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Archive for the 'This Ivory Tower' Category

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Thursday, August 21st, 2008

A couple of weeks ago, Noel and I received these slips in our fortune cookies:

The software developer, of course, was affirmed with the declaration that his financial future was secure. Me? Facing a new semester with a new batch of freshmen and the always combustible departmental politics, I am told: “An alien of some sort will be appearing to you shortly!” Cool.


Tuesday, July 15th, 2008

I got my diploma from WashU in the mail a few days ago. I had sort of forgotten that I had actually finished a degree program and now possessed some useless letters that could but probably never will follow my name. It’s a fancier diploma than I expected, all engraving-on-silk-inset-in-leather-folio.

This is all well and good, but the entire diploma is also written in Latin. Every. Last. Bit. Because we are just that special. I am pretty sure that I am a Master of Arts in Art History and Archaeology, but I really can’t be positive, having been marginalized by my own diploma.

I’ve sent it to my youngest brothers — whose classical education Latin may now, at last, prove useful — for translation. But should you, similarly educated reader, choose to translate it for the masses of the internet, that would be cool, too.

Also, I’d prefer not too think too long and hard about the unnerving parellels between my exceptionally non-profit-producing degree and the oft-proclaimed dead language of Latin. Thanks.

Resting, Resting

Monday, June 30th, 2008

Things I am not doing this summer include: taking a language class, writing a chapter, and spending inordinate amounts of time in the library.

Things I am doing this summer include: helping plan two weddings and execute four, watering my garden, remembering why I love contemporary art, traveling, assembling friends’ Ikea dresser, getting a piercing, eating as many meals as possible in my backyard, learning about hospitality, learning about twitter, trimming a chapter into an article, researching evidence of ethnic profiling in World War II visual culture, and running 6 miles.


Pow. Pau.

Sunday, April 13th, 2008

A few trees later, my thesis has bee submitted to my committee. I am defending this week Wednesday at 12:30.

triumphant heel

Shortly, I will be nervous about my defense, anxious about talking to three really excellent professors about this half book that I just wrote. But right now, I am triumphant.

An Eva Hesse Kind of Week

Tuesday, March 11th, 2008

It is telling of my weakness that brief, punchy criticism directed towards my abilities in a none-too-important quadrant of my life can swiftly debilitate me. The specifics of the criticism were really immaterial; all I took away was a panicking sense of self-doubt, a questioning of my calling, and the impulse to cry any time someone asked me about my MA thesis.

Sometimes I have days or weeks that remind me of particular artists. I’ve had Fred Tomaselli days where everything seems like a fascinating, jubilant burst of colorful bits. I have had Kiki Smith weeks, where I am acutely aware of the aches and longings of those hurting around me. I have had Lorna Simpson days where the lingering, haunting effects of our culture’s past wrongs ask to be mourned. I’ve even had Marcel Duchamp days where life is just…wackier. (I can’t really say that I’ve ever had a Rubens day, though. I’m not sure what that would entail.)

The last five days — feeling incapable, fearful, and insubstantial — have been part of an Eva Hessa kind of week.

rope piece 1970

Working in New York through the sixties, Hesse worked both within and against the dominant minimalist aesthetic, creating works that toyed with materials and with its relationship to the viewer. Her works often projected out into the viewer’s space, blurring the demarcations between painting and sculpture, object and environment. Many of Hesse’s works, particularly in the late sixties, used new industrial – and dangerous – materials such as latex and fiberglass to create sculptural works which were powerful in their fragility. This work, Rope Piece from 1970, is a drooping, amorphous installation that evokes the body with a minimalist nod. Looped and dangling, the rope somehow still suggests a body.

My own body, while so tense from the stress of the last few days, recognizes itself here. It’s a body aware of weakness, a body on the brink of tears. My fear of others’ opinions — and thus my frequent forgetting of my freedom in Christ — can cripple me. I transpose the criticism of one area onto the substance of my very calling. Should I be in grad school? Should I be writing a thesis? Is my work meaningful? Original? Substantial? Why can’t I write a normal sentence?

With a sister in Darfur and a sister-to-be who is under great expectations, this existential crisis over my academic ability seems rather silly. To some extent, surely it is.

Yet the beautiful thing about Eva Hesse weeks is that I am also reminded of the Incarnation. The Incarnation is the Word becoming a tired, broken body. It is God being born in bloody straw, sweating as he walked, needing naps, crying bitterly. The Incarnation is the God giving dignity to particulars, saying “yes” to the importance of form and flesh and sight. The Incarnation is the reason my unsteady heart and welling fear need not paralyze me. And the Incarnation reminds me why this is my kingdom calling in the first place.

An All-Over Hue

Thursday, February 21st, 2008

Dr. Paul Morton ranks among my favorite professors at Covenant. Besides being a tremendous history teacher, speaking in eminently quotable phrases, and dealing with college politics exclusively through the lens of sarcasm, Dr. Morton also had a remarkably specific code of dress.

On the days when he wasn’t wearing a sweater vest, he would stride into class clad entirely in a single color. He wore black, of course, like the erudite intellectual that he is. A black turtleneck, slightly faded black pants, a black belt, black socks, and black shoes. Sometimes he chose brown as the color of the day: a chocolate button-down, brown trousers, and coordinating belt and shoes. He wore a cream-and-khaki ensemble, too, and that one played with texture; the cable knit of the ivory sweater vest playing off of the khaki twill and cream jersey turtleneck.

Not that the man was afraid of color. He owned forest green pants around which he built a truly amazing outfit. He had kidney-bean colored pants, too. And while I occasionally cringed when his shades of olive green inhabited the shadowlands of neither-matching-nor-contrasting, I admired his commitment. Not everyone can pull off 6’4″ of eggplant.

But today I read a New York Magazine profile on New Yorkers who wear a single color — and not black — exclusively. My favorite was Elizabeth Sweetheart, a fabric designer who is deeply, passionately dedicated to kelly green.

elizabeth sweetheart

I guess Dr. Morton has a ways to go before he can count himself among the truly color-committed.

The Writing on the Wall

Sunday, February 10th, 2008

On Friday night I saw the writing on the wall… and it was mine.

It is a strange sensation to walk into a museum — a real museum, not Covenant’s Art Barn — and see one’s own words plastered on the wall. It is even stranger to see well-appointed museum donors, art history department professors, and unsuspecting members of the public intently reading those words so seriously.


Should I caution them? Should I warn them that those imperious museum object labels that appear so definitive and confident were written by… a grad student? Should I sidle up and ask if it makes sense?

Last semester, I interned for the dean of the Sam Fox School of Art and Design as he curated his exhibition On the Margins, a show of (very!) contemporary art which explores themes of war, disaster and displacement. I functioned largely as a research assistant, compiling files on each of the artists and artworks, assembling an annotated bibliography for sources dealing with visual depictions of war and disaster, composing artist biographies for the exhibition catalogue and writing wall text.

While the act of writing artist biographies and wall text is not in and of itself exhilarating, the payoff is — as this weekend proved — rather extraordinary. First off, it makes for a nice line on the good ol’ professional curriculum vitae. Second, wealthy museum donors invite you to quite lovely private receptions where you will be fed bacon-wrapped scallops, mini crab cakes, and excellent wine. Third, you get invited to tag along with the artists who come into town for the exhibition opening. This means that you get to go on a private tour of the Putlizer Foundation’s Dan Flavin exhibition with Mrs. Pulitzer, assorted area curators, and artists Willie Doherty, Willie Cole, Jane Hammond, and Thaddeus Stroud. It’s all very surreal.

Also, you feel slightly obligated to wear more black than usual so you can fit in with the curators.

The moral of the story, dear reader and visitor-of-museums, is that you should never fully entrust yourself to the wall text. It may have been written by a grad student who just needed to get a good meal.

A Thesis in Pieces

Thursday, December 6th, 2007

Huzzah! I am 58 pages closer to a graduate degree in Contemporary Art and Theory.

Four days ago, my dining room floor looked like this:

Thesis in Pieces

When I taught writing at Cov, I would occasionally frighten hapless students by whipping out a pair of scissors and announcing that we were going to cut up their essays. I am a big believer in slicing up essays. In real life. There is something so productive and material and satisfying about physically playing with the order of an essay that even Microsoft Word’s scissor icon can’t quite approximate.

After a satisfying round with my scissors, some tape, and scrap paper, things started to come together:
Abject Forever

Yay. The final few projects of the semester seem far more manageable after taming this beast.

PSA: The Names of Old Masters Are Not Interchangeable

Saturday, November 3rd, 2007

(Blogging between rounds of grading has proved difficult. My thesis research is consuming, and as I struggle to put thoughts into sentences coherent by academic standards, I have little desire to re-translate into summary or self-critical form for my reading public. But, lucky for you, faithful, returning reader of this blog…the second exam is in hand, providing me with ample fodder for nerdy giggles.)

A public service announcement regarding this painting:

death of the virgin

I freely admit that this is not the most famous of paintings. The colors are dark, the subjects look sad, and the suggested narrative is reasonably obscure. And yet, cultured reader and member of the public, there are a few things I would like you to know.

Contrary to the answers of several of my students, this is not a fine example of the Early Renaissance period. This is not, in fact, painted by Masaccio. A work by Masaccio, Early Renaissance master as he was, looks more like the this:

Further, the painting in question is not, as reported by other students, painted by Peter Paul Rubens. Although you, fine reader, were not in attendance during the class lecture on Rubens — where his penchant for rosy, fleshy, tumbling women was repeated ad nauseum — you may be familiar with the common reference to a “Rubenesque” build. Upon careful examination of first painting, I would argue, quite strongly, that there is nary a peaches and cream confection of a woman in sight. The absence of such plump femininity would, I hope, temper any desire to attribute this work to Rubens. It was not so for my students, but perhaps, now, you will choose more wisely.

the landing of marie de medici

The painting in question is, in fact, by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Death of the Virgin, from 1606. It is not, as another student proclaimed, A Suicide, and it is most definitely not The Deposition. The painting is remarkable in several aspects, not least of which is the uncharacteristically somber and realistic treatment of Mary’s death. Instead of a shiny, floating Virgin being ushered into the heavens by putti, Caravaggio paints a pale, slightly green, and decidedly dead woman surrounded by stricken mourners. This unflinchingly naturalistic depiction of death likely contributed to the decision by Caravaggio’s intended patron, Laerzio Cherubini, to reject the painting. Ironically, Peter Paul Rubens — who painted a rather luscious Assumption of the Virgin himself — appreciated Caravaggio’s skill and innovation and convinced the Duke of Mantua to buy the work instead.

This message is sponsored by the Society of Type A Art Historians and Tired TAs with the hope for a brighter future where our young people remember that the names of old masters are not, in fact, interchangeable.

The Salt of Grading

Tuesday, October 16th, 2007

As previously mentioned, I currently TAing for Intro to Western Art. The first quiz has come and gone, leaving a trail of special moments in its wake. In anticipation of the students submitting their midterm essays on Thursday, I look back, fondly, at what I learned during the initial round of grading:

Best first sentences:

  • “History is bloody.”
  • “Every culture has images.”

Broadest Claims. Ever.

  • “Art has been the most important form of propaganda in the west for thousands of years.”
  • “Therefore, the true measure of a civilization can only be is its artwork.”
  • “We can clearly see that art is very much an uninterrupted process which amazingly is able to surpass the barriers of distance and time, and maintain a sense of continuity.”

Wish I could give creativity points:

minoan octopus flask

  • Squid Bottle
    Artist Unknown
    2000 BC
    Ancient Greece (Right. It’s actually known as the Minoan Octopus Flask, but at least we got the name of a cephalopod.)
  • “A popular theory is that [the pyramids] point to specific stars for protection of the pyramids’ contents. But perhaps there were never stars there at all. Maybe those stars are actually pharaohs that have made the full journey into the afterlife.”