After visiting Union while part of the Art & Social Justice exhibition (Fall 2010), Cathy Busby contacted Institute Co-Directors AA Bronson and Kathryn Reklis with her idea of working with the portraits. “I noticed their precariousness and the peculiarity of their presence at the Seminary. They represented important figures from the past, and yet many were unidentified, damaged and dirty, often hanging askew. There was something eerie about this. It was out-of-synch with their original grandeur, and the history of Union.”
Institutional memory is increasingly discontinuous and art within this context can easily be neglected and forgotten. Many of the older portraits have changed over time from valued gifts to perfunctory objects.
Busby started by locating all the portraits. “I felt like a detective, solving a mystery, piecing together a story and a collection.” Working with Union staff and volunteer assistants, she found abandoned portraits in storage closets and back rooms and created an inventory. Thirty-three were hanging; thirty more were scattered around the Seminary. She photographed each one, recorded their condition, researched their history, identified the artist and rediscovered the identity of some of the subjects. Five remain unidentified and eleven are missing.
This archiving process provided the basis for devising the installation and composing the artist’s book. The Union community cooperated in Cathy’s process, both in practical terms, and in gathering recollections, perspectives and reflections on the portraits. Conversation was an important part of the process.
In the exhibition, with it’s pointed absence of the portraits, and in the book, with all of the paintings reproduced in color, the portraits lead to new readings, discussions and understandings of how art contributes to memory and forgetfulness in institutional settings. “I found many amazing things that had slipped through the institution’s memory. For instance, there’s a Hubert Vos portrait of Daniel Willis James and he was the primary benefactor of the current location of the Seminary. Without his substantial contribution, Union’s location at Broadway and 120th may never have been built.”
The formal, formulaic painting conventions and hanging of Union’s portraits don’t hint at this history. There’s a randomness, or privilege, to whose images are represented in the portraits: all are white men of authority, except for three women and two black men.
“My work begins with and probes that which is taken for granted, in this instance Union’s portraits. I often assemble or work with existing collections. I’m concerned with how my work integrates with communities.” Cathy Busby’s conceptual critically-oriented installations and printed matter are often made in collaboration with educational and art institutions.
Cathy Busby is available to give tours and discuss the work with visitors by appointment through May 2012: firstname.lastname@example.org