“Representing an Unknown Figure”: Brianna Heath on Deborah Roberts and Jim Nutt

How do artworks talk to us… and to one another? And how can we learn to talk back? Northwestern undergraduates in The Block Museum Student Docent Program considered these questions in a unique lunchtime Art Talks! series pairing two works from the museum collection that have something to say to one another (and to us.) In Winter 2021 , the team considered artworks in our current exhibition For One and All: Prints from The Block’s Collection, and our upcoming Fall 2021 exhibition, Who Says, Who Shows, What Counts.

In the first event of the series, Brianna Heath, Major in Art History, Minor in African American Studies (2021), discussed – She’s Mighty, Mighty (2017) by Deborah Roberts (American, born 1962) and Twixt (1997) by Jim Nutt (American, born 1938).

From the discussion

My name is Brianna and I’m a senior studying art history and African-American studies. I’ve worked at the block for three years, first as an intern after my freshman year and ever since I’ve been a docent. The Block has been a really special place for me throughout my time at Northwestern. Not only because of the people that work there but also for what happens inside of the museum. I think dialogue and conversation are one of the most meaningful and effective ways to engage with art. And I’m hoping that through our conversation and tour today, you’ll gain some skills that you can take with you in future interactions and engagements with art. You don’t have to be an art historian to have a meaningful encounter with art.

And so today we’ll be looking at some works from the Block’s collection and to get us started I wanted to begin with some images of portraits you all may be familiar with. Just so you can begin to think of what is at stake when choosing to represent a specific individual.

Although the works we will look at today are not famous people, they are similar to these images in that a portrait of a person can become a kind of immortalized representation of them. It is a singular image from which we can base our reaction and understanding of a person and their identity. In many ways, portraits are given the authority to represent the entirety of a person…when in reality, it is just one moment captured.

In the context of the works you will look at today that are not specific individuals, a portrait can come to represent the idea of a person or the identities that they hold. So, the first of the two works you will look at today is Deborah Roberts, 2017’s collage She’s Mighty Mighty and the second is Jim Nutt’s, 1997, etching and Aquatint on paper, Twixt.

She’s Mighty Mighty on the left and Twixt is on the right. I would like to start with a drawing exercise to begin our close looking. I’ll provide additional information about each work later on, but I would like you to have some time to sit with the images. I find that the first look without contextualization is really important for forming our own understanding of the works. Your drawings don’t have to be masterpieces but are more so to help you take in the works in their entirety. I’ll give you one minute to draw each and then we will proceed with our discussion. Feel free to start wherever you’d like in the work….

So I hope this exercise helped you to take in the work and pay attention to details. Now that you’ve had time with each, I would like you to take a moment to consider what aspect of each work you find yourself paying the most attention to in your reproduction. In close looking at this work, we have seen how the artists seek elements beyond the subject’s physical body to further the depth and meaning of their representation. I’d like us to think about the role of power and representation. Who gets to represent who? With the Roberts piece we had a Black woman making images of young Black girl, an identity she herself has experienced and connected to. With Nutt’s work, we have a man making representations of women. This is not to say that artists should only make portraits of people whose identity they share but rather, raises the question: What might we consider when thinking about work where the artist is taking on an identity they have not experienced?

These works both took very different approaches to represent an unknown or fictional figure. For a final activity that you can do later on…. I’d like to suggest you try either making a five-minute portrait of yourself or brainstorming how you would make one. There’s only so much a singular image can capture. It doesn’t have to be a masterpiece but it’s an opportunity for you to think about how you would like to be represented.

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