Monday, September 19, 2011

Student Picks: Who Is She, Really?

This week you'll see a double-bill of posts about Student Picks, our student exhibition program, to mark this Friday's fast approaching deadline for Smith students to enter to win the chance to organize an art show at SCMA. In this post, guest blogger Kendyll Gage-Ripa, Smith College class of 2012 reflects on the process of putting together her Student Picks exhibition, held in December 2010.

Carrie Mae Weems. American, born 1950. Portrait of a Woman Who Has Fallen from Grace and into the Hands of Evil, 1988. Gelatin silver print. Purchased. SC 1991:2. Photograph by Petegorsky/Gipe.

My name is Kendyll, and I am a Smith College senior studying Studio Art and African-American Studies. Getting selected to create a Student Picks exhibition was a wonderful (and initially a bit overwhelming) surprise. I didn’t begin seriously thinking about my exhibition until late October. At the starting point I had no idea where the project would lead me—I was full of questions that I could only answer by beginning the process. Although I knew I wanted to create an exhibition that would be thought provoking for others, I would later realize that the experience would be a profound source of learning for me as well.

Because I had a specific collection of objects to work with, whatever theme I might choose would have to be informed by the art. Therefore, my first step was to browse SCMA’s online database of artworksso I could get a sense of the material I had to work with. This proved difficult, as the database is not set up for “browsing:” although works of art are easy to search out when you know what you are looking for, if you don’t, you have to get creative.

In the midst of the mysterious process of “getting creative,” I began to feel that images I was pulling up from SCMA’s collection were strongly connected to ideas from one of my classes, conversations I had been having, and my own private musings. Slowly, along with my discovery of certain images from the collection, an exhibition theme revealed itself to me from my mess of thoughts and feelings.

The theme and title for my show gradually emerged from questions I had about images of women’s bodies. As I thought about the role women’s bodies play in western art and contemporary visual culture, I began searching for artists whose work attempts to resist, critique, and even subvert the way the female body has traditionally been depicted. This process led me to consider much broader ideas that were, nonetheless, intimately tied to the specific topic I was trying to explore. For example, works from the collection like Carrie Mae Weems’s Portrait of a Woman Who Has Fallen from Grace and into the Hands of Evil, and Imogen Cunningham’s The Unmade Beddrew my attention to the process of representation itself, and how it shapes our society’s reading of the female body.

I decided to center my show on “questions”: questions the artists ask, questions I posed, and questions the viewer might ask. I wanted to ask “who is she, really?” as a way to start a conversation between images and audience. Putting together this exhibition taught me that while asking questions is the beginning of interpretation and understanding, perhaps it is the final goal as well. Maybe critical thinking means moving from question to question—gathering meaning, without necessarily reaching concrete answers. In putting a stop to the process of questioning, a fixed “answer” might actually cut off the flow of learning. Questions leave us open to the fullness of the world. Perhaps questions are the closest we can come to the truth. In a sense, I ended where I had begun in October—with a beautiful mess of questions, and not an answer in sight.

Imogen Cunningham. American, 1883–1976. The Unmade Bed, 1957. Purchased. SC 1976:19-14. Photograph by Petegorsky/Gipe.

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