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Undergraduate Research in Art History

One way that Pomona College provides opportunities for students to excel is through research opportunities. Below are recent summer projects, funded through our Summer Undergraduate Research Program, by art history students.


Examining the Visual Imagination and Gender Politics of Eroticism in 19th-century French Gastronomy through the Work of Bertall

Ariane Lo ’20; Advisor: Kathleen Howe

My research project investigates the erotic imagination and spatial gender politics of 19th-century French gastronomy, by studying the work of Charles Albert d’Arnoux, otherwise known as Bertall (1820-1882).  Bertall writes and illustrates "La Comédie de notre temps" (1874), in which he documents and typifies the habits of the Parisian bourgeoisie.  Featured in his illustrations are representations of the prostitutes who frequented the restaurants of 19th-century Paris, where gastronomy becomes increasingly associated with the erotic.  Bertall’s work provides an exciting opportunity to study the visual depictions of this phenomenon. In Paris, I gathered necessary literature by attending museum conferences, visiting exhibitions, and meeting with museum professionals.  I made extensive use of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs Library, including their collection of Bertall's work and contemporaneous material.  I received kind assistance from researchers and librarians at the Maison de Balzac, where I examined original work by Bertall and the stones used in the printing of his illustrations. By means of 19th-century guidebooks, I reconstituted a geography of then restaurants and cafés, and visited the sites to better understand the spatial politics of these areas.  I was curious about the larger visual culture and gained access to more than ten of the remaining 19th-century establishments to document their decor featuring women.  I plan to develop my research into a senior thesis.

African Christendoms: Ethiopian-Christian Representations in Contemporary Visual Arts from 1960-1989

Tesfamicael Negussie ’21; Advisor: Phyllis Jackson

My summer research project is an interdisciplinary examination of Christianity in Ethiopia, in particular the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC), and its influences on contemporary artistic creation in Ethiopia. My research focuses on the relatively isolated development and maintenance of Ethiopian-Christianity and the variety of ways this peculiarity manifests in visual artistry, specifically painting. My project studies the EOTC as a long-established, culturally embedded political entity that has successfully withstood European influence and colonialism. It concentrates on the aspects of Ethiopian-Christian iconography that flourished and thrived independently from the aesthetic movements of the West and representations of traditional Christian themes and imagery as well as depictions of biblical narratives exclusive to the EOTC canon.

My research focuses on the exhibited works of Afwerk Tekle, Eshetu Tiruneh, Mengistu Cherinet, and Daniel Twafe found in the National Museum of Ethiopia. From 1968 to 1989, these artists produced works that represented a wide range of Ethiopian mythology and drew heavy inspiration from various aspects of Ethiopian-Christianity to background and contextualize the politically charged illustrations. I hope to nuance Eurocentric post-colonial narratives on the imposition of Christianity in Africa and, via juxtaposition with the EOTC, interrogate and complicate contemporary conceptions of Christian theology across the world.


Redefining “Progressive”: Conceptual Changes in 20th-Century Shanghai Architecture

Vivienne Yixuan Shi ’19; Mentor: George Gorse

The early 20th century was a turbulent time for China. The tensions between tradition and modernity, the national and the international, capitalism and communism posed challenges to a country struggling to find its political and cultural position. Based on this context, my summer research project is an exploration of the changing Chinese definition of “progressiveness” as applied to the early 20th-century architecture of Shanghai. The year 1949, when the Chinese Communist Party became the official political regime, acts as the dividing line of both political and architectural design ideologies. In the framework of 20th-century global politics, I explored how early modern China attempted to showcase itself to its people and the world through signature buildings; the functions of neo-classicism and nationalism in architectural design in both historical periods; and what was considered beneficial for the country to survive in a time of great social, cultural and political changes. The two buildings chosen for visual analysis, Bank of China (1937) and Shanghai Exhibition Centre (1955), are in many ways embodiments of the values and cultures of the pre-1949 and post-1949 period, respectively. Therefore, through a historically and politically informed visual analysis, one can arrive at a picture of the conceptual changes in the definition of “progressive,” as well as the cultural and ideological preferences of China’s leaders.
Funding Provided By: Cion Estate SURP Fund


Exploring Strategies of "Chineseness" in Contemporary Art in China

Dingyun Zhang (2016); Mentor(s): George Gorse

Abstract: My research explores the conflicts and negotiations over what constitutes “Chineseness” in contemporary art in China today. I started by studying art fairs and expanded my journey to eight major Chinese cities as well as New York. Along the way, I documented exhibitions, visited art schools, followed journalism, met critics, talked to gallerists, participated in performance art, read journals and books, and drank beers with artists in their studios. As anticipated, the cultural, ideological, and aesthetic notion of “Chineseness” is central to conversations throughout art systems in mainland China. For the exhibition of art, an ongoing concern is how to find a compromise between the values of the international art world, China’s underground art communities, and China’s unique official art system that asserts itself as “legitimately” Chinese. In the market, there are heated debates about Chinese elements in art as commercial and political strategies. As for the creation and criticism of art, a prevailing anxiety is over how (and sometimes whether) to deal with the Chinese tradition with its language, history, and philosophy, as well as the Chinese experience of modernity. While covering diverse topics such as exhibition spaces, curation, and artist communities, the collection of writings resulting from my engagement focuses on deep analysis of the strategies of “Chineseness” of a few carefully selected artworks, including both new, little known pieces and controversial well known ones. The essays along with photographs are available online. 
Funding Provided by: National Endowment for the Humanities


Pages: The Poetry of Mirella Bentivoglio

Benjamin Kersten (2015); Additional Collaborator(s): Kathleen Howe; Mentor(s): Frances Pohl; Rebecca McGrew; Steve Coomba

Abstract: Despite an early career as a verse poet, Mirella Bentivoglio's prolific career spans many artistic genres. A poet, sculptor, performance artist, concrete poet, and visual poet, she explores the relationship between language and image using a critical approach and wry humor to challenge the given meanings and systems of authority in our society. Bentivoglio has achieved international success; however, a retrospective of her multimedia practice from the past five decades will fill a gap in the scholarly material available in the United States. My work followed key steps in the process of preparing an exhibition. The first included reading past materials, including the exhibition proposal written by Professor Pohl and key articles in order to prepare for a visit to Bentivoglio's home and workplace in Rome. Over the course of our visit, we collected information on specific works, including interpretations and installation instructions. I also compiled answers for an interview that will be published in the accompanying catalog. Back at the museum, I photographed, accessioned, and entered new works into the museum database while cleaning up the existing archive. This public information will be necessary for constructing an exhibition layout and checklist. Bentivoglio's subversive work draws connections between the language and images of everyday life, falling in line with significant and experimental art that blurs lines between disciplines and power structures.
Funding Provided by: Pomona College SURP

Resonant Minds: Abstraction and Perception

Nidhi Gandhi (2015); Mentor(s): Terri Geis; Kathleen Howe

Abstract: Abstract art in all its forms – from expressionism to minimalism – echoes neuroscientific theories about how the brain works. Whether exploring a precise order or practicing more chaotic techniques, the subtle aspects of abstraction provide a platform for questioning how the brain processes our perceptions. It can provide a window into the mind's unceasing efforts to make sense of the human experience. Abstract art may be viewed in relationship to theories and explorations of the mind, as we consider how it prompts the viewer to interpret the unexpected and indeterminate. Abstract artists often based their artistic premises on theories about how subtle shifts in form and color alter our absorption of an artwork. Similarly, neuroscientists have explored perception from different perspectives, investigating how impressions received while viewing images can trigger neuronal impulses and unconscious reactions. Resonant Minds: Abstraction and Perception explores different ways in which our perceptions of abstract art reveal our mental processes, and asks us to reflect on the ways we perceive.
Funding Provided by: Janet Inskeep Benton


Making an Exhibition – Marking/Remarking: Aerial Photographs by Marilyn Bridges

Zoë Jameson (2015); Additional Collaborator(s): Steve Comba; Gary Murphy; Mentor(s): Kathleen Howe

Abstract: This SURP was an eight-week internship, culminating in the mounting of an exhibition,"Marking/Remarking: Aerial Photographs by Marilyn Bridges," at the Pomona College Museum of Art. The exhibition complements the Mellon Elemental Arts Initiative: this year's theme is Earth. The photographs included examine marks left on the earth by ancient and modern civilizations as well as geologic processes, while giving each mark equal weight through an impartial aerial view. Offering an alternative to the ancient-natural/modern-intrusive dichotomy, "Marking/Remarking" investigates the necessary cooperation between land and civilization as marks on the earth are made, erased and altered. From ancient geoglyphs to industrial farmland and impressive volcanoes, the photographs of Marilyn Bridges provide a different view of the earth, its history and our marks upon it. During my eight weeks, I learned about Marilyn Bridges and her photographs and about museum processes. I was given a lot of freedom with the project, in both analysis and action. I was primarily responsible for research and the selection and sequencing of images for the exhibition. I wrote the wall texts, press information and a short essay that details my analysis of Bridges's photographs, which we published in an exhibition brochure. My work with the exhibition acquainted me with each step of the curatorial process as well as various other museum tasks and functions, such as installation and collections management.
Funding Provided by: Janet Inskeep Benton

Adam Overton, The Bureau of Experimental Speech and Holy Theses, and Social Practice

Hannah Pivo (2014); Mentor(s): Rebecca McGrew

Abstract: The essay “Adam Overton, The Bureau of Experimental Speech and Holy Theses, and Social Practice,” represents the culmination of my research project. As the Pomona College Museum of Art’s curatorial assistant, I contributed to the conception and planning of the upcoming exhibition with Los Angeles artist Adam Overton, entitled Project Series 44: The Bureau of Experimental Speech and Holy Theses. This project explores issues of speech, power, and performance through weekly participatory events for museum visitors led by Overton and his collaborators. Overton engages in “social practice,” a term describing the recent emergence of trans-disciplinary art practices that focus on social interaction as a means of community involvement and public engagement. Social practice is currently thriving in the Southern California art scene,and in the past ten years many Los Angeles area art museums have begun to collaborate with artists and organizations engaging in social practice. Through research, personal interviews, and by working with Overton during the planning of his project at Pomona, it became clear that this type of collaboration poses many challenges to the artists and the institutions involved, yet it also represents some of the most experimental and innovative activity in the art world today. The essay will be published in the Museum of Art’s forthcoming exhibition catalogue in November 2012.
Funding Provided by: Graham “Bud” ’55 and Mary Ellen ’56 Kilsby Endowment Fund for Student Interns at the Pomona College Museum of Art