Tell us a little bit about yourself - your background, major program of study, reasons for taking this trip, and anything else interesting you want to share )maybe something people might not know about you.)
I am Merry McMullen - I started my BFA in 1970, took a few years off to marry and raise a family and am now finally finishing this degree. I felt completing some of my goals was worth the effort.
What has met or exceeded your expectations or surprised you about New York so far?
I expected the trip to be a rich educational experience and it certainly lived up to all expectations. The field school has also been an immersion into a different culture. The galleries and museums have been incredible and far more than I anticipated. The city itself is fascinating and multifaceted. The expanse of years displayed in the architecture styles, side by side in no chronological order is both jarring and attractive. It has been a pleasure to find the people I have met to be universally pleasant. Somehow I had felt people here would be too busy or too self absorbed, but they were kind and helpful - and I have been delighted to be proved wrong.
New York and the area we are staying in, Brooklyn, runs the full spectrum of very, very rich to very, very poor. In the Brooklyn area, while travelling the subway, we see the poor (though not the poorest) end of the class spectrum. Though the area is dirty, noisy and the infrastructure is sadly in need of upgrades, the vitality of the people shines. The street art is an ongoing round of creativity, the party spills out to the roads and life is being lived with passion. I find I am more interested in watching the everyday life than I am in seeing the 'sights'.
Give us some insight into your assigned artwork from the Museum of Modern Art. Who is the artist? When was this work made? What is the content of this work? In what context and as part of what art movement was it made?
I was assigned to do my artist research on Kara Walker, who is known for her post-cinematic aesthetic. As a young black woman, she is dealing with the issues pertaining to the subjugation of her race. At first glance, I knew that her work is obviously a statement objecting to slavery and racism. She takes clear aim at white people and their treatment of the black race. Walker's work is however much deeper than those first impressions. While she is indeed taking aim at the horror involved with slavery, her work is discussing the formation of the USA, it's development and how it was shaped as a nation. I believe the symbolism in her work speaks to the growth of America, and how, with the participation (willing or unwilling) of the black people, it has come to be the nation it is today.
African Boy Attendant Curio (Bananas) was the work that was on display at the Brooklyn Museum. This is a piece out of a larger work called A Subtlety, and is classed as contemporary art. Walker’s work is defined and bold by her use of black and white cut-outs. I have had a difficult time understanding her work, but I think that her intent is to use black and white as a reflection of the issues surrounding the history of white and black Americans. Created in 1994, the work has a theatrical appearance. The figures are animated, but the content of the images are jarring when you look at it thoroughly. I am not completely familiar with the post-cinematic movement she is part of, but when I look at Walker’s work, it reminds me of shadow puppetry because of the “simplistic” cut outs and colors.
How did you approach the task of responding to this assigned work in the studio? What were your challenges as an artist to be in dialogue with the artwork and artist? Would you do anything differently now you have seen the work in person?
The work at the MoMA, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as it Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart (1994) by Kara Walker (Or Karen Walker - she uses both names) is simply overwhelming. The piece is 50 feet long and uses stark black cut outs on flat white. As a white artist I realized I could not delve into the issue of slavery in the way Walker has done. I could however discuss the position of young women in our society. I realized I must work large - you cannot reply to any piece of work that large on a sketch book page. The original work was done in black and white, as slavery really is a simple issue; there are no gray tones involved in that discussion. For women today, the issues are less clearly defined. I decided to use a monochromatic, black and purple colour scheme. I used Barbie dolls as I felt these were the best portrayal of the artificial world women are told they should populate. I placed the dolls in the same positions as the people in the Walker picture. I hope that my finished work demonstrated to young women how the fashion world we live in keeps them in bondage to the artificial constructs of our Society. Had I seen Kara Walker's work before I did my work I probably would have been more blatantly sexual as Walker does not pull any punches, and nor should I.
After seeing your assigned work in person (and any other related art from the same artist or art movement associated with the assigned work), what struck you most, and/or how did the artwork's form, content, and context shift for you when seeing it?
When I saw the piece assigned, I was struck by the details. While the piece is huge, the details (such as the tiny George Washington head one of the women is spitting out) are tiny. I realized just how much subtlety is involved in all of Walker's works. When you first see any of the works, you say "oh yes, a cry against Black oppression." You are of course correct, but there is so much more. My study of the works is ongoing and I do not know what all the small points mean. I am sure however that they are there for a good reason and I am continuing to delve into this study.
Today's activity was at the Brooklyn Museum in East Brooklyn. What were your impressions of this part of New York after learning about if first in the pre-departure classes? What will you take away of the experience of this day? What are the most memorable moments for you?
We made a trip to see the Brooklyn Museum. The subway system is the easiest way to get around and is an event in itself. You get to see glimpses of areas you may want to visit next and you get to be a part of the city's daily life. I particularly enjoyed viewing the array of housing, complete buildings, fully appointed rooms showing lifestyles from early colonial times to modern day. These are beautifully appointed and well explained.
The installation called “Connecting Cultures” features works carefully chosen from around the world. Interesting work from a wide array of cultures are also featured. Our particular destination was the Jean-Michel Basquiat show “The Unknown Notebooks.” This feature uses three galleries. Several of Basquiat's notebooks have had the pages removed so they can be displayed independently - we can follow his train of thoughts though projects and see the inspirations for his works. This display is coupled with two videos, one of Basquiat working, showing us his process, and an interview where his philosophy of art and life is discussed. I felt the entire display was well done, and I came away from it with a better understanding and deeper appreciation of his work.
I was delighted to discover Judy Chicago's installation The Dinner Party (1979). This is a large scale installation I have known about and have studied for many years and seeing it was everything I could have wished. It is situated in a triangular gallery with translucent, lightly mirroring walls. As you walk around the outside of the table, each setting is easy to see as it is beautifully lit. I think this is an important work; women today need to be aware of the women who came before them, we need to understand that the fight for fair and equitable treatment has been going on for a long time. I finished my day with a visit to the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. This garden deserves a full day! I only had time to walk a few of the paths. This is a garden for all seasons and I would love to be able to visit it as the growing seasons change. The rose garden in in full bloom now, and was a delight to visit.