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Art history majors explore framing from literal to abstract

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John Carberry
Margaret Merrell
Lindsay France/University Photography
Margaret Merrell '14, president of the History of Art Majors' Society, is reflected in Sherrie Levine's piece "Black Mirror: 1" in the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art May 13.

The piece called “Black Mirror” in the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art’s Kress Study Gallery is just that – a black, reflective surface within a frame. So you can see yourself, but darkly.

The point is the “frame,” with the many meanings that word can take in art. And that’s the point with every piece chosen for the History of Art Majors Society display titled “enticing the eye/exploring the frame,” on exhibit until July 6.

“We start with the most easily accessible understanding of framing, then move on to more political and historical ideas of framing,” says Maggie Merrell ’14, the society president and a history of art major, as she shows visitors the layout of the show, which includes pieces as traditional as photographs of the Civil War and as abstract as Helen Frankenthaler’s “Air Frame.”

Well-known pieces such as Andy Warhol’s “Jackie III” and Roy Lichtenstein’s “Untitled (Finger pointing)” are also part of the exhibit.

Each spring, the society chooses a theme, then members begin to meet in the fall, selecting works, writing a catalog and eventually helping to hang the show, which takes place the following spring. This year, the society also began a blog about the process and an Instagram account to document their work and reach out to artists and the community.

The club has grown this past year  to 22 members, up from its usual eight to 10 people.

“We had people who were in love with the Civil War photos, and others were in love with contemporary art,” Merrell said. As people selected various pieces, they began to lobby for their favorites. “You see things completely differently when people are speaking about why they love a piece.”

Members used Luna Insight, Cornell’s online catalog for many of its collections, to peruse the museum’s collection of works, selecting several to view at each week’s meeting. Alana Ryder, the museum’s Mellon curatorial coordinator for academic programs, would then pull those objects from storage for the students to see firsthand. Students also made trips to storage spaces, including the underground storage vault.

“Every week this past year, I witnessed the progression, challenges and triumphs of our dedicated exhibition team,” Ryder said. “The society’s model of group curation is based on conversations of the chosen theme and works from the collection. Each student had the chance to speak, research and write about art. The Johnson is thrilled to provide students access to staff and nearly every aspect of museum operations.”

After the works were chosen, students composed essays on each piece.

Chinelo Onyilofor ’15, a double major in chemistry and history of art, wrote about a set of 20th-century photos from noted photographer Robert Frank and found numerous ways that Frank used the idea of framing in his work.

One photo shows a photographer shooting a model, posing by the water in Venice. The photo is cropped to show only the model’s torso and not her face.

“The model is framing herself,” Onyilofor says. “And because Frank chose not to show her face, I believe he’s saying that any woman has the opportunity to frame herself, that any figure can become art through manipulation and perspective.”

The society’s annual exhibition is funded in part by grants from the Student Assembly Finance Commission and the Cornell Council for the Arts and a generous gift from Betsey and Alan Harris.

Kathy Hovis is a staff writer with the College of Arts and Sciences. 

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