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Academic material and vocabulary can be useful when applied to a piece projected on a classroom screen or hung on a gallery wall: you can identify the general style and period, describe the composition, palette, tone. But too often, students’ opinions are barely altered versions of what's in their professors’ lecture notes or the pages of their assigned reading. There's no room to decide how you feel about a work—only to learn why it's important. Are we being taught how to look at art, or how we should look at it?
Betsy Williamson considers that question in her show "Mining the Textbooks of Art History," running through July 21 at ARC Gallery, 2156 N. Damen.
“Kids go into class and they regurgitate what they’re told,” Williamson told me in a telephone interview. “I’ve looked at a lot of art-history textbooks, and they all basically say the same thing about an object and use one specific piece as a stand-in for a specific time period. They all use the same image. So everyone learns one or two things about this piece of art—but on an intimate level, critical thinking isn't really happening.”
With an MFA in photography and an MA in art history, Williamson is familiar with how art classes are formatted and syllabuses are drawn up. She says that her most recent work, Rethinking Art History, derives from her concern about the ways in which centuries of global art history get boiled down for presentation to entry-level survey classes. In that series, she juxtaposes images of famous masterpieces and sentences taken from textbooks, creating precise, colorful collages that highlight the dizzying overload of information encompassed by the courses. Williamson sets the ancient Roman sculpture Laocoon and His Sons against Picasso’s 1907 canvas Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. The hard-edged rainbow curves of Frank Stella’s Agbatana III frame a snapshot of cigar-store Indians.
“There’s a lot of push and pull between Western and non-Western and different time periods" in "Mining the Textbooks of Art History," Williamson says. "I don’t mean the works to come off as rude or hateful, but they are critical, and subtly humorous—though I guess if you didn’t know a lot about art history, you probably wouldn’t get any of the humor of it.”
For Textbook Typology, Williamson found multiple textbook representations of iconic pieces, framed them, and hung them together in rows in order to point out the extent to which they've come to represent entire artistic movements or historical periods. Nine Mona Lisas stare out at you—the quintessential example of High Renaissance painting, and also a reminder of the fact that many images come to us secondhand, in reproductions with different scales and colors, hardly ever true to the original. In this series as well as in A History of Painting, which addresses the connections between photography and painting, Williamson emphasizes the influence of text in determining what information we absorb and value regarding art. The framed images in A History of Painting contain typed details about the works (dimensions, material, provenance) in their upper-left corners. Wall text becomes integrated into the paintings themselves; classification is made explicit.
“If you look really closely at the History of Painting pieces with the magnifying glasses that are hung around the gallery, you see that I’ve also included the bibliography information for the text [from which the work is drawn],” Williamson said. “I did that because you sort of take in what everyone says about these works, accept it, but don’t form your own opinions or thoughts.”