Caroline Villers Research Fellowship Lecture – ‘Masking Tape: From Innovators to Early Adopters and Majority Groups’

Dr Pia Gotschaller presented her most recent findings on the history and use of masking tape in modern and contemporary art on Thursday 9 May in the Kenneth Clark Lecture Theatre. This lecture was the second of a three part series on the subject, as Dr Gotschaller continues her research as the Caroline Villers Research Fellow.

The terminology of the title, ‘Masking Tape: From Innovators to Early Adopters and Majority Groups,’ is borrowed from innovation theory used by product developers. Although Dr Gotschaller was not aligning her research with this theory, it was useful as a framework to understand how products are initially developed and then how people begin using these products in their daily lives. Innovators and early adopters are the first two groups to test out new products, so Dr Gotschaller borrowed this concept and applied it to artists using masking tape in their practice. Before determining who these artistic innovators and early adopters might be, it was first necessary to research the history of pressure-sensitive tape manufacture. By establishing a timeline of its development, she could then work with this chronology to see which artistic practices coincided with the product as it developed. Moreover, research of tape’s manufacture enabled a better understanding of its materiality, which provided valuable insight into the specific results the product yielded.

Dr Gotschaller then shifted her discussion to artists using masking tape in the 1930s and 1940s, including Piet Mondrian, Harry Holtzman, Charles Shaw, and Max Bill, describing the varying ways they employed pressure-sensitive tapes. For instance, while Mondrian only used masking tape to plan his De Stijl grids, tracing his compositional arrangements in charcoal before painting, Max Bill opted for Scotch magic tape for its compatibility with oil paint.

While artists working with masking tape in the late thirties and into the early forties could be considered the product’s innovators, many Concrete and Neo-Concrete artists in South America could then be described as early adopters. It is likely that these artists were exposed to Bill’s work in the 1950s when he exhibited in Brazil and consequently incorporated pressure-sensitive tape into their practices. A recent exhibition in Madrid, Concrete Invention, brought together the work of many of these Argentinean, Brazilian, and Venezuelan artists, along with works by Albers, Bill, and Mondrian, so that Dr Gotschaller could compare works of those artists who used tape and those who did not.

The next phase of research for Dr Gotschaller and her team will entail testing individuals’ perceptions of paintings made with masking tape and those made without, the hypothesis being that people will be able to tell with relative certainty which method an artist used. This then calls into question what the further implications of using masking tape, the motivations of its innovators and early adopters, and the almost subconscious aesthetic effect of mechanistically straight lines in relation to growing urbanism and Modernism itself. But for now, research remains in its initial stages, exploring and discovering the process of artists who used an everyday material that we often take for granted.

Geoff Nuttall’s lecture ‘Paolo Guinigi and Palla Strozzi: Lucchese Influence in Early Renaissance Florence’

Gentile da Fabriano, Adoration of the Magi, 1423

On Wednesday 15th May scholars gathered to hear Geoff Nuttall present Paolo Guinigi and Palla Strozzi: Lucchese Influence in Early Renaissance Florence. Nuttall has just completed his PhD on the artistic patronage of Lucca, and this presentation focused on the relationship between Paolo Guinigi, the lord of Lucca in the early Quattrocento, and the Florentine banking merchant Palla Strozzi. Guinigi was a great patron of the arts with a good knowledge of the process of artistic production, and an enormous familiarity with aristocratic tastes. This was due in part to Lucca’s strong access to international markets and its supply of Lucchese silk and luxury goods to the Northern courts.

However, Nuttall explained that the city of Lucca and its artistic legacy has been largely overlooked in the history of art, due in part to the omission of Lucchese artists in Giorgio Vasari’s Lives, a historiographical delineation of the major painters, sculptors and architects of Renaissance Italy. For as a major manufacturing city, Lucca was marginalised by Vasari in favour of cities that produced his main interests of painting and sculpture. Although not much of this was produced in Lucca, and very little was brought in, Nuttall made clear that Lucca was an artistic periphery in itself. Nevertheless, without the stimulus for artistic rivalry and competition of Florentine politics, the window of Lucchese artistic prosperity was fairly small. Furthermore, when Guinigi was exiled in 1430 and the Medici of Florence besieged the city, Lucca lost its monopoly on its trade of silk. Nuttall thus made clear his aspirations for a reconsidering of the legacy of Lucchese art, in reference to his own research and insight.

Accordingly, Nuttall outlined how the wealthy Florentine Palla Strozzi began to take an interest in Lucca. Strozzi was in fact related to two important Lucchese families, and in the decoration of his chapel at Santa Trinita in Florence, Strozzi employed several artists who had previously been in Guinigi’s employment. Strozzi may have even used Guinigi as an adviser for style and artistic choice. Strozzi commissioned Gentile da Fabriano to paint an altarpiece for his chapel and it is here that we see the strongest influence of Lucchese art. There is such quality and complexity in the silk clothing of Gentile’s figures in The Adoration of the Magi, and a style reminiscent of the decoration of Lucchese manuscripts.

Nuttall concluded by outlining that the Lucchese mercantile networks and the knowledge of the courts, as well as the influence of Guinigi as a patron were all very important to Strozzi’s own commissions in Florence. Moreover, the merchants of Lucca were not only manufacturers but purveyors of luxury goods and their trade was far greater than history has concluded. Nuttall gave an insightful and thoroughly fascinating lecture, and it is now evident that the Lucchese influence should be explored further in the art and patronage of Quattrocento Florence.

History of Photography Seminar: Image and the Abyss

Toronto-based visual artist Annie MacDonell gave a compelling lecture-meets-artist’s talk, discussing her work in an open-forum manner at the Research Forum on 1 May.

She began by reading her interpretation of two pivotal postmodernist texts, Craig Owen’s ‘Photography en abyme’ and Rosalind Krauss’s ‘The Originality of the Avant-Garde,’ both of which have largely informed MacDonell’s practice recently, as she has begun to question notions of authenticity and originality in her own art making and in contemporary artistic practice in general. When these texts were written, photography became an important allegorical device for theorists to employ when trying to unravel some of the impenetrable issues of postmodern discourse in its early days. To some extent, MacDonell has translated this methodology into an artistic practice that incorporates photography, film, sculpture, and installation.

MacDonell’s exhibition ‘Originality and the Avant Garde (on art and repetition)’ at Mercer Union in Toronto includes all of these elements of her practice, with a selection of five photographs as well as a mirrored structure the size of her studio. The space within the structure functions as a screening room for a short film, which also reveals itself as a camera obscura: as the film comes to an end, the images from the gallery space appear as projections on the wall.

The mirror is crucial in relation to the texts by Owens and Krauss, as it is the surface that causes an abyss in its endless repetition. This can be understood quite literally, as light reflects on the mirror in a camera, which MacDonell physically translates into the gallery space with the mirrored structure and the camera obscura. Then, there is another layer of mirrored space, as the photographs themselves include mirrors or other reflective surfaces, creating a chain of projections that have no beginning or end. It is this aspect of the mirror that informs MacDonell’s understanding of appropriation. All of the images pictured in MacDonell’s photographs were found in an image archive in Toronto, where, over the years, various archivists have determined categories and sourced images from an indiscriminate array of periodicals, organizing a vast amount of visual information in an almost entirely arbitrary way. The idea of an original source becomes obfuscated in this mass of imagery, and even further removed through its appropriation by MacDonell.

MacDonell confessed that her work is ‘self-explanatory to a fault,’ but actually, it is not as obvious as it may seem. In the short film included in the exhibition, a young man implicates the viewer, engaging in a theoretical diatribe about the very ideas that are explored in the exhibition: originality and authenticity. His confidence in these ideas will resonate with viewers of MacDonell’s work, as its presentation is so in line with its conceptual underpinnings that it verges on becoming too obvious, too self-referential. But his confidence also reveals his naïveté, reminding the viewer that what appears most obvious may be more complex than it initially appears.

Memorabilia from an Age of Troublemaking – Liu Dahong and Katie Hill in Conversation

Liu Dahong, Gazing into Space. Oil on Canvas, 2011. Courtesy the artist, Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong and Rossi & Rossi, London

Chinese contemporary artist Liu Dahong began his presentation on 30 April by stating that he has lived through three dynasties—the first being Chairman Mao’s reign, the second when he left power, and the third the current regime. He explained that this is the lens through which all of his paintings must be viewed. Liu’s work illustrates the merging of past and present histories by weaving references from his own childhood with contemporary political issues. It not only reflects his own histories, but also the nature of history as both an account of factual events and a myth composed of personal memories.

Sotheby’s Institute of Art lecturer Dr. Katie Hill engaged Liu in dialogue about the overarching themes present in his most recent series of work, ‘Childhood’, currently on view at Rossi & Rossi. This show presents the work, along with written text by Liu, in book form. During the conversation, Hill described this book as a kind of ‘textbook’ that was available for visitors to purchase and contribute to. As Liu explained, alongside the pages of his images and explanations were also blank notebook pages to which spectators could add their own impressions and thoughts about his work. This concept, he noted, comes from his continued practice of journal keeping, again bringing elements of his childhood history into his contemporary practices, merging his own history and opinions with those of his audience.

I was particularly interested in the dialog regarding Liu’s painting, Battling the Seaweed Sea (2011). Liu introduced this image with a folktale from his childhood about children who were brave enough to stay out with their sheep during a storm. Thus the image depicts two mischievous children peddling through the water ‘battling the seaweed.’ But as Hill suggested, the image also reflects contemporary ecological issues: the green sea signifies the extreme pollution. Again, Liu brings together the myths of his childhood with current histories, creating a visual link between the past and present.

Another link present throughout Liu’s body of work is one between the Far East and West. The first work Liu presented was a digital tour of a ‘Chinese Church’ to highlight the differences between Chinese and Western culture. Many of Liu’s works utilize Western, particularly Christian, motifs and structures to display distinctly Eastern themes. During the audience question-and-answer session, Hill and Liu discussed his reasons for adopting this format. Utilizing Christian iconography, but placing Chairman Mao’s image in it, demonstrates the widespread influence Mao had, comparable to that of Christianity. The Western forms facilitate the translation of the influence of Chinese political figures.

Overall, Hill and Liu highlighted this idea of translation—translating various histories and myths, translating childhood experience, and translating Chinese culture and politics into visual forms that can be understood and experienced by a broad and diverse audience.

Beyond the Western Mediterranean: Materials, Techniques and Artistic Production, 650-1500

Ivory pyxis with poetic inscription, Cordoba, 960s. Copyright the Hispanic Society of America, New York

On Saturday 20 April 2013, scholars gathered at The Courtauld Institute of Art for Beyond the Western Mediterranean: Materials, Techniques and Artistic Production, 650-1500, organised by Sarah Guérin (The Courtauld Institute of Art) and Mariam Rosser Owen (Victoria and Albert Museum) and sponsored by the Barakat Trust, the Economic History Society and Sam Fogg. Guest blogger Anabelle Gambert-Jouan shares her views.

The upcoming opening of the Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Mediterranée in Marseilles this summer will invite the public to take a new look at the culture of the Mediterranean. In light of the attention that will soon be turned in this direction, Saturday’s symposium appeared to me as a perfectly timed opportunity to reconsider my perception of the region’s rich history. Instead of approaching the Mediterranean in its entirety, the day’s presentations offered in-depth and varied explorations of the notion of a shared medieval culture in the Western Mediterranean and in the territories beyond the sea’s southern shores.

The first session took us on a peregrination from Morocco to Nigeria, passing through Mauritania and Mali. Sam Nixon drew our attention to the trade of raw materials, including gold and ivory, as well as that of glazed pottery, glass vessels, beads and copper, to name a few. This archaeological consideration of the connections between North and West Africa shed light on the trans-Saharan exchanges of production practices, material culture and architecture. Moving along the Niger River Basin, Kathleen Bickford Berzock introduced us to the area’s rich visual culture, with a particular focus on sculptures of horse and rider. These objects’ symbolic association with wealth and power speak of local articulations of status, which found a resonance in a wider Islamic context.

From one Mediterranean shore to another and across the boundaries of the Sahara, the study of the movement of objects, technologies and ideas asks us to reconsider notions of centre and periphery. The analysis of data related to shipwrecks established a regional maritime landscape that consolidated the perception of the Western Mediterranean as a distinct cultural entity. The creation of new centres may prove problematic in the long run. In the meantime however, work like Ronald A. Messier and Chloé Capel’s study of the development of the medieval city of Sijilmasa (Morocco) in comparison with Tedgaoust and Kumbi Saleh (Mauritania) creates a much-needed balance in terms of scholarship devoted to lesser-known regions.

To delve into the details of all fourteen presentations would be impossible in a single post. Topics ranged from the transmission of techniques of carving rock crystal and sand-casting bronze doors to the dissemination of specific motifs. Each speaker’s individual approach enriched a wider discussion on the nature of the connections between Western Mediterranean sub-regions. With subjects spanning over eight centuries, the day’s lectures led us from North/West Africa to Norman Sicily, Southern Spain and finally to Castile during an impressive presentation in which Jessica Streit discussed possible architectural ties between the Assumption Chapel at Las Huelgas (Burgos) and Almohad mosques.

The Sahara and its neighbouring regions are rarely included in the art historical narrative of the Middle Ages. The consideration of the movement of objects, artistic practices and techniques across areas perceived as natural barriers challenged preconceptions. The lectures drew out the lines of less studied, albeit extremely rich, networks of cross-cultural exchanges across the desert and beyond. By stressing the complex and changing nature of these links, the conference successfully avoided creating overly rigid boundaries that would prevent a larger scale dialogue between Western Mediterranean regions and other parts of the medieval world from taking place.