Asymmetry

8 December 2021, 5:00:00 am

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Session Convenors

Ariel Kline, Princeton University
Keren Hammerschlag, Australian National University

Session Moderators

Ariel Kline, Princeton University
Keren Hammerschlag, Australian National University

Session Speakers

Shanti Shea An, Australian National University
Richard Read, UWA School of Design, University of Western Australia
Luke Naessens, Princeton University

‘Asymmetry’ is defined by what it is not: it is the lack of symmetry, the lack of equity, and the lack of equivalence between parts. Western art and its histories have often privileged classical symmetry wherein, for example, bodies stand in balanced contrapposto as the epitome of vitality and beauty. Otherwise, symmetry has been associated with justice and divinity, a mark of moral perfection. And yet, asymmetry can have an aesthetic and political impact—asserting pressure and creating accents in unexpected places. This panel seeks to challenge, amend, or otherwise disorder the symmetrical by exploring concepts and representations of asymmetry in art and visual culture. What impact might asymmetry have as a framing concept for viewing images and bodies? How should we as art historians account for asymmetries of power, justice, and archival or artistic representations? What does it mean to write asymmetrical histories, attend to historical imbalances, or engage in looking askew? This panel seeks to look critically and creatively at asymmetry in art, art history, museums, collections and the archive from any location and time period, with a focus on asymmetry in representations of gender, sexuality, disability and race.

PAPER #1
Centre/Margin: Interruptions and Asymmetries in Painted Reading

PRESENTER
Shanti Shea An, Australian National University

The representation of the codex within western painting often underscores a central seam or ‘split’ between two (supposedly) equal halves. Comparing the pictorial symmetry of the book—with its connotations of logic, rationality, and linearity—with the asymmetry of its gendered representation in painting reveals certain anxieties around knowledge and the lives of women. Throughout history, male readers have been presented as studious and absorbed in mental activity, while female readers have been aligned with leisure, easily distracted by what historian Garrett Stewart refers to as ‘an off-frame male presence’ (Stewart 2006, 5). This paper will examine asymmetry within the context of painted reading. I argue that that these binary distinctions are often transgressed by nineteenth century painters, who encourage viewers to look awry. Focusing on how asymmetry figures in Mary Cassatt’s Reading ‘Le Figaro’ (1877-78) and Edouard Manet’s La lecture (c. 1868), I will examine the implications of such a transgression and how this tendency to read away from the centre opens up new ways of conceptualising the activity of textual engagement.

PAPER #2
Asymmetry, Apocalypse and Fitz Henry Lane’s Brace’s Rock, Brace’s Cove (1864).

PRESENTER
Richard Read, UWA School of Design, University of Western Australia

By founding Transcendentalism, the nineteenth-century American sage Ralph Waldo Emerson set his face against staid Unitarian faith in the mechanical symmetry and permanence of the Newtonian universe in favour of an intuitively fluctuating relationship between material nature and the human soul in which one sphere diminished the other as it enlarged itself. A visual impairment had increased his sense that ‘the axis of vision is not coincident with the nature of things’ (‘Nature’, 1836). Though his visionary outlook attracted a host of artists, few did visual justice to his disembodied language. An exception is the meticulously accurate marine painter Fitz Henry Lane, who in the darkest days of the Civil War painted a familiar coastal scene from a position unattainable to a lame man in the last year of his life. He also span around its central geological feature in emulation of Emerson’s poet who ‘unfixes the land and sea, makes them revolve around the axis of his primary thought, and disposes them anew’. The paper probes the extent to which the asymmetry of Lane’s self-effacing, gyroscopic vision anticipates our conception of the Hyperobject by invoking a post-mortem world from which the artist and his viewpoint are absent.

PAPER #3
Negative Sovereignty: Nancy Graves’s Shaman and the Occupation of Alcatraz

PRESENTER
Luke Naessens, Princeton University

In 1970, American artist Nancy Graves produced Shaman, a widely exhibited work of Process art based on research into Indigenous arts, dress, and religious practices. Meanwhile, activist group Indians of All Tribes staged a spectacular demonstration of Indigenous sovereignty by claiming title to San Francisco’s Alcatraz Island “by right of discovery.” This paper situates Shaman and the occupation of Alcatraz in anamorphic relation, and argues that this oblique encounter illuminates the distorted reception of Red Power politics in the early 1970s. Like many countercultural actors, Graves turned to the shaman as a model of altered consciousness, liberated from capitalism’s technocratic administration of perception. The work approximated a shamanic way of seeing through a series of disorienting perceptual effects derived from the formal strategies of Kwakwaka’wakw and Tlingit art, illustrating the role of Indigenous visual cultures in shaping countercultural imaginaries. The highly publicized occupation of Alcatraz was a symbolic gesture which made sovereignty visible. Shaman participated in an aesthetics of “negative sovereignty” which emerged in Red Power’s wake, deflecting attention from the scandalous sovereignties on view. This colonial aesthetics informed countercultural fantasies of liberation, which celebrated but ultimately defused the unsettling prospect of Indigenous politics.

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Biographies

Ariel Kline, Princeton University

Ariel Kline is a PhD candidate at Princeton University. Her dissertation, “Of Monsters and Mirrors: Art and Empire in Nineteenth-Century Britain,” is about monstrosity and heroism as two poles against which the human was defined across the nineteenth century. In particular, the dissertation unfolds the ethical and political stakes of these terms, implicated in nineteenth-century British paintings that visualize empire.


Keren Hammerschlag, Australian National University

Keren Hammerschlag is a lecturer in art history and curatorship in the Centre for Art History and Art Theory, School of Art and Design, at the Australian National University, Canberra. Her current research focuses on nineteenth-century anatomical illustration, and race in Victorian painting. She is the author of Frederic Leighton: Death, Mortality, Resurrection (Ashgate, 2015) and “Christ’s Racial Origins: Finding the Jewish Race in Victorian History Painting”, an article published in The Art Bulletin in 2021.


Shanti Shea An, Australian National University

Shanti Shea An is an artist and PhD candidate in the School of Art and Design at the Australian National University. Shanti received a Bachelor of Visual Arts (First Class Honours) from the ANU School of Art Design before then receiving a Master of Art History and Curatorial Studies at the ANU Centre for Art History & Art Theory, with a thesis titled “At the Borderline: Interiority, Exteriority and the Threshold in Dutch Painting.” She is currently undertaking practice-led research on the subject of textuality and reading within a contemporary painting practice.


Richard Read, UWA School of Design, University of Western Australia

Emeritus Professor Richard Read is Senior Honorary Research Fellow at UWA. He wrote the first book on the British art critic Adrian Stokes and has published extensively on literature and the visual arts and complex images in global contexts. His anthology Colonization, Wilderness and Other Spaces, co-edited with Kenneth Haltman, was published by the Terra Foundation in 2020, to be republished by Yale. The Afterlife of Molyneux’s Question: Sensory Perception, History and Geology was recently submitted to Cambridge University Press. Most recently he published on Goya in the catalogue to the current exhibition at the NGV.


Luke Naessens, Princeton University

Luke Naessens is a PhD candidate in Princeton University’s Department of Art and Archaeology, where he studies post-war and contemporary art in North America. His dissertation, “Time in Process: Postminimalism, Indigenous Politics, and Colonial Imaginaries” examines a network of relations between Postminimalism and Native American aesthetics and politics in the 1970s, ranging from antagonism to intimacy, extraction to exchange. Previously, he worked on the curatorial team of the Barbican Art Gallery in London.