Looking at you from across the room with suspicion: A Conversation between Andrea Barone and Laura Elizabeth Shea

Art historian Laura Shea met artist Andrea Barone when her brother brought Andrea home during college as his girlfriend, and eventually, his wife. As sister-in-laws, both are in the academic art world at the same time, with Laura pursuing a PhD in art history while Andrea is pursuing an MFA in visual arts. After countless conversations with their families justifying what they do, and, let’s be honest, defending art in general, it became clear they had very divergent academic training and ways of talking about and experiencing art. Realizing this disconnect between artists and art historians in academia was part of a larger, institutional trend, they interviewed each other over phone and e-mail to try to figure out just what their art-world counterpart was thinking about them and to discuss Andrea’s newest work.

Andrea Barone just completed the first year of her M.F.A. in Visual Arts at the State University of New York Purchase College in Purchase, New York. She received a Post-Baccalaureate Certificate in Visual Arts at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts, and received her B.F.A. in Painting, Metals, and Environmental Principles and Practices from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Born in Ohio, Barone has worked as a jeweler and is currently a Drawing Instructor at SUNY Purchase College in New York.

Laura Elizabeth Shea just completed the second year of her PhD in Art History at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She received her M.A. in Art History at Richmond, The American International University in London and her B.A. in Art History and French at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. Shea has served as an intern at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Chesterfield Arts, and the Spoleto Festival. Raised in Connecticut and St. Louis, Shea currently lives and works in Urbana, Illinois.


Laura Elizabeth Shea: One of the instances that got me thinking about having this conversation with you happened in an art history seminar course I took this year. The class was nearly evenly split between art history graduate students and artists. One day, we realized that the art historians had all sat on one side directly facing the artists, who had all sat on the other side. We made a joke of it, saying that class that day would be a kind of face-off between the two. But sometimes it does seem to be a face off: between how the artists want to talk about a work and how the art historians do, between the set of knowledge upon which the artists understand a work and the art historians do. Do you find this kind of disconnect in your courses?

Andrea Barone: This is hilarious. The exact same thing happened in my Art History Colloquium class, which consists of all the first year MFA and MA students. We take Colloquium I in the fall, Colloquium II in the spring with the same group of people but different professors. Fall semester the room was divided down the center- MA on one side, MFA on the other. Our professor noticed about mid-way through the semester and thought it was funny yet didn’t really mention it again. The professor this spring semester noticed it the first class and when it continued the second class, we were required to mix up our seating for the rest of the semester. It happened once unintentionally later in the semester and we had to move and form a circle with the chairs before class could start. I think this was initially a subconscious move…However, considering this extended through the whole first semester and into the second, after we all got to know each other, maybe there is something deeper to it…The one thing I’ve noticed is the lack of knowledge of materials with the MA students. Not that it’s necessary to know how the work was made to understand or appreciate it; but that sometimes the process adds layers of meaning to the piece and could change how it’s viewed.

LES: When I referenced a ‘set of knowledge’ in my last question, I’m thinking about particular texts, particular works, particular artists that we all know and expect each other to know. Could you respond to this?

AB: Well, it seems like everybody is expected to know some theory. The French guys: Deleuze Guattari, Baudrillard, etc. The German guys: Benjamin, Nietzsche, etc. Then, obviously Greenberg. Anything by Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, Thierry de Duve, etc. You can’t study Minimalism and not read Donald Judd’s Specific Objects. Have you ever read the letter from Sol Le Witt to Eva Hesse? Or Cezanne’s Doubt by Maurice Merleau-Ponty?…

LES: See, I have read all those theorists you listed, but I have not read either of the artist texts you listed. I think we are generally taught to be a bit wary of artist texts. Not that we should not read them or take them seriously, because we should, but that what artists say they are doing, and often why, and how art historians conceive of what they are doing within the context of the history of art, can be different. There is a sense that wholly depending on the artist’s text can be reductive. Where would that leave us?

LES: I must admit that I know very little about the actual MFA format. But, for art historians, so much of our daily work is sitting, reading and writing, by ourselves, with class as the only consistent time for the discussion and development of ideas.

AB: As far as daily work for MFAs, it’s usually a solitary activity within our studios. I can’t speak for everybody, but I do a lot of reading and research for my work alongside the making process. There is pressure to contextualize the work, so it’s important to be aware of other artists and concepts that relate to your ideas and methods of working, both historical and current. For example; I recently started making an installation piece and I’ve been thinking about it as a way for me to paint in space. As a painter moving into installation work like this, if someone would ask if I’ve been looking at Jessica Stockholder and I didn’t know who that was, it almost discredits what I’m doing. But sometimes I get so wrapped up in the work that I can’t pull back to really look at it and think about it outside the process of making. This is where critiques come in. Critique is often the only time for us to have discussions of our individual ideas and feedback about the work.

LES: I remember that last Christmas we were talking with a family friend about abstract art. He wasn’t ‘getting it.’ You tried to explain your art to help him understand. I tried to place it in a context of history. We were both unconvincing for him! Do you have any response to this incident?

AB: I think it comes down to the fact that people like what they like. We had a visiting artist last semester, a well-known painter, who said during his lecture that he never understood abstraction and he just wasn’t “intelligent enough to understand it.” Insinuating that one needs a certain level of intelligence to appreciate abstraction makes it seem like some elitist way of making. It’s not. It’s more a matter of how one looks at the world; how they think. People who think more abstractly and like grey areas of inquiry might be more likely to enjoy or feel a connection to abstraction. People who prefer things to be straightforward might be more likely to enjoy representational or figurative works. There’s nothing wrong about either way of thinking; it’s more about your own perspective and mode of understanding things in the world. Do you think we were at least able to help him understand why abstract art exists?

LES: Maybe. But I also recall that his ideas about art were clouded by his own experiences of extremely boring art history classes!

AB: When you look at an artwork without knowing anything about the artist, what are your first inquiries as an art historian? How do you go about analyzing the work?

LES: When I first encounter a work in person and don’t have knowledge of that work or its creator, I like to get up to the work as close as possible. I like to try to figure out how it was made. I am drawn to works that pose the question of materiality to the viewer. I recently saw a Glenn Ligon painting, Study for Frankenstein #1 at the Saint Louis Art Museum. I love the way the jet black letters traced in oil stick smudge and overlap and get messier as your eye reads the text down the stark white canvas, obscuring it, really speaks to the monstrosity of his textual reference and to invisibility in terms of race which is part of his larger project as an artist. In terms of analyzing a work, I take the advice that I have given to students – that the artist has a lot of choices to make, and to remember that (at least most of) what we are seeing in the work is purposeful. Although we are trained as art historians to analyze works with a whole laundry-list of things in mind (color, texture, size, etc.), I think we all have our go-to factors. For me, this is size and scale. These are fascinating factors for me, because I am interested in how the artist perceives the bodily relationship between work and viewer, for example, the experience of holding a family photograph versus walking around a Rachel Whiteread installation.

AB: Do you consider how material processes in the making of the piece can factor into the conceptual or art historical concerns for the piece?  For example, have you taken any photography classes to practice the processes that you study to better understand how the materials can bring more layers to the work?  In my MA/MFA class the art history students don’t seem to have much knowledge about materials or processes, including the professor.  

LES: This is a great question, especially since I just went on and on about how much materiality is important to me in my last answer. Because, to be honest, this is often a weak point for art historians, especially those without studio training. I have not taken a photography class even though I write on photography. In college, my boyfriend, now husband, took me into the school’s dark room many times, showing me the process of developing a photograph. Still, the science and optics were difficult for me. I learn best by reading and writing, through text, not physically doing something. I am very aware that my limited knowledge limits my analysis, though in researching photographic processes, I am often able to glean something. I think that if we went to an art supply store together, you would be dismayed at my lack of knowledge of the materials offered, the pros and cons of certain paints, surfaces, etc. It would actually be an extremely helpful exercise for art historians to be given a tour of an art supply store for once, rather than a museum!

AB: When you write about work, are you consciously aware of the lens you view the world through?  

LES: When writing about things like race, class, gender or sexuality, I personally believe that it is important to be clear about how you as a writer identify yourself. This is a way to acknowledge your own limitations and experiences and that what you are doing is a contribution, not a final word, to an on-going discussion that needs many voices to be whole. Other times, your lens goes unmentioned but is clear in how you frame your argument. While I do not always analyze works with an outright feminist perspective, I consciously write almost exclusively on women artists.

LES: Since we talked generally about materials and process, can you speak to the specific process you use in your works?

AB: In my paintings, I start by making a collage as a sketch, using found imagery (from mostly magazines, but also books, pamphlets, anything I see) and my own photographs. I paint from the actual collage, but it can change as I paint, so it’s not an exact replication the collage.

LES: Is this a new process for you?

AB: Not really. I’m interested in how facets of different spaces can come together and form a new space. Collage is a good tool to use to make that happen. I’ve been working with collage for a long time, but usually I would use my own images layered in Photoshop. The two paintings here are a little different because the sketch was made from a physical collage of found imagery, not a digital one.

LES: Before, you mentioned work on a new installation piece. Have you done any installation work before?

AB: No. I had always thought about it and wanted to try it. I started working on this about a month ago. It changes almost every day: I add something, subtract something, move things around. It is constantly changing. I have been using cheap materials – I haven’t really paid for anything which allows me to be more spontaneous and free. I’m using cardboard I found on recycling days. I drive around and load up my car- people probably think I’m crazy! There are also plastic shopping bags, electrical cords, colored lights and colored plastic objects on top of overhead projectors, which is where most of the color is coming from. I have been taking photographs as the installation changes. My plan is to have a ‘playbook’ – a book of the photographs from earlier stages, to show the changes it’s been through.

LES: You seem to be really invested in process, so it seems pretty fitting that you would want to make those earlier stages visible. What made you get away from your typical painting process go ahead and do installation?

AB: I think I was getting too comfortable with painting and my painting process. I was getting to a point where the paintings were feeling too carefully planned or precious. I wasn’t taking as many risks and I had set up this process that pigeon-holes the painting in a certain way. It wasn’t as open as it used to be. So this was a way for me to be more free and open with materials, to allow more chance and risk into my process.

LES: That’s interesting in this context of talking about our experiences in academia because, as an art historian, I can also pigeon-hole myself in the types of things I write about and the way in which I do. For me, I tend to write about women photographers who, in some way, show their process on their prints and was criticized by my professors for this. I got out of my comfort zone by writing a seminar paper on the topic of comedy and race in the context of sci-fi television and other visual culture in the 70s. So, there are parallel things that happen to us in our academic experience, even though you are creating art work and I am creating texts on art. Anyway, that was an aside. Back to your installation: are there any audible elements to your work? And are the functional materials, like the projector, visible?

AB: Yes. The projectors are in the room, so you hear the humming of their motors.

LES: That’s immediately what I thought of when you mentioned the projectors, that hum. Because it brings back memories of elementary school, and that nearly constant motif of the projector. It was always in the room.

AB: Yeah! It’s fun to play with them and not use them in the way they were intended.

LES: In your critiques, you obviously have to talk about your works. But, in general, what do you see as the pros and cons about discussing your work?

AB: It’s funny that you ask this. I just wrote about this in my final paper for my seminar course. Talking about the work is a problematic for me. I feel like I have not found the right language to use yet because I will say certain words or phrases that put the work in a certain perspective for someone, when really I’m more interested in the perspective someone will bring to the work. So I have been searching for a way talk about it without really talking about it, without giving too much away about what I think, because then it does not hold as much value to me. I want to leave it open, so someone can come in and see what they see and not see only what I’m describing to them.

LES: That’s interesting that you used the word value. Do you think that this way that you conceive the interaction between viewer and work is one of the reasons that you are drawn to work abstractly?

AB: Yes. That is key to why abstraction is important to me. It is ambiguous. I’m interested in things that could go either way. I like to give something that is recognizable, that a viewer can hold on to, and feel a little bit stable, but not too stable.

LES: In Untitled, what I’m attracted to is what seems to me like an iridescent glass topper, a sort of bird-head that might top a very nice cane or umbrella.

AB: (laughs)

LES: Is that really stupid? It can be so embarrassing sometimes, when you get in that mode of trying to pick out images!

AB: No, it’s great, I love it. I get so many different responses. It’s so interesting. Keep going!

LES: I also conceived of the scene as a view from an airplane. These kinds of works are tough for me to talk about. When something is totally abstract, that’s fine – I can talk about form all day. But when there is this kind of suggestive content it can get tricky, and even scary for me to talk about and write about.

You seem to be making your works while considering an interpreting viewer. Are these paintings’ large size meant to evoke any bodily or physical response?

AB: Yes. I do think about how the size relates to your body, how these are things that almost engulf you, that you have to stand back to see the whole thing at once.

LES: That’s amplified in the installation piece.

AB: The installation piece takes up an entire room. It is meant for people to walk through it and there are partially hidden areas that reward close looking by the viewer.

LES: Do you have any sense of how you will move forward from here?

AB: I think I will go back to painting this summer because I am interested to see how the installation work changes my painting, how being in that mindset of making the installation will translate to painting. I think it will change. But now I also have a lot of installation ideas. So, that could happen. We’ll see.

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