January - May, 2012
THE PORTRAITS AT UNION THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY
Cathy Busby: I first came to Union for the exhibition Art & Social Justice in the Fall of 2010. While on campus, I couldn’t help but notice the painted portraits in the Social Hall and Refectory. At a glance, many appeared to be 19th c., in poor condition and a little crooked on the walls. This countered the general sense of architectural grandeur of Union and the Morningside Heights neighborhood. When I got home to Halifax, I asked AA Bronson and Kathryn Reklis (Co-Directors of the Institute) if they would be interested in a proposal for an artist-in-residence to work with the portraits. I suggested I would rehang them. It so happened that my inquiry coincided with the planning of the 175th anniversary celebrations of the institution and seemed to dovetail nicely with the ideas being discussed to mark this occasion. Over the year, our conversation evolved and I began work in January 2012 and will continue through May.
Approaching this project, I was originally thinking about how the portraits could be seen in a new light: updated, dusted off, and made relevant—meaningful if seen in different ways. I initially thought all the portraits were hanging up and that my task would be to consider new ways of positioning them. However, it turned out that in fact there were many more than those I had seen and they were in various storage rooms, closets, and elsewhere. At the same time, the actual hands-on work with the portraits—finding, unwrapping, photographing and systematically documenting them—has become a necessary part of the project. Clearly I had to locate all the portraits in order to grasp the scope of the holdings. On my first day, I found two portraits in the wings of the Social Hall stage, one crowded by bags of linens, and another blocked by casually stored music stands and chairs.
In the past I’ve assembled and worked with collections. As artist-in-residence at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, for my project, Atrium, I gathered all the works that made reference to First Nations cultures and imagined them as a collection. I reproduced their silhouettes on under-used walls at the entrance to the Gallery. In my practice I work with things ‘as they are’. At Union, many of the portraits are damaged. That’s the way they are, and in this state—beyond who they are depicting—the paintings are markers of Union, it’s history, it’s foundation, and they represent a sampling of New York portrait-painting lineage. I also had the impression that the portraits represented the institution’s losses, memory lapses, and forgetfulness in some uneasy way.
Now I’m hearing related stories about them, the painters, the subjects, and the damage. These often emerge through casual conversations about the portraits and conclude with me having a little more information and / or insight on them, individually or collectively. For instance, one interpretation of their damage is to see them as casualties of current labor and economic conditions, with rapid job turnover and educational institutions continually tightening their belts. This is one of many interconnected and layered emerging interpretations.