What stands out to you? What do you wonder? The Block Museum Student Associates spent Fall 2021 considering works in the museum’s collection that were on view as part of the exhibition Who Says, Who Shows, What Counts: Thinking about History with The Block’s Collection. While their own work this season involved tours, research, and scholarship – it also involved personal response to the artworks on view. In this series, the Block Associates share their own reflections on works that particularly resonated.
Joyce Wang – Economics and Data Science (2024)
This piece captured my attention because of its colorful and busy composition. There is so much going on that at first glance everything seemed to be wholly cheerful and celebratory. But, upon closer examination, I find details of guns, blood and violence. The piece forces you to look intentionally. I find myself questioning why the face of every person was made ambiguous yet the color of their skin stands in stark contrast. I would like to learn more about the title’s reference to Youth Day and who chose to use embroidery and a vibrant color palette to depict scenes of pain and conflict. What were they trying to show?
L’Oiseau dans L’Espace (Bird in Space)
The print depicts a mysterious and elegant visual that lures me in. I can’t quite place my finger on what the subject matter is but find myself subsequently studying it. I like how symmetrical the piece is, whether that’s from the composition of the background to the way the lighting divides right in the middle. I also like how the piece isn’t completely black and white. The subtle yellow glow in the brightest areas of the piece make the otherwise sharp and unapproachable statue come alive. I wonder why the artist chose the title L’Oiseau dans L’Espace and the potential message they want to convey behind it.
Solome Bezuneh – Communication Studies (2024)
One piece that is particularly striking to me is the Untitled snapshots selection, as it represents to me the relationship between creation, visibility, and value. This collection of images truly addresses the titular question of “What Counts?”, and its inclusion itself rejects the idea that the only valuable art is that which was created to be shown publicly. While we do not know the names and stories of the people in these images and those who are behind the camera, the viewer can easily find the beauty in them. At the same time, this unique piece brings to mind the boundaries of ownership and agency, something that museums are historically known for transgressing. Overall, this selection of photographs captures unique moments in time while greatly contributing to the much larger discussion that this exhibit embodies.
Stack of Diaries
Lorna Simpson’s Stack of Diaries is notable when looking at how it plays with different levels of context – we learn about Simpson’s past work as we read the plaque, but the piece itself offers very little context to the viewer. The overlapping text written on the glass and the image of closed diaries are all that the audience gets to see, leaving the viewer to piece the lines together and wonder about what it all could possibly mean. The description, however, mentions Simpson’s commitment to art that depicts the unique status of Black women, and this background helps us to understand that the piece’s ambiguity is intentional. While looking at this work, it became clear to me that plaques, although they are often neglected, are necessary and can even enhance the museum experience.
Mayán Alvarado-Goldberg (Cognitive Science and Global Health)
On the first tour of the Block’s new exhibit, I couldn’t help but stare at the Untitled portraits by Dawoud Bey featuring two young adults. My eyes kept switching between the left portrait, in which a man with a blue and white plaid button-up was centered, and the right portrait in which the person dawned a vest on top of a dress with bold, colorful prints. Both people were featured in both portraits, but because the center of attention changed slightly between each photo, I felt like the photographer was making it clear which person to focus on. Because of the bowl cuts, makeup style, clothing style, and poses, I was instantly reminded of the ‘90s photos that always caught my attention, often featuring partners and decade-specific clothing. The Untitled portraits made me wonder: what are the stylistic signifiers of portraits throughout the decades, and how do other modern artists that I admire, such as photographer Brandie Wed, create portraits in 2021 that still emulate the themes from the ’90s?
Campagne de lavement des mains (Handwashing Campaign) and Stop Ebola from the series Le temps Ebola (Ebola Times)
Emmanuel Bakary Daou’s Campagne de lavement des mains (Handwashing Campaign) and Stop Ebola from the series Le temps Ebola (Ebola Times), 2016, evoked all-too-familiar feelings that reminded me of the social climate throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. Seeing people covered in post-apocalyptic-looking personal protective equipment and spraying the body of someone on the ground brought back memories of sitting in class before the shutdown, watching videos on the news of people falling over in the streets because of a Covid-19 infection. The same feelings of fear and worry were present when looking at these photos, despite the fact that they were from 2016. The images also only highlight the fact that because the Ebola outbreak was mainly in countries in Africa like Guinea, racism and classism seemed to play a large role in the amount of aid that people received, similar to the Covid-19 pandemic in which billions of dollars went into research, but communities of Color were still disproportionately impacted by infection rates.
Carolina Alexis Carret – Legal Studies, Art History, and BIP (2023)
I am drawn to this piece for both its visual gusto and textual content. The photograph and the interview transcript complement each other, with either piece contributing meaning and context to the other. On its own, the central figure of the photograph exudes confidence and an air of positivity despite surrounding factors. I love the juxtaposition of the warmth and glow of Gloria against the icy, uninviting winter background. I also love the brief backstory given in Gloria’s interview transcript, which reveals her own perseverance through struggle and her dedication to emulating the strong women in her life and becoming that person for others in the trans community. Gloria’s own positivity and contribution to the transgender community in a world that is so challenging and unforgiving parallels the warmth and confidence she exudes against the Chicago cold in the photograph.
This photograph is alluring to me for its inviting, intimate nature. It is fascinating to witness Duchamp in such a close, candid manner and to be able to have a glance into the connection between himself and Man Ray, the individual behind the photograph. It reminds me of my own close relationships which are characterized by not only playfulness but a promise of authenticity. Looking at this photograph is like peering into a close friendship, with Duchamp’s cool gaze and the pipe in his hand acting as a testament to the nonchalance and comfort between the two, as well as the quality of a friendship in which people can come as they are and stay that way.
Vitoria Monteiro de Carvalho Faria – Art History and Economics (2023)
The silhouettes utilized in the works by Kara Walker really intrigue me. It seems like Walker hides so many stories and narratives with her black and white designs that reminds me of a childhood story. The sense of ambiguity that each character evokes in these stainless steel pieces motivates me to further interact with this object in order to dig deeper into these hidden meanings. Who exactly are these individuals? Are they fictional or real? With regards to Skinny, the woman in between the two others, why is she forcing a penis-shaped object towards the face of a child who is kneeling in front of her? Are the other figures also performing an act of violence, albeit a less explicit and more obscured one? I would like to know more about the real-world histories which Kara Walker critiques through her mind-blowing and mysterious works of art.
An Inner Dialogue with Frida Kahlo
Artworks that take inspiration from other artworks truly captivate me as I try to identify the differences between them. In Morimura’s print based on Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky (1937), it is interesting to question why Morimura depicts objects of capitalism, such as the Louis Vuitton scarf, when considering that the original is dedicated to a Marxist leader. Additionally, why did Morimura decide not to include the letter from the original artwork by Kahlo but included a hand that touches, on the left-hand side, Morimura’s hand when depicting himself as Frida? The way that Morimura creates a thin line between critique and mockery as well as modern art and pop art truly intrigues me as I contemplate this work of art. I would like to delve deeper into the ambiguity of this work in order to find some clues as to what Morimura’s message and goals are.
Karan Gowda – Biological Sciences, Global Health Studies and Classics (2022)
What struck me most immediately about this piece was its size. In the exhibit, it is a very eye-catching work and can hang onto one’s attention for long periods. It seems as if no one in the work is looking at any of the artwork. I do not know the specifics of when and how this was taken, but I have been to this museum, and I remember it being very busy and very much like how it is portrayed here. Is this a critique of the museum-goers specifically or just a general viewpoint on the museum-going experience? Every person here is seemingly doing their own thing but blend collectively into one unit. Imagining the viewer as behind this mass of students, are we in opposition or are we one of the same?
Untitled #17 (Forest), from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black
My very thought about this piece was that it looked like it was straight out of one of the Slenderman online video games I was forced to play because I was peer pressured in middle school. The sheer darkness of this piece is the most striking aspect. Upon a closer inspection, the contrast between the long sturdy trees in the background and the small twig-like branches does a fascinating job of harshly filling up the space and making the viewer almost feel suffocated. Under different lighting, there may even be structures way in the background that could be visible but in this very pointed snapshot we get, it truly feels like we are at the epicenter of a dark, harrowing forest.
Zeki Hirsch – History (2022)
Like George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is one of those figures whose image is embedded in my psyche. Growing up with some Turkish family, Atatürk stood on a mental pedestal beside Washington and Lincoln for much of my childhood. He was the embodiment of a founding father for me — a blemishless leader who rid Turkey of religious fanaticism and conceived one of the Middle East’s only “modern” states. However, as I spent time in a nervous, post-coup Turkey, I came to realize that Atatürk created more problems than he mitigated. Although he was a Turk, his ideology ultimately came from Orientalism and European nationalism. His dream for the Turkish Republic disenfranchised ethnic minorities, alienated Turkey’s religious population, and paved the way for the borderline fascist state that exists under Erdoğan today. Looking at Avşar’s unpolished and raw depiction of Atatürk, I can only imagine that he shares a similar conflicted view of Turkey’s atheist deity.
My parents used to download albums onto my iPod each summer before I left for camp. Patti Smith’s Horses was one of my mom’s selections the summer before 9th grade, and as I blasted Gloria on repeat (much to the chagrin of my bunkmates), Horses became one of my favorite records. I got more interested in punk as high school went on and quickly gravitated towards 80s hardcore, falling deep into the primitivist world of Black Flag, Minor Threat, and Bad Brains. As enamored as I was with the hardcore scene, I grew tired of its testosterone-fueled deconstructivism. Smith’s character and music gave me the perfect middle ground — her songs and lyrics still echoed the angst of adolescence while simultaneously exploring poetic influences ranging from Bob Dylan to the Bible. I definitely had a newfound appreciation for Smith’s artistry after months of songs about beer and rioting! Robert Mapplethorpe captures Smith at her most resplendent, gazing upon the viewer like a rugged messiah and reminding me of why Horses changed my life all those summers ago.
Hyohee Kim – Learning Sciences and Asian American Studies (2022)
The title grabbed my attention because the Appendix of a book is usually at the end of a book or document — it’s usually additional information that did not make it into the thick of the book but are the raw artifacts and/or information that’s used for the meat of the book. The color of the figures also was compelling — they reminded me of thermographic body scans used in medicine or airports. They detect underlying issues or generally what’s hidden underneath clothes. I’m curious what the title and colors mean together.
Untitled #17 (Forest), from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black
This piece caught my eye because I feel peace and terror at the same time. This place feels liminal — just like one step more and I could come out of the woods to shelter/road or I could just be walking in circles. Maybe because of how vast and silent it seems, I feel really alert (forcing me to seek) and also really delusional (forcing me to question and doubt). I remember someone telling me that this piece is related to memory (and how your memories change every time you revisit them) — I wonder how (being in) darkness can clarify our understanding of memories.
Katy Kim – Art History and Political Science (2023)
The first work I chose was ‘Untitled’ (Self Portrait) by Kiki Smith, which depicts a seated figure facing the camera, whose face is covered in plaster and is shirtless. The print caught my eye because of how vulnerable and exposed the figure appears to the viewer upon first glance. It intrigued me that the alternate title of the piece was ‘Self Portrait,’ and I wondered why the artist chose to depict themselves in such a visceral way. Can the sitter’s purposeful exposure of ‘self,’ or at least of their body can be read as agentive instead then? What does it mean in terms of power that the figure’s head is covered in plaster so that the viewer’s gaze cannot identify who they are? This photograph made me wonder if a self-portrait can ever reveal the ‘self’ of another individual, though it always purports to.
The second work that caught my eye was Appendix 137_048 by Walid Raad. Visually stimulating in color, pattern, and perspective, the work depicts seven ‘cut out’ soldiers whose silhouettes are each instead filled in with a different pattern. The theme of the work, war, is a decidedly violent one, yet all the unique textures abstract the subject matter and imbue it with a strangely beautiful quality. I found myself immersed within the jewel-toned bands of color, and I had to keep reminding myself that the work portrays active soldiers in battle. Through this formal juxtaposition of color and theme, Appendix 137_048 calls for me to actively engage with and even interrogate my own thoughts and biases—which is vital to preventing future wars.
Nozizwe Msipa – Communication Studies (2024)
Leaving my built-in bias for local art aside, I am deeply fascinated by this series. Firstly, the intertextuality- the artists asks the viewer to look at the image, read the caption, and then decide for yourself what to believe- as like in real life, the truth is often somewhere in the middle. The series tells a new version of the past, a past that doesn’t, couldn’t exist, or at least wasn’t allowed to be openly documented at the time (interracial marriage was illegal in Zimbabwe in 1972). Secondly, the medium of photography- an art form that has long carried the burden of representation to tell the objective truth, being used for something a little in between fact and fiction. Artistic and documentary photography are not opposing sides, a photograph can convey information while also looking beautiful- as evidenced by this masterfully composed series and its ~factual~ captions.
The Great Farce Portable Theater
The Great Farce is all about experience. Multi-sensory experience at that. I love any artwork where I can take a seat in a dark room and be entranced for ages, and that’s exactly what this video installation does. Leaving aside the video part for now- the installation it’s housed in is a wonderland. There are candy striped big-top tents, balloons, a ferris wheel. Things get weirder- there are ships and Big Ben floating around there too. There is a wacky texture to the work- one can see, almost feel the acrylic paint building up that adds a 3-D effect to the entire piece. And then the video- hand drawn animations depicting the insidious practice of empire-building. Through the use of animation and paint, Solmi creates a work of nightmarish phantasmagoria- complete with a version of Donald Trump in a military general;s outfit for an extra shiver 1972
Margeaux Rocco – Economics, Art Theory and Practice, and Art History (2023)
Tseng Kwong Chi Posing with Mannequins, from the series Costumes at the Met,
I love this piece from Tseng Kwong Chi because it still feels so relevant even after 40 years. This photograph makes me think a lot about cultural appropriation and how many people’s identities have been boiled down to serve as a costume or a party theme. The exhibit he’s critiquing is using East Asian culture for their own gain. I find Tseng’s photograph almost comical; by posing with this mannequin, he is suggesting that he might as well be part of the exhibit too. He is poking fun at the institution right in front of them. This piece really stands out to me because Tseng is able to get such complex ideas of culture and identity across while still making his work humorous.
This piece by Bethany Collins stands out to me because it requires such a close look. The text being embossed versus printed on really makes you take the time to step in and go through each section. For me, I always find a new detail in this piece with each viewing. Given the time and place (1960s Alabama), it’s hard not to wonder what we might be missing from this newspaper. The blank print makes me feel as if this is a placeholder or an effort to hide news of the Civil Rights Movement. The simplicity of Collins’ piece gives an eerie feeling that we may never get the full picture.
Bengi Norah Rwabuhemba – Cultural Anthropology, Global Health (2023)
Is it black or is it blue? I remember being enveloped by this photograph the first time I saw it. Placed adjacent to the entrance, it was easy for me to walk straight ahead and miss it. But it called me back, silently, stilly, and I went closer. Is it black or is it blue? The print is dark, almost opaque. Edouard Glissant said something about opacity, about there being power in that which is unidentifiable, indecipherable. As the leafless trees become clear, there is an initial eeriness that overwhelms, followed by a quiet calm. I am aware of my heartbeat. My breath.
Chocolate Mountains, Ancient Footpath toward Indian Pass
I was drawn to this photograph because of the juxtaposition between the smooth mountain and harsh desert landscape. The deep contrast emphasizes the texture of the rocks, their extreme variation in size, and just how many there are extending far into the distance. The path, a human intervention, is a reminder that people have been here, quite recently for that matter given how well-defined it is. I imagine sweaty, blistered feet protected by disintegrating shoes traversing this terrain and happening on this path. A miracle amid desperation. Here, there is no caravan. There is no wave. Only a path. Searching.
Bobby Yalam – Social Policy and Mathematical Methods in the Social Sciences (2024)
I’m struck by how this photograph appears in the museum. The matte in the frame is almost overwhelmingly thick; it seems to diminish the photograph into an increasingly small pinpoint. In the photo itself, the subject is hard to discern among an array of shadows, so much so that viewers may have to lean in face-to-face with the photo to see clearly. I’d love to hear about the curatorial decisions behind why this piece is where it is in the gallery. Why put a so-called “name brand” artist/subject duo like this one in a relatively obscure position? Regarding the subject matter, moreover, how can we, if at all, reconcile Duchamp’s position in the Western canon with Man Ray’s memorialization of Duchamp’s own subversion of Western expectations (accomplished through physical attire like wigs)?
Upon first viewing this image, I couldn’t help but think of death. The head encased in a plaster cage drew my eye to the photograph. As I navigated down the piece, I felt unsettled by the jagged contrast of the inanimate, barely recognizable face with the clearly alive body it sits atop. It’s an eerie photo, but it also feels invasive, like as a viewer I’m intruding on a vulnerable moment for the blinded artist. For me, this work brings up questions related to American values, especially the lack of value accorded to a non-male-identifying person’s intellect as compared to the value assigned to their body, and the potentially exploitative nature of art production and distribution.
Hank Yang – Journalism and Political Science (2024)
When I see this study, I see that there is a burst of complementary colors that harmonize together in such a vibrant way while reflecting off the skin of the man playing the trumpet. The trumpet itself is also a very reflective surface and one can see the multitude of colors that are reflected from the bell of the instrument. It is a gestural piece that emphasizes the key parts of the musician: the closed eyes focusing on the music, the mouth blowing into the instrument, the hands playing the notes, and the music pouring out in a menagerie of colors.
This photograph of two individuals, seemingly a man and a woman, is so interesting as each of their faces are cut off in each picture but also shows the entire face in the other. The burned edges show the vintage nature of an old photograph, which is also reflected in the beige background, the color of a more faded image. The colors are toned down, but the woman’s lips are a deep dark red, with her vibrantly colored clothing being the most prominent item of color in the piece. The eyes of the individuals looking directly at the camera is the immediate focus of the piece, and their dark reflective eyes seem to hold many stories untold