Penelope C. Umbrico, Mungo P. Thomson, Matt R. Saunders ’97, and Katarina A. Burin are amongst this year’s visiting faculty in the department of Visual and Environmental Studies (VES). Umbrico, who is based in New York, will teach “Investigations in Photo-Based Art,” a class she describes as aiming to explore inherent photographic concepts as a means for generating photo-based work. Thomson, who is simultaneously working on a book project, will teach two courses: a group critique class for students who have artistic experience across disciplines, and “Post-Studio Studio,” which presents art in a polymorphous manner. Saunders, who was himself a graduate of VES, will teach “Painting, Smoking, Eating” and “New Grounds,” both of which focus on the techniques of painting and question the nature of this medium. Burin will instruct basic drawing classes that emphasize the development of skills in the field.
The Harvard Crimson: You’ve taught courses on video and related media, as well as on photography. Why did you choose to teach a class on photography during your interim here?
Penelope Umbrico: I’m asking students to look at photography as a subject and break it down into its constituent parts. I’m asking them to think about how we look at things as a culture as opposed to how we look at things as individuals, and to understand our individual positions in relation to collective influences. The appropriative nature of photography lends itself perfectly to exploring questions around authorship, originality and individuality.
THC: Could you talk a bit about your piece in the Carpenter Center?
PU: It comes out of a project I did called “Desk Trajectories,” where I compiled images of used office desks for sale on the Internet. At one point these desks, the byproducts of Modernist clean minimal design, promised a kind of efficiency of productivity, but the fact that they are for sale means they are no longer useful in this way.
THC: How do you like being on the East Coast?
Mungo Thomson: It’s good to get away. Los Angeles is a great resource if you are working in video and film. It’s a good place to be an artist, but it’s also the end of the earth in some ways.
THC: Are there any common trends in your work?
MT: The themes in my work have stayed consistent. They are about audience participation and space. My work used to be a little more culturally referential—making allusions to music and film, but I’ve become more interested in cosmology and physics. I’m not loyal to any one medium. I feel that that is the contemporary way of working. It’s by no means a disparagement of studio practice, but I can continue to make my work so long as I have my laptop and my sketchbook. For me, it’s really just a matter of going where the idea leads, and not being too beholden to the traditional ideas of how you want to make art.
THC: A project of yours, “Coat Check Chimes,” was featured in the 2008 Whitney Biennial. Can you tell us more about how this piece is an example of exploring the boundaries of traditional art?
MT: I like to do things in spaces that get overlooked and that surprise you. We replaced all 1,200 coat hangers in the Whitney Museum coat check with custom-made tune ones. When they knocked together, they made music.
THC: You seem to merge photography with a number of different art forms. Could you tell us about that?
MS: My work includes photograms. They are made from painted canvasses—no camera involved. I make a painting on a canvas, and in a dark room, I put it on a piece of photo paper, sort of like an X-ray of a painting. I was making paintings but always from sources that I found, like from pictures that I took. I was very interested in where an image came from…how it becomes re-embodied and reformed, which in my opinion is analogous to a sense of movement through the world. The photography grew from one project with an archive of small photos that I’d collected. I thought, if I had negatives for these photos all the images could be the same size, and the group would be perfect! So I made the negatives by hand, I imagined what the negative would be.
THC: How is it being back at Harvard?
MS: It’s nice being back—strange being back and to be teaching here. I’m happy to be back. I will try to refrain from telling stories of the old days in class.
THC: What are you currently working on?
KB: I’m doing a show in Cincinnati, at a gallery called Country Club. I’m curating the work of Charlie Harper, who did Golden Book illustrations for schools, my own work, and the work of New York artist Matthew Brannon. It’s nice to be in a show with somebody [Harper] from a different generation, with someone who did drawings for a specific purpose, but was also a talented craftsman.
THC: You often draw on history and architectural design for subject matter. What is the appeal?
KB: I think part of the working process for me in trying to understand my place in relation to history, and part of the process of making the work, is the kind of confusion between what we know in history, who documents, and what information we bring to it ourselves. Understanding history becomes a partially subjective and objective process—how everything is sort of part fiction, and how that gets reassembled through the work somehow.