For our back-to-school special edition of 5×7, we posed five questions to seven students and professors: Georgia State University professor Ruth Stanford, MFA candidate Michelle Laxalt, and BFA candidate Alexis Huckaby; University of Tennessee—Chattanooga art history professor Jordan Amirkhani; Piedmont College professor and Mason-Scharfenstein Museum of Art director Rebecca Brantley; University of Georgia MFA candidate Will Major; and Vanderbilt University BFA candidate Vibhu Krishna. Check out what they did and watched this summer, their favorite classroom reads, which artist should be president, and their future aspirations. Feel free to provide your own answers in our Comments section!
What did you do this summer?
Amirkhani: Like most academics in the humanities, my summer was dedicated to writing, researching, and prepping for new classes. I spent some quality time with canonical texts in postcolonial studies, particularly the works of Edward Said and Giyatri Spivak, and sorted out my plans for teaching a class on contemporary art theory. I attended and presented at a very exciting conference on anarchism and the arts at Harvard University, and was also lucky enough to conduct some archival research and translation at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, of original correspondence between two major players in the international avant-garde, Tristan Tzara and Francis Picabia, for a publication I am working on. However, nothing tops spending time with my family in Louisiana and playing catch in the yard with my dog, Mable Rose.
Brantley: I had a busy summer! I started a new job as director of the Mason-Scharfenstein Museum of Art at Piedmont College and moved from an apartment in Athens to a log cabin in Demorest, where the museum is located. I’m thrilled and honored to start this position. The museum is a beautiful, converted space with a wonderful permanent collection, and I’ll continue to teach classes as well. Before I started in July, I took a last-minute trip to Italy since I realized my travel time would be limited as I moved from part-time teaching positions to a 12-month job. At some point—maybe standing in a hot, overcrowded room with some Botticelli paintings—I realized that this might not be the best “vacation” since I teach art history for a living. That said, I had a great time! I think my favorite experience was taking a boat from Venice to a small, uncrowded island called Torcello, where I followed a path to an old Venetian-Byzantine church. The view from the church bell tower was amazing.
Huckaby: I worked on completing a bunch of research for my upcoming BFA exit show in December while completely changing my lifestyle habits, which will be reflected in my artwork.
Krishna: Interned at a creative advertising agency for their healthcare clients. Doodled incessantly. Ran a lot (and also fell by tripping on my shoelace.) Practiced my headstand. Studied for the MCAT. Took care of my cactus, Simon.
Laxalt: I began the summer by interning at BURNAWAY for the month of June. I spent July as a resident artist at the Vermont Studio Center, and ended the residency with a visit to New York, stopping at MoMA, the New Museum, the Met, and Dia:Beacon. I moved into a new studio at Georgia State at the beginning of August, and spent the rest of the month prepping for teaching and the new school year.
Major: I worked for the most part. I did lawn maintenance for the intramural facilities for East Tennessee State University. I’ve held that job for the last four summers, but after I finished my undergraduate degree it became a full time job while I sent out applications to graduate programs in photography. I did some freelance work and went out almost every weekend to go photographing for my own personal work, and packed my house up to move to Athens.
Stanford: Took a group of students to my favorite part of the US, the desert southwest of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah, to study land art, landscape, and culture; worked in my studio; participated in a movement workshop with Glo; and spent a little time by the pool.
What is your favorite classroom read and why?
Amirkhani: Linda Nochlin’s 1971 essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” is considered to be “older” feminist text, but every time I assign it to my introductory and intermediate art history students, I am so pleased that I did. Art history’s origins and assumptions are grounded in the assumption of a universal (and thus, white, Western, male, heterosexual) subject and viewpoint, but Nochlin’s text pierces through this fallacy and demands that we question our assumptions about greatness, access, visibility, and inequalities in the artistic professions. Students get wound up, take sides, engage in debate, and ask questions, and inevitably, so do I.
Brantley: I really don’t have favorites. I’ve spent some long hours with Deleuze (in translation, of course), and perversely enjoyed the challenge of understanding his ideas. I’m teaching art criticism this fall and am anxious to get to the point in the semester dedicated to John Berger, Rosalind Krauss, and Arthur Danto. They’re great writers! Also, I assign my students in introductory art history courses and art appreciation a reading by Charles Harrison that discusses the definition of art. It’s from a book called An Introduction to Art. Though I’ve talked about it many times, it never feels exhausted to me.
Huckaby: Michelle Meagher’s Jenny Saville and a Feminist Aesthetics of Disgust was one of my favorite reads from my Feminist Contemporary Art History class. It taught me to look at the social construction of the body types and beauty standards placed upon women and consider how to make people encounter their own beliefs about beauty within my own artwork.
Krishna: I have loved reading poetry among the heavier nonfiction works in many of my courses. Howl by Allen Ginsberg, Salt by Nayyirah Waheed, selected works of Charles Bukowski and Philip Larkin … even poems by Friedrich Nietzsche, which humanized him and made his philosophy so much more digestible.
Laxalt: Last semester, Professor Craig Drennen assigned Sianne Ngai’s Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting to our graduate seminar. It’s one of my favorite books I’ve read on aesthetics; the text is ultra-contemporary and unusual, and focuses on underappreciated and atypical, but prevalent, aesthetic forces that have influenced our contemporary understanding of art and visual culture. Ngai is brilliant and has a way of thinking and writing that is unlike anything I’ve read before—she’s both challenging and illuminating. Professor Drennen had us write responses that contextualized our artwork in response to the text, which helped me learn a lot more about the aesthetic impact of my work.
Major: I’ve been out of school for a year now, but the last reading that really had a profound meaning for me was the play Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar. It was for my Theatre Literature and Criticism class and the themes that were presented in the play really got to my core: ethnic prejudice (even among so called progressive social circles), Islamophobia, and the challenges faced by Muslims in a post-9/11 era. The play helped better inform me personally, as well as my art and political and ethical beliefs.
Stanford: Desert Thirst as Disease, W.J. McGee’s graphic 1906 account of the effects of severe dehydration on a man who was lost for several days in the Sonoran Desert. It is a great reminder of our fragile relationship to the natural world.
If you could vote for an artist for president, who would it be and why?
Amirkhani: I’m not sure that I feel confident in naming an artist, since I’m not an artist myself. But I do think a lot about men and women in the curatorial and academic fields who ask difficult questions of art and its institutions, and have a commitment to presenting difficult, relevant themes and artists to the public. I deeply admire the work and leadership of Dr. Helen Molesworth, Chief Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, and her commitment to exhibiting artists of all colors, ethnicities, backgrounds, and subjectivities, as well as her dedication to curating exhibitions that ask questions about the American experience and civil rights. She’s got my vote.
Brantley: Plato believed that there was no room for art in his ideal state because art was based on deception. If I follow this logic, I think some artists might actually be great politicians in our current system. And what about the way aesthetic strategies already play a part in politics? I can’t help but think of Hillary Clinton, who looked almost reincarnated—washed of her sins?—when she stepped onto the stage this summer to accept her nomination dressed from head to toe in gleaming white. It was a striking visual moment. (I hope she wins!) I really think most artists are probably too sincere and thoughtful to be politicians.
Huckaby: That’s a hard question! Probably Amber Hawk Swanson—she’s killing the game right now with her self-portraits and performance pieces. I would definitely vote for an artist to be president.
Krishna: Barbara Kruger. Her work shows clear political awareness, the gutsiness it takes to campaign, a novel aesthetic (can you imagine her “vote for Kruger” yard signs?), and a drive to address issues of consumerism and women’s rights. It would be cool if she picked Yayoi Kusama for VP because we could really use some colorful polka-dot national monuments.
Laxalt: I don’t know if he’d be up for it, but I’d vote for Theaster Gates, because of his dedication to underrepresented populations and his determination to reinvent and reutilize forgotten spaces for progressive social purposes. There are a lot of great artists out there who prove to us what compassion, innovation, and progressive politics look like, and as artists, they serve as great political examples for the rest of us. It’s troubling that, especially in this election cycle, it seems we’ve lost sight of how a politician should or could be. We need better politicians, who could take notes from people like Gates, but we also need artists who make up for what politicians can’t achieve.
Major: I would never want an artist as president. I want a president who knows the ability art has to create change within our communities and our nation as a whole. I do believe there need to be more arts initiatives within our government, like what the Farm Security Administration and Works Progress Administration did during the New Deal. I would like to see more funding for artists or a Secretary of the Arts instead.
Stanford: Ai Wei Wei, for his fearless commitment to justice for regular people. Artists would probably not make good politicians. They are too prone to point out things that politicians don’t like to talk about.
What have you recently binge watched, or plan to?
Amirkhani: The most recent show I binge watched was Orange is the New Black, and I’m still reeling from the final episode of Season Four. No other show on television is dealing with contemporary politics of race and mass incarceration at such an intense pitch, and I feel deeply attached to many of the characters. I want to find some time to see why everyone’s talking about Stranger Things.
Brantley: I recently binge listened to an audio book version of Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies. I was pretty addicted to it and hated for it to end. The great thing about audiobooks is that you can listen to them while you walk or wash dishes, so the binge can really go on and on. I’ve let 30 Rock play in the background as I unpacked boxes in my new home and ended up letting all seven seasons play. I’ve heard good things about Stranger Things. I think I’ll delve into it for my next bender.
Huckaby: EVERYTHING! Stranger Things, United States of Tara, Nurse Jackie, Game of Thrones, Orange is the New Black, Skins, Twin Peaks, Rosanne.
Krishna: I could not be torn away from watching the Rio Olympics. I also finished a season of Scandal—Shonda Rhimes has this way of setting up suspense and delving deeply into characters’ psychological complexities that makes you want to keep watching. On occasion, I watch Planet Earth and the remaining episodes are definitely on my future watchlist. I also recently binged on Broadway shows with my uncle when we were in NYC.
Laxalt: Like a lot of people this summer, I binge watched Stranger Things—I was hooked within the first ten minutes! I also watched some Curb Your Enthusiasm, and rewatched a few episodes of Arrested Development. I’m curious to see how the new Twin Peaks will pan out, and I am getting impatient waiting for season six of The Walking Dead to make it to Netflix. I’m also looking forward to the Eva Hesse documentary.
Major: I finished Stranger Things in one day and did the same thing with The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret. I have been watching a lot of stand-up as well, including comedians such as Maria Bamford, David Cross, Louis C.K., Hannibal Buress, Jim Gaffigan, and Tig Notaro. I re-binge watched Curb Your Enthusiasm over the summer before I ended my HBO subscription. I probably need to start “binge reading” or “binge podcasting,” because I think I would be a better informed individual in that case, but Netflix is junk food and I’m addicted.
Stanford: Hell on Wheels, a dramatization about the building of the transcontinental railroad. I’m waiting for new seasons of The Fall and Orphan Black.
What do you hope to be doing in five years?
Amirkhani: Teaching, talking about, thinking about, writing about, and looking at art. Simple girl, simple needs.
Brantley: Since I just started a new position, is it terrible that I aspire to be here? I also hope that after five years, I’ve brought some exciting and challenging artists to the MSMA and increased the community’s involvement. I also hope to accomplish more as a writer and to have dabbled more in the thing that drew me to this field in the first place—painting.
Huckaby: Working on finishing my MA in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, and then turning around and starting on my MFA in a more experimental program.
Krishna: Being a doctor-artist hybrid.
Laxalt: I’m working toward a sustainable balance between my two goals: being a professional artist and art educator. I hope to have a solid studio situation with a steady exhibition record and, ideally, a teaching position at a university by that time.
Major: Hopefully I will be starting my second year teaching photography, humanities, or art history as a tenure track college professor. If that isn’t the case, I hope I am making art in some fashion.
Stanford: Showing more work internationally, finding the time and money to do some long-term international residencies or exchanges.