UChicago professor speaks at Hood on intersection of art and race

by Macy Toppan and Kendall Milender | 10/8/19 2:00am

What is contemporary art? For some, it’s Pollocks and Picassos and Poliakoffs. For others, it is the senseless combination of shape and color. For University of Chicago art history professor Darby English, it’s a conversation. 

Last Thursday, students, faculty and members of the Hanover community gathered to hear English speak in the Hood Museum of Art’s Gilman Auditorium for the annual Dr. Allen Root Contemporary Art Distinguished Lectureship, a forum established in 2004 that focuses on celebrating and educating the community about modern art through a variety of lenses.

Like his forerunners, English is a pillar of the art community. Currently the Carl Darling Buck professor of art history and director of the Scherer Center for the Study of American Culture at the University of Chicago, English’s work focuses on the facilitation of cultural change through art. “To Describe a Life: Notes from the Intersection of Art and Race Terror” exemplifies this by discussing the role of art in the recent period of race-related police brutality. This topic served as the basis for English’s lecture at the Hood.

The lecture, constructed as an in-depth visual analysis and study of a piece, revolved around Kerry James Marshall’s “Untitled (policeman),” a 5-by-5 foot acrylic painting on smooth PVC panel with a plexiglass frame. In “Untitled (policeman),” Marshall paints an impactful image: a black policeman perched on the hood of his Chevy squad car, bathed in a blue and waning light of high-pole municipal lamps and observed from a lowered eyeline similar to that of a child. 

According to English, Marshall’s work was created in 2015 in the wake of the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO and quickly became a source of controversy for its depiction of a black police officer. 

English recalled his expectations upon viewing the in-progress piece, which at the time consisted of police-related imagery without the figure of the police officer, as well as his surprise at the officer depicted in the finished product. 

“I walked into the studio and saw a painting quite unlike the one I had expected him to make, which I realized on subsequent thinking,” English said. “There was a painting that I’d wanted him to paint, a painting of a police officer that I needed from Kerry James Marshall, that is not the painting that Kerry made.”

In depicting a black man who is a police officer, the image is one of multiplicity. English, addressing topics from the geometric integrity of light to the Black Lives Matter movement, said that Marshall’s piece is less a portrait or response to specific recent shootings and events than it is a philosophical reflection upon the mindsets of black communities toward the police and the need for self-determination. 

Throughout the lecture, English recalled several conversations he had with Marshall in which the artist asserted that “Untitled (policeman)” was not a response to any specific instance of police brutality. According to English, Marshall —who has evolved a distinctive style within painting, sculpture and collage throughout his career to capture the essence of black identity in the United States — rather used his medium to inspire simultaneity with blackness and the police force.   According to English, Marshall’s work is not motivated by a political stance in the way we think it may be. The goal of the artwork is not so much to “weaponize  moral conviction,” as English said, but rather, to open up a reflective dialogue between the viewer and the painting. 

“What the picture seems to affect is the expression of a wish that the viewer might herself perform the separation between the work’s topical suggestions … and the painting,” English said.

The Hood Museum’s associate curator of global contemporary art Jessica Hong helps to locate and invite speakers like English to participate in this lecture series. 

“It’s incredibly broad,” Hong said, referring to the unifying subject matter of the lectureship. “Past lecturers included art historians and other scholars, but also artists and other curators: individuals that really are making an important cultural mark, not just on the arts but on the broader socio-cultural ecosystems.”

Hong said English’s novel “To Describe a Life: Notes from the Intersection of Art and Race Terror” drew her attention to him and led her to choose English to serve as the 2019 lecturer. The book presents English’s thought processes and approaches in a unique manner emblematic not only of the purpose of the lectureship, but also of the museum itself. 

“What I think is so unique and distinct in how he approaches any type of work is him diving into the difficulties and ambiguity and nuance,” Hong said. “That is actually how I see the museum space: as one that is not one or the other. It’s an ambiguous space in which we can have exploration.”

English’s discussion and interpretation of “Untitled (policeman)” helped Saba Maheen ’20, a studio art major who attended the lecture, to see the piece in a new light. 

“I think having professors from different schools in general and different schools of thought is really interesting,” Maheen said. “Especially the piece that English was talking about today — it’s a super beautiful piece that I’d seen before, but having someone talk about it who is an outsider, not just the artist, is also quite interesting.”

Maheen said she values the opportunities presented by lectures like that of English and applauds the Hood and the art department for providing accessible, inclusive access to these experiences.

“I think it’s a really great thing when the art department brings these artists in,” Maheen said. “These people are sometimes hard to reach if you’re not in this kind of space. Making it free, making sure that everybody can go, having a little reception after it — I love it, I think it’s great.”  Hong agreed, stating that the Hood’s public programming encourages important and active dialogues within the typically passive viewing experience of the museum.

“I always wish that there’s more conversation that could happen, but of course we also want as many people to come to the lectures as possible,” Hong said. “In addition to it being for Dartmouth students, the faculty and the community at the College, it’s really for everybody.”

English’s closing statement summed up not only the intentions of the painting, but also of the dialogue that the Hood’s lectureship hopes to create.

“The principle effort was to produce a presence,” English said. “The presence produced slows perception nearly to a crawl. In order to apprehend, we must be willing to reflect.”