montgomery Flagg, where Uncle Sam points at you directly. The Roy Lichenstein  sort of interpellates the viewer in order to get the viewer’s participation in the war effort. This is Lichtenstein’s reinterpretation of that iconic image and theme.

K.F.: We were thinking a lot not only about icons, but iconography, iconoclasm and the different visual and conceptual theoretical approaches to what makes something iconic by itself. I think it also exemplifies the deconstructive approach that we wanted to use to attack the idea of icon. It’s not just images of glorification, but also destruction, and not just portraits, but also objects. We also focused on consumption and consuming within the context of American culture and nationalism.

Sun: But what do you mean exactly by deconstructing?

K.F.: Well, for example, when people think of icons they normally think of the formal icons of religions — like the Madonna, and we do make a reference to the Madonna in the exhibition — but we wanted to see how icons have developed throughout the ages, and create a dialogue between the past and present, with different forms — from Andy Warhol’s soup can, as an image of mass media and advertising, to something more subtle, like Ellsworth Kelly’s minimalist painting, which has been an icon in art history and the art market.

Sun: Alright Kristen, in this “exhibition guide,” you talk about the picture of the framed naked woman. Tell me about this piece, and why is it is significant to you.

K.R.: I actually really dislike this piece.

Sun: So why is it here?

K.R.: This is Ruth Bernhard’s “In the Box Horizontal.” The reason it’s in the show, I imagine, is because it visually represents the female figure as commodified. The organic female body and sensuous nude curves have been placed in a box, which represents the packaging of the female body in both advertising and media. Photography participates in the commodification of the female figure through advertising by framing the female body, which is most literally represented, here, by placing the female in the box.

K.F.: One thing that I do like about this image is the use of the box, which is an incredibly potent symbol within art historical discourse — whether it’s the white cube as a structure in which art can be neutralized, or whether it’s representing some theory of framing, or the conscious presentation of a body.

K.R.: You can see the box, framing the figure. This framing is compounded by the enframing shape of the camera’s lens. So there is a series of frames here that capture and commodify the female body.

Sun: So to bring this discussion down to the layman’s level, Katherine, what is your favorite piece in the show?

K.F.: I love this question.  It’s called the “Hip-Hop Project,” by Nikki Lee, who is a Korean born American who has a series in which she will stay with different subcultures — from skateboarders to senior citizens, and in this case, hip-hoppers and rap artists. She is exploring the transience of physical, emotional and national identity, and her capacity to engage with, perform with and socialize with these different groups. She poses in all her pictures as well. Here she is wearing icons, so she is looking at the way in which you use symbols and iconography to create a rhetoric of national symbolism.

K.R.: Katherine loves this photo so much [laughs].

Sun: What about the dollar bill? There was just a dollar bill just hung up on the wall, that wasn’t in the collection was it?

K.R.: We brought in some  creative techniques into the construction of the show. One of them is the dollar bill, which we wanted to include because the dollar bill is directly related to notions of American consumerism. It is important to note that our show is focused in American imagery. The dollar bill has many associations, whether they be associations in terms of power, or destruction that comes with wealth, like the problems that arise through the stratification of classes.

K.F.: We should also talk about the mirror.

Sun: What did you do with the mirror?

K.F.: The mirror is one of the last images in the exhibit. It reflects not only the images of the exhibition but the viewer as well, so in that sense we are engaging and empowering every person who gets to see our exhibition.

Sun: So its sort of gets back to what we talked about with Lichtenstein? Kind of brings our discussion full circle.

K.R.: The mirror is at the end of the exhibition, and the Roy Lichtenstein piece is at the beginning, but within the space they  converge and create a dialogue.

Original Author: Joey Anderson