Briefly, in two to three sentences, summarize your current research.
My current research is taking me in two very different directions. One project is an investigation of how fourteenth-century Italian painters conceived of information and its expression. It explores what kinds of visual formats were developed for expressing information and dogma (as opposed to narrative or devotional images). These formats include diagrammatic paintings, allegorical images, and text/image hybrids. The other project I am working on considers the indeterminate and multivalent meanings of graphically sexual premodern images. I am interested in the prehistory of modern pornography, and in thinking about how scholars can and should apply such labels to premodern sexual imagery. My objects of study include sculptures, paintings, and material culture.
Which areas do you feel occupy the borders of your discipline? What lies just beyond those limits? How does considering those divisions impact your research practice?
Art history is inherently interdisciplinary, and scholars regularly work across fields like history, critical theory, anthropology, media studies, gender studies, and literary criticism. I am perhaps more interested here in boundaries that seem to exist within the discipline. I feel like one of these borders lies between scholars who practice history (and art history) as a way to talk about the past, and those who use history to complicate and enrich issues that they care about in the present. Certainly many art historians do both, but I think that most scholars view one or the other as primary. On one side is something like “academic” history, and on the other lies something more akin to cultural criticism. (Art history is additionally problematic because connoisseurial and formal approaches appear to bridge these two categories). Particularly when studying something like medieval Europe, my field, scholars tend to focus on either the distancing / othering / particularizing aspects of the past, or the aspects that reveal the past as recognizably contemporary. Reflecting on boundaries like these helps move me beyond the minutiae of the objects or images that I’m studying, to broader reflections on the politics of what I’m doing as a historian – what the implications are of the stories I am trying to tell about the past.
Where do you position your research in relation to others within your discipline? Do you see those lines of demarcation at times becoming blurred?
For me, it’s perhaps easiest to see which current trends in the field I am not part of – the recent wave of interest in materiality and media studies in medieval art history is perhaps the most obvious example of something that I find fascinating and productive but do not research myself. Such divisions between the core issues that interest medieval art historians – materiality, devotion, politics, image theory, etc. – are readily apparent. But other, subtler divisions also exist. One which is talked about surprisingly rarely, has to do with the objects that are actually chosen for study – between objects of “art” or “visual culture,” works categorized as “high” or “low,” or “canonical” or “non-canonical.” Thus one way to position my work is to place it squarely in the realm of the non-canonical; I am drawn to, and intentionally seek out objects of study from outside the canon of art history, such as scientific images, marginalia, or medieval analogues to contemporary “outsider art.” Another way to broadly characterize these differences is to think about whether one conceives of historical change – whether social, political, or stylistic – as a “top down” or “bottom up” phenomenon; that is, whether one is interested in seeing how powerful institutions, individuals or patrons used visual media to further agendas and create cultural capital, or in how “lower” audiences, craftspeople, and institutions in fact set the terms for how the “higher” arts were made and conceptualized. When cast in these terms, I hope that my own work takes into consideration both sides of this equation, and while I think the distinction between them is productive and important, I often gravitate towards objects that blur this boundary.
What research topics are you interested in exploring when you are not doing ‘work-related’ research?
I’m very interested in the role that contemporary artists can play in changing the way academic art historians view premodern works. Talking to working artists about which historical makers they connect with often helps me see connections across time and space that I wouldn’t otherwise notice. Contemporary art in general has been a relatively recent interest of mine. Outside of work, I’m also interested in researching things like contemporary religious architecture, creative nonfiction, and contemporary queer/feminist politics.