Author Archives: Morgan Dowty

About Morgan Dowty

Morgan Dowty is the curatorial assistant for the Department of Prints, Drawings & Photographs @artBMA. She graduated with her BFA from Washington University in St. Louis in 2015, earning a concentration in printmaking and completing a second major in art history.

Thoughts on Visibility in Juan Logan’s Ghost and John Hesselius’s Charles Calvert and His Slave

Juan Logan. Ghost. 2009. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Print, Drawing & Photograph Society Fund, with proceeds derived from the 2010 Contemporary Print Fair, BMA 2010.11.1-6 © Juan Logan

A few weeks back, I was exploring the Prints, Drawing & Photographs vaults and came across one of the prints from Juan Logan’s Ghost series (2009). I was completely taken by the depth and mystery of the image – totally up my alley visually – and yet, unsure of the subject matter. I was in hurry and mentally filed away the work as something to revisit. A bit later, I stumbled across the piece again, and Ann Shafer, Associate Curator of Prints, Drawings & Photographs, mentioned to me that the images are ghostings of shackles. Yes, shackles – for necks, arms and feet. In learning this, the piece got a bit deeper and a bit darker.

It is no secret that slavery haunts us. Recent events in Baltimore and across the country have brought race to the forefront of American minds, but race has always been an issue at the fore and at the very foundation of America.

John Hesselius. Charles Calvert and His Slave. 1761. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Alfred R. and Henry G. Riggs, in Memory of General Lawrason Riggs, BMA 1941.4

John Hesselius. Charles Calvert and His Slave. 1761. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Alfred R. and Henry G. Riggs, in Memory of General Lawrason Riggs, BMA 1941.4

It makes sense to me to pair Ghost with a painting currently on view in the American Wing of the BMA. John Hesselius’s 1761 canvas Charles Calvert and His Slave depicts Charles Calvert, third baron of Baltimore, at the age of five with another boy kneeling at his right – his slave. I cringe when I see this painting, as I’m sure many of our visitors do. Yet with proper contextualization, it is important to have the painting on view as a reminder of America’s history, and as a reminder of why race and racism is as prevalent a topic today as it has ever been.

The painting also raises the question of whose histories we preserve. Living quite near Calvert Street, which nearly spans the length of the city, I very quickly caught on to “Calvert” as a familiar name after my move to Baltimore. Yet, next to Ghost, Charles Calvert and His Slave can take on a new context and a new gravity. When considering this pair, it is fruitful to think about the concealment at work in both images and how each artist employs this concealment to his advantage. Although Hesselius has foregrounded the young Charles Calvert, when paired with Logan’s work, we are forced to think beyond the boy in his head-to-toe pink clothes to the other boy who has very much been “othered”. We do not know his story. We hold onto a small detail, he holds a drum while the boy Calvert holds the sticks.

Ghost, on the other hand, withholds information through its abstract imagery. To create the series of prints which comprise Ghost, Logan has spray-painted over physical shackles placed on a surface and used the “ghost” image left behind as the basis for his etched polymer plates. This process results in the abstract silvery shapes of the image. The series draws you in and then with new knowledge of its origin the image and its title takes on new meaning.

248 years passed between the time that Hesselius and Logan each created these works and the ghost of American slavery looms still. Yet, it is encouraging to me that collections can challenge us to give these pressing issues thought and much deserved conversation. Through my experience at museums and my time so far at the BMA, I am learning more and more that collection and ownership are tricky concepts, ones that are important to revisit thoughtfully and frequently.

Considering the “Fold” with Tauba Auerbach and John Singleton Copley

 

Tauba Auerbach. Plate Distortion II. 2011. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Print, Drawing & Photograph Society Fund, with proceeds derived from the 2012 Contemporary Print Fair, BMA 2012.198. © Tauba Auerbach

Tauba Auerbach. Plate Distortion II. 2011. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Print, Drawing & Photograph Society Fund, with proceeds derived from the 2012 Contemporary Print Fair, BMA 2012.198. © Tauba Auerbach

Tauba Auerbach’s Plate Distortion II came in to the BMA collection in 2012, and it captured my attention on my very first visit to the Museum, when it was on view in On Paper: Spin, Crinkle, Pluck. Its abstract folds reminded me of an art student’s favorite still life exercise: piles on piles of dramatically lit fabric.

Throughout her work, Auerbach nods to many technical and historical themes, and in Plate Distortion II she references a centuries-long tradition of western portraiture in which clothing and drapery are rendered in marvelous detail in order to fulfill the sitter’s desire to appear wealthy and fashionable and the artist’s desire to show off technical ability. John Singleton Copley’s Mrs. Joseph Hooper (1770-1771) is an apt example of this tradition.

John Singleton Copley. Mrs. Joseph Hooper. 1770‑1771. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Dr. Morton K. Blaustein, Barbara B. Hirschhorn, and Elizabeth B. Roswell, in Memory of Jacob and Hilda K. Blaustein, BMA 1981.74

John Singleton Copley. Mrs. Joseph Hooper. 1770‑1771. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Dr. Morton K. Blaustein, Barbara B. Hirschhorn, and Elizabeth B. Roswell, in Memory of Jacob and Hilda K. Blaustein, BMA 1981.74

Studying Mrs. Joseph Hooper closely, my eyes bounce from her fair skin, dark braid and the flow of her dress dropping back to the cloth draped behind her all carefully rendered in space using perspective. Copley was a prominent portrait painter working in the American colonies during the 18th century. While working in America, Copley’s career benefited from having access to prints, particularly reproductions of old masters and 18th century English portraits. These references provided Copley with the poses and motifs to help cater to the aspirations of his American patrons.

Much as Copley’s study of prints—including the depiction of drapery—helped him to formulate his distinctive style, Auerbach’s work with the printers of Paulson-Bott Press in Berkley, CA, prompted her to explore—and push the boundaries of—the technical possibilities of printmaking. Plate Distortion II doesn’t just represent the idea of “fold”, but the work is created by the physical impression of a folded object. Auerbach worked with Paulson-Bott Press to etch copper foil, which had been crumpled by the artist. When etched and flattened the foil holds a record of its folded shape. (For more on the process used to make this print, check out Ben Levy’s video on Plate Distortion II.)

Auerbach’s work sits in the space just between the peaks and valley’s of the etched copper and the flatness of the paper. Plate Distortion II takes all of this surface speculation into account, as Auerbach considers the shift of modern and contemporary artists to investigate the image surface over the 20th and 21st centuries.