“One must make decisions”: Rory Tsapayi on Romare Bearden, Laura Letinsky and artistic intention

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 this online tour Rory Kahiya Tsapayi (’21, Art History and Journalism), discussed Untitled #49 (2002) by Laura Letinsky (Canadian, born 1962) and Mother and Child by Romare Bearden (American, 1911–1988).

Captions in English and Spanish

From the discussion

My name is Rory Tsapayi. I’m in my fourth and final year of studying art history and journalism. And I’m a student docent at the Block Museum. One of the main ethos at The Block is that we a place for learning and inquiry through art. We really encourage active looking and questioning. These are the two works that we’ll be looking at today the one on the left is a color lithograph on paper by the artist Romare Bearden and it’s titled Mother and Child, made in 1971. The work on the right is a photograph by the Canadian artist Laura Letinsky and it’s from 2002 and doesn’t have a title but it’s 49th in a series that we’ll be discussing.

During this tour, something that I really want to center is artistic processes or this idea of made-ness because it’s not uncommon to think of artworks as independent forces. We think of them sometimes as objects with agency or the ability to speak for themselves. But I think it’s really helpful when we’re looking at art to bring ourselves back to the fact that humans, real people like you and me made these things. It’s not the artworks that are speaking but people that are speaking through them. And so artists make many intentional decisions as they work. They choose materials and the way to manipulate them, they choose scale and volume of their work, and the environments that they make it in and present it in. They choose colors and shapes and props and people and all sorts of other things. To make the statement, one must make an artwork and to make an artwork, one must make decisions. So again, as we look at these artworks today I want to keep the artists’ choices in mind. Where can we see proof of decision-making in their pictures and what might have motivated these artists to make the decisions in the first place.

During this tour, something that I really want to center is artistic processes or this idea of made-ness because it’s not uncommon to think of artworks as independent forces. We think of them sometimes as objects with agency or the ability to speak for themselves. But I think it’s really helpful when we’re looking at art to bring ourselves back to the fact that humans, real people like you and me made these things. It’s not the artworks that are speaking but people that are speaking through them.

-Rory Tsapayi

We’re going to begin with this color lithograph on paper. At first glance it is a familiar image, a mother cradling a baby. But if we look a little more closely, it’s quite obvious that it’s not just that. It’s an arrangement of shapes of all different sizes and colors arranged and embellished to suggest an image of a mother and child. It’s made to be that way. So here a little more closely, we can see evidence of the cutting and pasting technique that is the essence of collage. You can see the sharp but still imperfect edges. And coming through underneath the mother’s eye, we can see these peaks of color that show that there are layers of work of different pieces of paper on top of one another. We’ll look at the inverted T-shaped nose, which bridges the gold and brown parts of the face showing again, the distinct layers of the paper. So having looked at this a little more closely now, we can actually see that there was sort of a range of techniques and decisions going in to make the work.

In 1966, Romare Bearden made a decision that would actually alter his artistic trajectory and subsequent legacy. He decided to commit to making collages, and this is quite a significant move for him, artistically and also in the development of Black art more broadly. So I think when we think about collage, there are sort of two key ideas that we have to think about the first being the process of the cut. Not only can this be quite symbolic of the historical disjunctures that have faced African-Americans since the first arrival of enslaved Africans in the United States in the 1600s, but it’s constantly representative of the changes and shifts, both intentional and unintentional, that can happen to lighten the balance, but it’s not just a symbol of external forces operating on people. It’s also a reinsertion of the makers agency. So as Bearden and chooses what shapes to cut with the scissors, he is asserting his power of a defining a narrative.

We’re going to see the second artwork that we’re thinking about today, which is an untitled photograph, number 49 in Laura Letinskys Hardly More Than Ever series captured between 1997 and 2004. I think most prominent in this image must be this bowl of peaches. What associations do these objects conjure up for us? They almost overflow from the bowl, precariously, even impulsively balanced on top of each other. You might think that this suggests something like abundance or fecundity, but then other details really begin to complicate such a straight reading. If you look closely, you can see some of the peaches are rotting and one has already been devoured. It’s split pit open messily, even violently on the chopping board. Ideas of abundance have shifted to ideas of access for kinda the sickly over ripeness. We can see another detail, where do you think the light is coming from here? Is it natural or is it artificial? The diffuse effect of the light and the difficulty in pinpointing where it comes from is actually because this photo was taken with a 20 minute exposure next to a window, open to the natural light. It creates this really placeless, timeless, vague glow. It unsettles you to the more you look at it and though this scene is frozen in time.

One can sense the inevitability of time’s passage and movement in the image. What is this scene that we’re looking at? Is it something that’s real? Is it a documentation of a fact or perhaps it’s something more intentional, something constructed. There are sort of two strains working here. First, that this image is filled with everyday quotidian items. But if we look more closely, we see that the board is dirty. The mug is teetering, everything is set on edge in this crazy sense of imbalance. It seems like everything will fall down at any second unless it’s been just so perfectly arranged. And that’s what it has been. It has been perfectly arranged. And so we have to ask ourselves why would a photographer like Laura Letinsky take so much care and meticulousness to create what looks like a mess and something totally careless. I think this quote really gives us some insight into her thought process here. Home seems like a normal place but consider all the work that goes into it. It’s not a natural space.

These works hint at the range of aesthetic strategies available to artists to work out problems and represent ideas. And as we have seen, the materiality or made-ness of a work can come to constitute meaning in of itself. Letinsky was able to think about intimate themes like mortality, the passage of time, and domesticity by manipulating inanimate objects in space and time in front of a camera. Bearden was able to move within and refer to complex histories of art and blackness by reconstituting disparate pieces of paper into a cohesive whole much greater than the sum of its parts. And though these works are not immediately similar to each other in medium historical context, content, or identity of the maker, they both provide really interesting ways for us to think about the intention and process that goes into art-making.

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