By Brooke O’Neill, AM’04
Photo by Jason Smith

[UChicago artists have the flexibility to] find what’s crucial in the process of doing the research, to be open, and to have absolute freedom to follow … those observations in any directio”
—Matthew Jesse Jackson
Associate Professor, DOVA

As the early-evening sun peeks through window blinds, a small group of graduate students and faculty members sit in a dark Cobb Hall classroom, peering at even darker images. Ominous gray clouds flanked by pitch-black sky fill the large flat-screen TV in the corner of the room.

“It’s hard to say which way is up and which is down,” says art history graduate student Phil Lee, describing the disorienting photograph at an April meeting of the Contemporary Art Workshop. The image, one of photographer Alfred Stieglitz’s 200-plus cloud shots, is part of Lee’s evolving dissertation on photography’s importance in American modernism.

At today’s meeting, she’s testing her ideas—and being pushed to question them. Associate Professor in Art History Darby English, a faculty adviser for the group, urges Lee to revisit a chapter that describes the historical context of Stieglitz’s work. “Some contemporary work is important precisely because it is contemporary,” English says.

Fortunately for Lee, Chicago is an ideal place to tackle art scholarship with little historical precedent. Whether debating a philosophy of aesthetics or assembling a sculpture exhibition, UChicago artist-scholars have the flexibility to “find what’s crucial in the process of doing the research, to be open, and to have absolute freedom to follow those intuitions, those observations in any direction,” says CAW faculty adviser Matthew Jesse Jackson, Associate Professor in Art History and Visual Arts and the College.

“That’s why,” adds Jackson, “I’m truly excited about the idea of the Logan Arts Center.”

Uniting Artistic Creation and Scholarship

The May 12 groundbreaking of the Reva and David Logan Center for Creative and Performing Arts was organized as an unconventional event to celebrate the University’s distinctive mix of arts theory and practice. Researchers and practitioners alike say that union has long been a hallmark of UChicago arts.

“I never think of them being split,” says painter David Schutter, MFA’03, an Assistant Professor in Visual Arts and the College. After all, he says, painting “is a physical way of thinking.”

Take his group of five abstract canvases, exhibited at Scotland’s National Gallery of Modern Art last year. Schutter’s paintings were inspired by a Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin painting from the mid-18th century. By focusing on surface, texture, and his own imperfect memory of the original pieces—it’s often difficult to make out figures and details in his gray-hued images—Schutter compels viewers to think about how people process art.

“When you go to the museum and you look at works that we see all the time, they’re surprisingly anterior to us,” Schutter says.

“So much that surrounds art makes it possible,” adds Jackson, describing the theory behind his colleague’s work. “Walking into a gallery makes the mind prepared to see things in a certain way.”

Conversation Starters

The University’s artistic culture likewise puts artists and their audience in a particular frame of mind. “Intellectual work is tantamount to creative work,” says photographer Laura Letinsky, Associate Professor in Visual Arts and Cinema and Media Studies. “The kinds of production done here, be it written, performed, filmed, painted, et cetera, are understood as research, argument, catalyst, knowledge, and provocation.”

Best known for her still-life tableaus inspired by fields as diverse as childhood development and identity philosophy, Letinsky sees the Logan Arts Center as a chance for more powerful, multidisciplinary discourse. Just being in “simple physical proximity with my fellow faculty will enable an organic cross-fertilization” that would be difficult if faculty were dispersed among many buildings.

“Having everyone under the same roof is going to generate a broader conversation,” agrees Schutter, who envisions the center as a place for faculty and students to “extend their ideas.” As more hybrids of art emerge in the larger contemporary art world, the Logan Arts Center will enable artist-scholars to fuse vision, sound, and discourse in ever-more groundbreaking ways. The UChicago faculty-produced virtual curatorial project, ourliteralspeed.com, which combines audio, text, and video, is one example of that trend.

The Space Within

Of course, the Logan Arts Center’s open space isn’t just for experimental endeavors. Blending artist studios with a black-box theater, classrooms, media labs, music rehearsal rooms, galleries, and other performance and film screening venues, the center will encompass all realms—and eras—of creative exploration and critical study.

“If you’re interested in past styles, work that is canonical and traditional, that’s great,” says Jackson. “ ‘Open’ implies an openness to the past, the present, and the future.” Whether analyzing Stieglitz’s abstract cloud photos like Lee or painting Chardin’s works like Schutter, each individual will chart his or her own unique path in the center’s flexible, fluid environment.

Where those roads may lead is anyone’s guess. “Everyone imagines [the center] as a space that will produce objects and experiences—and we literally can’t imagine what they might be,” muses Jackson. In 2019, the results will be obvious, he says, “but now, no one really knows. And that’s what’s most wonderful about it.”

Originally published on May 10, 2010.