Art History

Featured Graduates:

Emily Breidenbach

The 2012 BFA Show: “Shiny Relics of Unquantifiable Worth”

The School of Art and Design at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) was founded in late spring of 1877. Dr. John Milton Gregory, the regent of the university, believed in a partnership between learning and labor. He believed that the skills of drawing and design could offer invaluable contributions to training in agriculture, engineering, and architecture—the three primary fields of study at the university in 1877.

In the following fifty years, a growing interest in art on campus lead to increased funding for the university’s art collection, the establishment of a visiting professor initiative, and the creation of degree programs in art education, painting, industrial design, and commercial design (now referred to as “graphic design”). Despite the growth of the School of Art and Design, it remains true to Dr. Gregory’s belief in the partnership between learning and labor. The School of Art and Design has consistently adapted to incorporate the latest developments in art and technology. Developments such as the addition of a photography program in the 1950s, the addition of the Krannert Art Museum and Kinkead Pavilion, and studio facilities attest to this.

The School of Art and Design holds a unique advantage of being positioned within one of the leading public research universities in the world. The University of Illinois was the origin for many important cultural developments in the twentieth century. UIUC is where sound was first combined with film, and, in the early 1990s, the World Wide Web was born at UIUC through the development of the first web browser called Mosaic. The larger intellectual and creative campus community invigorates and informs the work of students. Gretchen Schreiber, a senior in metals, acknowledges this advantage, stating, “I originally wanted to go to U of I because I wanted to have the option of pursuing art in college, but still be able to study liberal arts, so I could get the most well-rounded education I could.”

While some students are drawn to UIUC by the abundance of opportunities on campus, there is also something unique about the School of Art and Design to which students are drawn. Marina Ross, a senior in painting, finds the most positive aspect of the School of Art and Design to be the “close one-on-one attention you receive from your professors.” She says that she has formed strong bonds with her professors, who also act as mentors. She states, “My professors make me feel inspired, creative, and valuable to the field of art. I know that many of them will remain in my life for a long time.”

In addition to the strong faculty-student bond in the School of Art and Design, the pedagogy of the school attracts many students. Gretchen Schreiber states that one of the most positive aspects of the school is that the programs emphasize concept and theory. She says, “There are a lot of reputable art schools that have great programs and teachers that can help students physically improve their artistic skills. U of I does that and also prepares students with the information necessary to become successful artists, not just successful makers.” The School of Art and Design’s website offers this assessment regarding the pedagogical needs of today’s student body: “There is mounting evidence that the twentieth century’s focus on the development of linear, sequential, literal skills is waning. In its place we see a growing recognition that the next generation of leaders will be distinct, and prized, for the ability to think in ways that are metaphorical, aesthetic, contextual, and synthetic. These are exactly the skills that our students in our school work at developing.”

Josh Fairbanks, a senior who majored in both Art History and Painting, sums up his experience in the School of Art and Design well. Josh believes that the tools the school provides students give them the ability to “look at and listen to what’s going on in the deepest recesses of ourselves and society. Like a miner emerging for the depths of the sooty underworld, coughing up coal–but holding a shiny relic of unquantifiable worth.” He says, “The school has helped us as artists and art historians by giving us the unique, and sometimes frightening, opportunity to understand who we are, as well as the tools to evaluate culture.” Each work in this show can be seen as a record of a student’s experience with the school. The BFA show is truly a collection of “shiny relics of unquantifiable worth.”

Rachel Fundator

Bold Shapes, Confrontational Colors, and Odd Spaces:
Paintings by Leah Guadagnoli

My eyes dance across the computer screen at severely flattened shapes of green, yellow, pink, purple, blue. The colors are unnaturally saturated, phosphorescent, and confrontational in their boldness. The stunningly colorful shapes fit tentatively together, creating odd puzzles devoid of depth and space. I stare at the computer screen at the pixilated images of Leah Guadagnoli’s recent paintings, which she will exhibit at the 2012 B.F.A. Exhibition at the University of Illinois. As I examine the oil and acrylic paintings displayed on Leah’s website, my mind races. Perplexed by the paintings’ digital appearance, I wonder, “How can these pieces exist in tangible space?”

Last weekend Leah invited me to her studio to discuss her paintings. She met me in the hall on the second floor of Flagg Hall and ushered me past several cubicle-sized studios. Large, expressionistic nudes sheathed in somber colors watched us from their canvas surfaces as we moved towards Leah’s partitioned workspace. I recognized a vividly colored painting from her website, entitled “It’s Alive!,” which hung above a neat stack of art history books. A freshly primed canvas was drying on a table. Leah sat at her desk, as I took an armchair by the window. Her laptop was open to Photoshop; a pile of brightly colored paper and a small contour drawing lay to her right.

Leah described her recent paintings from fall 2011, which explored her fascination with the complex relationship between virtual reality and the tangible world. The bright colors, the smooth surface of the canvases, and the odd, seemingly depthless space within her paintings suggest that they are computer-generated. Yet, the evocation of virtual reality is complicated by her process of physically applying and manipulating paint on canvas. While the paintings appear to be digitally produced, they are manually created with paint and a paintbrush. I was initially uneasy upon viewing Leah’s paintings, as it was unclear what they are and how they were made.

Leah paints these odd spaces with that goal in mind. She explains, “I want my work to be difficult–not exhausting, but invigorating.” She fosters this complicated art and the viewers’ unease by developing her works in many steps, utilizing diverse methods and materials. She often begins her paintings with a color palette in mind. Piles of colored paper, like the one on her desk, act as inspiration for the colors she later creates. Next, Leah draws a scaled contour drawing and uploads the image into Photoshop. Using the scraps of paper as a reference, she experiments with the original colors, fine-tuning them to create computer-generated hues. She then uses the colors she manipulated in Photoshop to fill in the contour drawing. When satisfied, Leah manually transfers the digital image on to a canvas, recreating the pixilated colors from the computer screen with oil or acrylic paint. As a result of this multi-media process, the barrier between the tangible and virtual worlds is corroded. Viewers experience prolonged uncertainty, as they are unable to identify the source of these images.

Despite the tension and unease her work provokes, Leah maintains a sense of stability through recurring visual elements and minimalist forms, which she calls her “vocabulary of visual patterns.” Leah intentionally reuses shapes, causing viewers to recognize patterns and to feel a sense of permanence from the repetition. She also contrasts bold pigments, creating color vibrations in many of her works. Leah often creates circular paths for the eye to enter into and travel through her paintings, encouraging audiences to repeat this visual path upon viewing the next piece. Working as a unified whole, these patterns stabilize her paintings and create cohesion, despite the unease the individual elements produce.

Leah contrasts these paintings to those made during her first three years in college, attributing her recent creativity to her study abroad in Italy during spring 2011.While studying with the contemporary artist Ridley Howard, Leah was told that her work was outdated and unoriginal. Leah reconsidered the purpose of her art and her longstanding fascination with the grotesque and the beautiful, conceding that she needed a fresh vision. She reconfigured her art, reveling in minimal forms, pure and flattened color, and odd spaces.

But the new paintings were not immediately successful. As she showed me an early painting from Italy, Leah laughed and said, “This is bad now that I look at it. But, that’s okay because this is a clear transition from gross flesh to shapes and colors. It is terrible, but necessary.” With the “terrible, but necessary” pieces, Leah developed and refined her visual vocabulary–the shapes, colors, rhythms–as well as her process of making tangible paintings appear computer-generated.

Leah still experiments with and transforms her art. While the paintings from fall 2011 subtly suggest the dismemberment and reconfiguration of the human form, Leah now strives to create a more explicit representation of the body, while still incorporating her flat colors and a sense of virtual space. In order to explain her new vision, Leah revealed a large canvas that was propped against the wall. She sees it as a failed attempt to paint the complete human form; however, the failed piece is significant, for it is another transitional work that will inform and improve the paintings to come. By the end of our meeting, it was clear that Leah was excited to return to the small drawing on her desk. I left in a state of curiosity, anticipating where this new piece will guide Leah’s future art.

Anisha Gupta

Art vs. Design: A Dilemma

When Bridget Hapner says she is creating identities, she means it literally. Her latest project is to create an identity, or persona, for the Buffalo Bill Historical Society in Cody, Wyoming by designing the logo, choosing the font, and picking the color scheme.

Bridget is a senior in graphic design, but she will also complete a minor in art history. Her interest in art history paired with her future career in graphic design brought us to a question that is heavily debated in graphic design circles: is graphic design art? “There’s art and there’s design,” Bridget says. “I wouldn’t call myself an artist; that makes me uncomfortable. I enjoy design because it’s communication. It has a purpose.” Bridget’s interest lies in information design and her primary goal is conveying a message to an audience. She showed me a poster she created for the Bikecentennial, a bike ride across the United States to mark the bicentennial. The poster has a red, white, and blue color scheme. A map of the United States spans the left side of the poster and a broken red line marks the 4,250-mile long bike trail. Red flags indicate landmarks with particularly difficult terrain; the starting and ending points are indicated with bold, shiny white stars. Pictures from the Bikecentennial are interspersed throughout. The demographics of the cyclists are displayed in a bar graph on the right side of the poster. The poster is sleek and to the point.

For Bridget, graphic design is about conveying a message to the audience in the clearest possible manner, and she believes this should not be confused with art. “The end goal (in graphic design) is communication, not self-expression,” she says. The work she is most interested in, creating infographics, often relays her client’s message, whether it be that of a corporation or a museum. Her own opinion becomes irrelevant. The identities that she creates are those of others; her work does not exclusively represent or embody her.

Even her creative approach is methodical and precise. “The basis of what makes you a designer is your process…to understand what it means to use these fonts and properly design something… sets people apart,” she explains. Throughout the interview, Bridget referred to herself as a designer rather than an artist, a distinction that emphasizes working within specific forms, structures, and patterns, particularly regarding technology. In a field where work is produced on a computer, Bridget has to be very technologically savvy. The programs she uses – InDesign and Photoshop – give her a framework she has to work within.

The reliance on technology might seem foreign to many traditional artists. The entire work of art is produced, from start to finish, without the artist’s physical touch. It is understandable that there is skepticism about the status of work created on a computer. After all, the medium on which graphic designers work today was not available when Bridget’s father, also a graphic designer, began his career. But the history of art is littered with changes in technology that revolutionized the way that art is created. In the 1500s, the discovery of oil paints almost led to the extinction of egg tempera. There was also a shift at this time from wood panels to canvas. In changing both the medium used to paint and the surface the work was painted on, the 1500s was a time of technological advances in painting. So when the painter's brush is replaced with a designer's mouse, what's the difference? What makes bits and bytes immune to the forces that affect paints and clays?

Though Bridget relies on technology to create her work, the technology itself does not create art, the artist does. The artist might choose to use computer programs as her tools but they are always just that, tools. In these programs, she has so many options from which to choose: to draw by hand and color, to take photographs, or even to scan in found objects and textures. Believing it is important to combine the computer with traditional design values, she attributes her stance to her education at the university: “U of I taught me how to do that,” she says.

Though Bridget is uncomfortable with the implications of being labeled an artist, as an art history minor, she understands the importance of looking at graphic design as an art form. Bridget states that she is inspired by art history. She is particularly interested in Flemish art because of its “intense significance.” Iconography and hidden meanings are characteristic modes of communication in Flemish art, which might explain Bridget’s fascination. As someone who communicates information through an understanding of social symbols, she can truly appreciate how this was done in another culture and time period. Yet in using these other art styles as inspiration, she is also placing herself within the tradition of artists who have preceded her.

Bridget’s reluctance toward being called an artist stems from the nature of her work and her focus on creating others’ identities, which are separate from her own. While Bridget sees her work as mechanical in the process through which she creates it, others may focus on the mechanical aspect of its production. But what is the difference between a painter flourishing her paint brush and a designer clicking her mouse? Though Bridget does not see herself as an artist – and she has valid reasons for her opinion – as an art historian I cannot help but feel that her work, and the field of graphic design, deserves to be explored by art historians and discussed within the community, whether it is framed as art or design.

Erin Hayes

Sedition in the Art World? A Contemporary Debate

In November 2011, a new beast was born in the global art market. That beast was s[edition], a social media platform for buying and selling limited edition digital works by “big name” artists such as Shepard Fairey, Tracey Emin, and Damien Hirst. The works are available for a low cost, with prices ranging from €6 to €600, and while some of the pieces available for purchase are simulacra of non-digital works—cue video of Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull For Heaven’s Sake—others were created in digital media to begin with.

The site was co-founded by Harry Blain (owner of the contemporary art gallery Haunch of Venison) and Robert Norton (former CEO of Saatchi Online), and already has more than 40,000 registered users. It allows users to join for free, view the virtual goods, and buy one of the numbered, signed digital editions, if they so choose. Each work a user buys comes with a certificate of authenticity, and is stored in their personal, password-protected digital vault. However, members can show off their purchases on their profile pages, if they wish. They can also join “collector’s circles”—groups of buyers with similar interests meant to mimic the networking that occurs in the analog art world.

Predictably, the launch of the site generated a bit of a stir, especially in the United Kingdom, where the founders and several of their artists are based. Immediately following the launch of s[edition], Wired UK associate editor Olivia Solon wrote a piece about it on her blog. Attempting to validate s[edition]’s concept and business strategy, Solon argued, “The real value of the pieces that people can buy on Sedition lies in the certificate of authenticity. This is what allows you to resell the artworks, hopefully at a higher value once the limited edition has sold out.” In other words: The real value of the art one buys on s[edition] does not lie in the art itself, but rather in the possibility of its resale. This attitude reveals some of the problems embedded in what might otherwise seem to be a brilliant, egalitarian art world revolution. Namely, that the rhetoric surrounding s[edition]—with its “affordable” prices and accessibility—disguises the fact that it does nothing to fundamentally change the system of consumption surrounding the art-commodity.

S[edition]’s launch was accompanied by congratulatory rhetoric about “democratization.” In the promotional video available on s[edition]’s website, for example, Norton benevolently remarks that “we try and lower the barrier for people to become a collector for the first time.” Similarly, at the end of the video, a narrator states, “That’s how s[edition] wants to be understood: As a platform that brings contemporary art into many more people’s lives.” Even the name of the site suggests hip, rebellious, and revolutionary social attitudes. But in reality, all s[edition] does is “democratize” the ethos of private property. It allows more people to feel sophisticated and privileged and cool because they can buy a Tracey Emin, but it does not fundamentally change the existing system for consuming art—they released the works on the site as limited editions for a reason, after all. The whole enterprise is still predicated on a system of have and have-not: a system of limited availability, and of the aura of the artwork. In short, s[edition] is a liberal—not radical—move in the art world; it reforms the capitalist art market, rather than questioning its essence.

The bottom line is that we should be critical of innovations such as s[edition] before lauding them as “democratizing” forces in the art world. We need to consider alternatives. And there are plenty of alternatives that would emphasize public art in lieu of widespread private ownership of art.

In fact, one such alternative has developed simultaneously with s[edition], and right in its own backyard; it’s called ENPAP, or the European Network of Public Art Producers. This network, comprised of six different art organizations in Spain, Sweden, Romania, the Netherlands, and the UK, has been working collaboratively since 2010 to expand definitions of public art. In this vein, the group has been completing its “ENPAP Initiative”—a two-year investigation of the conditions of art production and reception in the various contexts in which the organizations operate—which will culminate this spring.

What would it look like to create public art that goes beyond our stereotypical notions of tacky or monumental sculptures in parks and town squares? How can we create public art “in its most immaterial and communicative sense” and spark a real revolution in the art world? We still don’t know all the answers, but the coming years promise exciting developments, provided that we seek them with a critical eye.

Sarah Rybicki

The Art of Art History at UIUC

As artists, we have a very unique perspective on both the aesthetic and the conceptual value of art and its histories. At the University of Illinois, students of the visual arts are asked to strengthen their critical interpretation of art by completing a number of art history courses that span thousands of years of art production; conversely, art historians must challenge their aesthetic understandings by completing studio courses. How do these requirements affect how we, as students, observe and create art? Furthermore, how do the students of Art and Design define themselves in the contexts of art history: as artists studying art history or as historians creating art? Through dialogues with graduating Art and Design students, we can better understand how these students indentified themselves through art history and what role the history of art plays in the contemporary production of art.

The students of Art and Design are required to take between eleven and seventeen hours of art history courses depending on their major. Since the major only requires a total of twenty hours, many students pursue a minor in art history. Students may chose from a variety of course topics, which range in time from prehistory to contemporary and which encompass many different styles, genres, and regions. Art history majors and minors also have the opportunity to enroll in unique seminar courses that explore the theories of art history and criticism through the exploration of specific topics. And like the wide range of course options, the opinions of Art and Design students regarding the value of such coursework vary dramatically.

Most Art and Design students will agree that the past few years have been a journey of self-identification and artistic development. Few of us remain on the paths we originally imagined for ourselves, and those who have remained on the same path have probably faced just as many challenges in defining themselves in the contexts of their art historical world. But how has art history shaped these journeys? For some artists, such as Rachel Jennings, these courses proved to be important supplements to the development of work and establishment of artistic identity. Jennings, a Painting Major and Art History Minor whose medium-driven work explores facets that comprise her memoryscape, states, “Art history is so important AND INTERESTING! I love to understand who and what came before me, so that I may better understand why the present is the way it is, and what this does to my own practice.” Jennings, like many visual arts students, realizes the importance of understanding the history of art while creating art and has generally enjoyed her experiences in art history courses.

Yet despite the enthusiasm of some Art and Design students, Art History classes are not for everyone. Even the most creative individuals may suffer through the seemingly endless slide memorization and lengthy lectures. Jennings points out, “I’m sure I hated some classes at certain times, but in the end I came out with a whole lot more than what I went in with.” Her revelations on the importance of art history education touch on the inherent problem with art history requirements: despite its obvious benefits to the development and understanding of art, there seem few solutions to the ever-present disinterest of many students. Students also find art history education difficult due to a lack in topics pertinent to their work. Graphic Design Major Patsy Diaz laments that the school does not offer courses covering her artistic interests including political posters and Latin American Art, “ [making] me want to do more research of my own.” Diaz describes her work as reflective of her own culture and identity, which makes the lack of art historical topics explored at UIUC very disheartening; yet the link between art production and specific styles and genres in work such as Diaz’s illustrates an interesting concept of artist identity in art history. Many students share this lack of enthusiasm for art history; yet as an art historian, I feel that these courses prove imperative to the development of an artist’s work and identity.

How does art history education affect a student’s artistic identity? Photography Major and Art History Minor, Jackie Allen believes that her art history classes affected her artwork and inspired her to learn about the processes to create work like that she had seen in class. She says, “Having learned more about certain artist has made me understand why they made the work they made and thus give it more meaning to me.” Many artists suggest that art history has a profound impact on their work, yet very few students at UIUC consider themselves to be art historians. Jennings exemplifies this concept in stating, “I am just a curious fan. My intention is not to become an expert, but just to be exposed to it all.” This kind of thought process suggests that the concept of art historian is somehow detached from the artist. In many ways, the idea of art historian is very idealized and distant. But that does not have to be the case.

As an art history student in Art and Design, my journey as an undergraduate has taken some unexpected turns. Entering the Foundations program as a studio artist intending to major in painting, my interests evolved drastically throughout that first year. Nearly every major seemed appealing and although I had a passion for creating art, the only constant I found in Foundations was my increasing interest in my art history courses. Even though I am still very proud of my decision to declare Art History as my major, I now realize that separated my identity as an artist from my academic career. I shared my colleagues’ assumptions about the “art historian” and simply viewed myself as an artist who studied art history. It was not until early this semester that I realized that I am simultaneously artist and art historian. Recently in a museum studies class, the instructor asked for my opinion “as an art historian” regarding a topic of class discussion. At that point I realized that I have been an art historian since my very early interest in the history of art as a Foundations student. As art students, it is important that we realize that all artists who appreciate and employ art history in their work understand the importance of art history and can call themselves art historians.