Final thoughts

This being my third year in an Art History Program and my first time at the CAA conference, I feel at times like I’m still a little wet behind the ears. From time to time, I peruse the curricula vitae of my professors and stare with my mouth agape at all they have accomplished: articles, panels, books, television specials, etc. It’s a pedigree wholly unmatched by my skimpy, two-page bio. I haven’t published any papers, after all, and my dissertation topic is still nebulous at best. Outside the walls of my own institution, I’ve only presented a single conference paper, and I’ve yet to become the recipient of any terrifically generous grant. Yes, at times it’s easy to feel as though I haven’t accomplished much in my brief career as a PhD student, and I wonder if maybe I’m off to a slow start.

But conferences possess a certain knack, I’ve found, for bringing out the best in us. For example, at the Dumbarton Oaks conference last October, a scholar whom I admire a great deal introduced herself to me out of the blue one morning over coffee. (She introduced herself to me!) She said simply, “Hi, I’m S0-and-So, and I study Precolumbian art. What do you do?” I wanted to tell her, “Excuse me, but I know EXACTLY who you are! You’re the greatest! I’ve read all your books!” Yet surprisingly, I maintained my cool and we ended up talking for quite some time. In the end, she signed a book of hers that I had just bought from the museum bookstore with the inscription: “To William, who will bring new energy and understanding to our field.” A sweet but simple note, I know — but I swear my heart almost leapt from my chest!

And then a few days ago, here at the CAA conference, I witnessed one of my own esteemed professors — who is normally very composed and eloquent — sort of stumble and balk during her talk as she wrestled with technical difficulties and slides that were a little out of order. By no means did I take delight in her momentary fluster, but I did (for the first time) see that she was prone to mistakes as well. I realized that even she gets nervous sometimes and that these kinks and mishaps I so lament happen to everyone. It was a huge relief, and I definitely took notes on all the beautiful ways that she recovered herself.

Finally, yesterday afternoon, I approached a former professor with whom I had not spoken much since he wrote me a letter of recommendation three years ago. I approached him with (I’m sure) a little awe in my eyes. I told him with all honesty how much his writings and courses had meant to me, and that what I am doing today is in large part because of his influence. He seemed genuinely touched, replying, “Well, you were always one of our stars! We’re just glad to hear you’re doing well.” I then tried to offer to repay the favor somehow, offering my services if he should ever need help with archival research or something like that here in New York. He iterated rather magnanimously that, “No, please. Your success is truly repayment enough. Just keep us informed of what you’re doing. That would mean to world to us.” Wow. What a fantastically cool thing to say.

Yes, conferences provide us that rare opportunity to gather, mix, dance, and speak with one another with unusual ease of access. As often as we see each other struggle and strain to be more than we think we are, we witness one other being virtuous and grandiloquent. Absolutely, it’s a chance to see how we stack up against our forebears and the dreaded competition. But it’s also a chance to be humbled and validated. Humbled not simply because others are kind in their words, but because you realize that everyone has stumbled many times in their lives and will do it many times more. And you finally see that it’s all in how you learn from these moments, how you carry yourself afterward, wherein all the difference lies. The focus is not on becoming just like someone whom you admire, but to be the best you can be while never losing touch with those who spurred you along so many years ago. In the end, it’s not about paying anything back — it’s about paying it all forward.

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The Bachelor Pad and Its Discontents

Having never referred to my own place as a bachelor pad, I guess I’ve never been quite sure what one might – or should – look like. Luckily, Jessica E. Sewell spelled it all out for me Friday in her talk on “Seduction Machine: The Libidinous Modernism of the Bachelor Pad.”

In analyzing the physical and ideological make-up of bachelor pads in the 1950s, Sewell was able to paint a picture of how (and why) certain angst-ridden and women-laden young men of half a century ago might have crafted such a disarmingly sexy space. Emerging really for the first time and in all its glory within the pages Playboy magazine, the bachelor pad was the quintessential modernist abode: an apartment with sleek angles, an entertainment center, overstuffed swivel chairs, and a mini-bar located off the living room. Largely fabricated on the model of an all-male sweat lodge, the ideal bachelor pad of yesteryear was bedecked in leather, dark-colored wood, glossy white bathroom tile, and the latest in electronic devices. With everything frilly or precious dutifully omitted, and all unduly comfortable or “swish”-looking pillows resolutely banished, this “man’s lair” was one geared toward the sensual pleasures and entertaining. Mood lighting and music were able to be cued and tweaked with the simple flick of a switch from a master control panel hidden in the headboard of the bed, and the miniature wet bar loomed creepily in the corner. Bathrooms were envisioned as entire apartments unto themselves: a ‘layover’ from the days when the downstairs water closet was a boy’s only respite from his mother and sisters, and a room which promised hours of uninterrupted self-exploration.

Yet with all its sneaky buttons and ultra-modernist design and comforts, Sewell is sure to point out that the quintessential bachelor pad’s focus on entertainment was a bit misdirected at times. Actually, it’s entire design scheme called into question the host’s most prized possessions: his hyper sociability and ardent heterosexuality. Rather than participate in any hetero-normative act, such as having reproductive sex, the confirmed bachelor’s life revolves mostly around practicing tricks alone. With the constant petting of his vain narcissicism, coupled with the intense focus on areas of solitary pleasure within the “home,” the Playboy spread of photos highlights the actual playboy’s loneliness and his masturbatory reversions. Perched atop his entertainment center with his pipe in hand, the playboy of the 1950s is typically pictured alone in the apartment, fumbling with some blunt device in his hand. The pad is entirely emptied of people so as to more effectively diagram the rote movements one might rehearse when alone and then put into action when (and if) the guests ever arrive. And breakfast-in-bed? Well, it’s always for one.

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Seeking a Little Guidance

At 10:30 Friday morning, I attended my Career Development mentoring session. Unlike previous mentoring appointments I’ve had at past conferences, I arrived at this one a bit more apprehensive. It was not going to be a simple check in with a colleague, to verify that I was moving along on the right and steady path. No, I was about to discuss a major left turn in my career trajectory, and needed serious advice.

As I’ve previously mentioned in posts here, I’m currently unemployed. Two years ago, I was laid off from a prominent managerial position at a leading art school. After 7 months, I cobbled together two adjunct teaching gigs, and survived the ensuing year prepping and teaching 11 classes between 2 institutions (one on semester; one on quarter), before being pink-slipped from both just 2 months apart. So here I am, another 7 months later. Yet, my decision to change things up goes a little deeper than just lack of jobs.

To make a long story short (and not too personal): I was in lower Manhattan on 9/11/01. The dust settled in my right ear, became an infection, killed my labyrinth. The 24/7 vertigo sent me to the NYU Medical Center/Rusk Institute for Rehabilitation Medicine for almost 2 years. I still have 24/7 vertigo, and now I’m almost deaf, but at least I can walk and read. Pretty important for the everyday, and for the academic.

Fast-forward 7 years: My priorities shifted for awhile, especially for the Ph.D. Now I’m 39, only have an MA in art history—not the terminal degree, and have a stalled out career. I am back in the studio for the first in many years. One of the interesting things I have learned, both in research and in experience, is that many survivors of 9/11 are suffering PTSD years later. So here I am, with panic attacks, flashbacks, and nightmares—almost 10 years later.

For the most part, I have put away the paint, and acquired an eight-harness loom. The side-to-side motion of weaving not only soothes me, but it mimics VOR—the vestibular-ocular reflex, the important eye movement connected to body positioning in space. In other words, weaving reduces vertigo for me—a happy accidental discovery. I am currently conducting additional research on its applications. Textiles are now my primary media.

I have also entered a study at Stanford University, looking at promising treatments for PTSD, which includes fMRI imaging, and a therapy modality called Prolonged Exposure Therapy. It’s connected with the Veterans Administration in Palo Alto. I’m very interested in the VA, because soldiers are coming back with blown out ears, and permanent vertigo.

So, you guessed it—the MFA.

I had been quite familiar with the art history route, and familiarity breeds comfort. Now, I am looking at a completely new route, never traveled before. Scary? Yes. Exciting? Yes. And, of course, when your assigned mentor tells you point blank that you are exactly where you are supposed to be, and on the precisely right path, it is entirely worth it to go through with the session, no matter how nerve-wracking. Personal details and all. It’s part of my story, to make my own. Soon, my completed portfolio will speak for me.

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Leslie K. Brown

Leslie K. Brown is an independent curator, scholar, and educator pursuing her PhD in Art History at Boston University.  A former curator at the Photographic Resource Center in Boston, she holds an MA from the University of Texas at Austin and specializes in the history of photography.  In addition to contributing an essay for Sandi Haber Fifield’s forthcoming book, Between Planting and Picking (Charta, March 2011), Brown’s recent curatorial projects include Traces: Daniel Ranalli, Cape Work 1987-2007 (Provincetown Art Association and Museum) and Out of the Box: Photography Portfolios from the Permanent Collection (deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum).  She has taught at the Art Institute of Boston and the Rhode Island School of Design and served as an invited guest juror and reviewer for exhibitions, grants, publications, and portfolio review events.

Dwayne Butcher: What brings you to CAA? Anything in particular?

Leslie K. Brown: I am a second year PhD student in art history at Boston University, specializing in the history of photography.  I attend CAA to stay current in my field and be inspired by new ideas and research.  As a practicing independent curator, I also enjoy attending both history-based and contemporary panels as well as artist interviews and talks.

DB: Do you think there are enough sessions in your field at CAA?

LKB: I would enjoy hearing more papers that engage the history of photography, but they would not necessarily have to be grouped into separate media-specific sessions.  In addition, it would be wonderful to have panels that brought together photohistorians with working photographers.

DB: Can you talk about your current research projects? How did you get interested in the subject?

LKB: Since returning to graduate school, I have been inspired by the related fields of American studies and visual culture.   For my current research, I am interested in issues of views and viewing as well as dictated viewing experiences, often in a touristic mode or mediated by some sort of device or image (real or imagined).  My recent papers include a study of the Tower coin-operated binocular viewer and viewsheds associated with artists’ historic homes and studios. This semester, I hope to work on Kodak Picture Spots and artist collectives that engage the land.  I have always been fascinated by landscape experiences and depictions as well as the history of tourism and vernacular imagery.  Perhaps this has something to do with being the product of a Kodak family!

DB: What are your plans once you finish with the Dissertation? Are there any particular things you would like to do?

LKB: I enjoy curating as well as teaching and hope to continue to do both, before and after the dissertation.  My ideal position would combine these two aspects of my background and training. In addition, I have also found that I enjoy teaching art students art history and being a part of their creative process.

DB: What is your favorite: Artist? Book? Color? Smell? And Food?

LKB: It is hard and difficult to choose! Artist: Jem Southam; Book: Ceremonial Time by John Hanson Mitchell; Color: red; Smell: the woods and rain; Food: vegetarian of all stripes.

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Adrian R. Duran

Adrian R. Duran received his PhD from the University of Delaware in 2006, where his dissertation “Il Fronte Nuovo delle Arti: Painting and Politics in Italy at the Dawn of the Cold War, 1944-50” won the Sypherd Prize for Best Dissertation in the Humanities.  He is currently Assistant Professor of Art History at the Memphis College of Art where he teaches courses in Modern and Contemporary Art, Critical Theory, and Art Criticism. He has received grants from The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation and the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst (DAAD).  His recent publications include exhibition criticism for Number, SECAC Review, and Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide.

Dwayne Butcher: So, should we start by addressing how I misquoted you earlier in the week by stating, “CAA may want to rethink its current format or risk losing its members and effectiveness as a conference.”

Adrian Duran: No, what happened was I just choose my words poorly. I do not think that CAA is going out of business or that it is under siege. CAA is the mountain that we all come to. CAA will never go anywhere as it does what it does extremely well. I do not think it is a failing business model, that it will lose to its competition. But what I do think is interesting is when I go to other conferences, particularly interdisciplinary conferences like the American Association for Italian Studies, the Italianist conferences are filled with literature people, theatre people, language people, history people, art historians there are the minority. I think there is an interesting dialogue that emerges when art historians are the minority. It pulls us into the interdisciplinarity that art history is supposed to manifest. If art history is good at anything it is interdisciplinarity. To have our national conference be populated by mostly art historians, it just gives me pause. It makes me wonder whether or not we are more fruitful with other disciplines rather than on our own island I suppose.

DB: Can you talk about your process of interviewing at CAA?

AD: The year I interviewed for real was in Atlanta in 2005. I was fortunate to have a number of interviews. There were some in the bullpen, I had some in the hotel rooms, and several off-site ones. It is so tense, I can not even explain it. This is before the regulators of the traffic were in place. People could go into the bullpen and just be there. I remember thinking that the whole room smelled of desperation. There were fifty tables and over five hundred people in the room. Anytime there was a single break for anyone interviewing, someone would approach the table with a packet. It made for manias and it created a degree of stress that I think was not native to me. It is good to see that CAA has cleaned that up. That being said, the job I took was at that table, so maybe it worked?

DB: So, what brings you to CAA this year? Sessions, panels, the book fair?

AD: It’s everything. The great thing about CAA is that it is academic with a family reunion. If only to be around the people I haven’t seen in many moons. It is the place to be for that. Where are you going to find this many artists and art historians in one place. This alone makes it worthwhile. It is an ideas blizzard. It is a beautiful to be around people who are thinking about what we all think about. Maybe no one will admit this, but, I think a lot of people come to CAA because if they don’t they fear they may miss something. A lot of important things happen here, like interviews with Dwayne Butcher on the CAA Blog.

DB: Of course, that is the most important part, probably. Anyways, can you talk about the book fair a little bit. Were there any new books or a particular publisher you were excited about?

AD: The book fair is great as it is where you get the lay of the land. You see all the new stuff that is out, the recent stuff that is out. There isn’t an art historian on earth who isn’t a book addict and the book fair can be like free day at the methadone clinic, at least for me. None of us want to stop, however. You get to see so many books and it is so much fun. I cannot wait to give my list to the librarian at (Memphis College of Art.) I am excited about Christine Poggi’s book about Futurism, which I should have read already. There is a book, “Rethinking the Contemporary Art School,” published by D.A.P. that looked pretty good.  There is Eamonn Canniffe’s “The Politics of the Piazza,” looks really awesome, which is about urban space in Italy.

DB: Can you talk a little bit about your current research or projects?

AD: Talking about the book fair earlier, my editor at Ashgate, this is the first time I have ever met her in the flesh. I have been communicating with her via email. I did not know what she looked like and now I do. I am working on a project with Anne Massoni for Aspect: The Chronicle of New Media Art, “Hi-Tech” and got to meet one of their interns at the book fair. I am working on my manuscript, “Paintings, Politics and the New Front of Cold War Italy.” It is about Italian painting between the fall of Fascism and the first years of the 1950’s. It is a book that explores the intersection of politics and art discourse at the beginning of the Cold War. Other than that, a review of mine was recently published on CAA reviews about a really great show at The Nasher Museum of Art titled The Record – Contemporary ART and Vinyl.

DB: What is your favorite artist? Book? Color? Smell? Food?

AD: My favorite artist changes depending on what work of art I am standing in front of…I will go to my grave defending Titian. My favorite book ever? This is a great one for CAA. E.L. Konigsburg’s “From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.” It is about two kids that runaway and move into the Met. I read this book when I was six or seven and I am convinced this is why I am an art historian. My favorite colors are blue and gold because they were the colors of my high school, college and grad school. My wife and oil paint are my favorite smells, in that order. My favorite food is pizza, real pizza, New Jersey pizza, Nino’s Pizza in North Brunswick, NJ.

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