Academic research meets art at unique event for UChicago graduate students

Eight graduate students present their work—from linguistics to scientific modeling—to audiences at Art Institute

As a Ph.D. student studying linguistics, Brianna Wilson examines pronouns and not paintings. But when University of Chicago graduate students were invited to present their research amid the galleries at the Art Institute of Chicago, she knew exactly what she wanted to talk about.

“I was actually on a first date last December, and he asked what I researched, and after I told him, he told me about these two paintings called Herself and Himself (by Robert Henri) that he saw recently at the Art Institute.”

The paintings’ titles use reflexive pronouns, which interest Wilson for the ways they are used in Irish English syntactic contexts and can refer to a person of importance and convey affection or respect. Her broader interest is in the link between these reflexives and professionalism in American English.

“Getting out of my comfort zone and presenting at an art gallery reminded me of how much I enjoy getting people excited about language. It was also a fun challenge to design a talk for such a unique setting and audience.”

Wilson’s presentation was part of UChicagoGRAD’s “Expand Your Perspective” series, which highlights the research of graduate and postdoctoral students and provides them with the opportunity to present their work on campus and at cultural institutions in the city. Since launching in 2014, the event has grown into a flagship program, with more than 250 graduate students attending in November for an evening of expansive conversation—from gallery tours to a reception at the nearby University Club. The event was presented in partnership with the UChicago ArtsPass program and the Art Institute of Chicago.

“The beauty of the “Expand Your Perspective” program is multifold,” says Brooke Noonan, Assistant Provost and Executive Director, UChicagoGRAD Experience. “It is an opportunity for graduate students to share their research with broader audiences and be ambassadors for the field-defining work happening at the University of Chicago.”

Claire Rich, a Master of Arts Program in the Humanities student, was stationed near a photograph by American artist Louise Lawler, Splash. Splash focuses on a portion of Roy Lichtenstein’s Brushstroke with Splatter, and out of focus in the foreground is a cart for transporting artworks. Rich, who is particularly interested in creative labor “not done by the artist,” noted how fitting it was that “at the time of my talk the Lichtenstein work was in storage and not on view, adding an additional layer of interest to Lawler’s pieces which seek to document art’s shifting contexts.” Rich encouraged attendees to think through Lawler’s photograph about the behind-the-scenes work of museum design and installation.

Brandon Sward, a Ph.D. student in sociology, spoke about Cindy Sherman’s Untitled #92, which, in an interesting counterpoint to Splash, centers the artist as the photographed subject. Sward explained how Sherman’s film-like stills “reference a narrative that doesn't exist (e.g., why is this woman lying on the kitchen floor?), and in doing so question what we might call the documentary function of photography to represent reality in a faithful and objective way.”

Nearby, Wren McMillan, a student enrolled in MAPH’s dual BA/MA, presented John Currin’s angular domestic scene Stamford after Brunch, through the lens of Russian formalist poetry.

On the first floor, Julia Marsan, a Ph.D. student in comparative literature, described a tipi cover by an unknown Cheyenne artist, Victory Record of the Elkhorn Scraper Society. Marsan opened with a note about the pronouns she would be using to refer to the artist (he/him), because, she explained, the tipi cover reflected knowledge that was traditionally male in Cheyenne society.

Marsan drew attention to the power of context, remarking on what is lost when an artifact is removed from its community of origin. Most strikingly, she explained that the tipi cover was not an abstract depiction of war but a pictograph—a very precise record. A chapter of Marsan’s dissertation “explores how stylistic conventions of Plains pictography influenced ledger art at the turn of the 20th century.”

On the third floor, a tour group of graduate students clustered in the hallway. Yuqing Zhu, a Ph.D. student in computational neuroscience, stood next to René Magritte’s drawing, The Tune and Also the Words—perhaps best known for its painted text, “Ce n’est pas un pipe” (This is not a pipe) below the depiction of a pipe.

As a modeler and theorist as well as a visual artist, Zhu chose the piece for the way it reveals Magritte’s playfulness and his interest in representation, and science, as Zhu put it, “is chiefly concerned with representation—with representing the forces in the world a little bit better.”

Zhu asked: What happens in the brain when you see the pipe? Photons bounce off the painting and become represented in the brain, while language also plays a significant role in mediating our perception (as Magritte knows), but how do you even begin to build a model of the brain?

Magritte’s art helps Zhu think about the difficult choices she must make whenever she builds such models, because such choices “already includes biases about what I think is important for intelligence.” During her talk, Zhu wandered over to more cartoonish rendering of a pipe, commenting that "that’s less of a pipe somehow,” and explained that she meant to “illustrate how we have an intuitive sense of how representations can be ‘more’ or ‘less’ like the real deal. Even when the departure from photoreal is quite large, there are exaggerations that still make us go ah-ha!—that's such-and-such or so-and-so.”

Zhu, ever the modeler, mused about how the object represented could become the object itself if she took Magritte’s drawing off the wall, crumpled it into the shape of a pipe and lit it.

Sam Baudinette, a Ph.D. student in the Divinity School, shared his take on Ugolino di Nerio’s Virgin and Child Enthroned with Saints Peter, Paul, John the Baptist, and Dominic and a Dominican Supplicant through the lens of his research on the intellectual history of divine science in the German Dominican School.

One painting over, Kelly Holob, also a Ph.D. student in the Divinity School, spoke about Antonio Vivarini’s Saint Peter Martyr Exorcizing a Woman Possessed by a Devil, which Holob’s adviser told her was one of her favorite images in the museum because of its “fantastic little demon.”

Although Holob doesn’t specialize in Renaissance art, she knows a lot about demons thanks to her work on a research project supported by the Neubauer Collegium. Vivarini’s painting spoke to her scholarship in a way she didn’t expect. Holob explained to her fellow graduate students how this painting, which depicts holy water being flung at a possessed woman, helped her rethink a puzzling part of a recipe for exorcism from about 350 C.E. Perhaps, Holob wondered, droplets of water had been thought of “as an effective way of combating demons for the better part of 2,000 years!”

Based on the success of the program, “Expand your Perspective”is expanding to other cultural institutions around Chicago, often working in partnership with the UChicago ArtsPass Program. The UChicago ArtsPass program provides free and reduced admission for graduate and college students across the University at over 70 cultural partners across the city. Expand you Perspective is part of UChicagoGRAD, the University’s comprehensive resource for graduate students and postdoctoral students to receive personalized training that complements their academic pursuits. Learn more on the UChicagoGRAD website and the Arts Pass website.