Teaching art is often like a strange science or chemistry experiment that requires a catalyst. Often the assignments become this agent. I aim to make them potent enough to cause significant change and speed the action of development. This perspective also reminds me that it is never the singular act performed by the teacher that makes the class or lesson work. A mix of events enacted by the teacher and the student creates momentum. It is the combination of work that goes on both in the classroom and outside of it that results in learning. Often the best assignments are simply departure points that lead to longer in depth individual work. What teachers and students do in a class together is just one side of an experience that is multi-faceted like a prism. The light of new experiences is constantly altering the resulting knowledge. As the teacher, I can’t always see every side, corner, or edge but inevitably I have to trust in the students to search for answers and ideas in the overlooked. Their observations direct a process, which can be unpredictable, meandering, and ultimately very particular to an individual or group of people working on a problem. This creates a kind of paradoxical situation. I give assignments to guide the process of art making, and therefore learning, but how do I create assignments that are open-ended yet specific enough to spark some kind of trajectory allowing for personal autonomy?
One assignment I have had some success with is the art autopsy…something I made up for a Foundations Studio art class. At the time, I was researching a number of paintings connected to the medical profession for another professional pursuit and discovered The Anatomy Lesson by Rembrandt. It seemed natural to me to pair the idea of an autopsy to a work of art. The premise is simple, but the resulting work plays a pivotal role in revealing the visual complexities within a work of art. It is my intention that students develop an intimate relationship with a single work of art. They learn in exact detail how all the parts work together, and then use this knowledge to build an understanding of their own inclinations and affinities. The assignment requires that students study the intricacies of a single artist’s visual language whether the artwork is minimal and contemporary, or post impressionist and rich with color, pattern, and texture. Even though we are constantly bombarded by visual imagery much of it comes and goes without consideration despite its relentless impact on our understanding of ourselves and the way we perceive the world around us. It takes significant time and a period of consistent effort to hone the skills involved in observation and by extension interpretation. These skills are always in the process of refining and becoming sharper, and like a muscle when in disuse they relax. Developing them is the work of the artist.
In the autopsy students are asked to extract one element of the work at a time, and study each part separately. This ranges from simply making drawings of each element to translating the information into collage or mixed media works. They meticulously remove the significant lines, shapes, textures, etc. until they have worked their way through the basic list of elements and principles. Some students approach this in a straightforward way and some less so. This is another one of the assignment’s strengths. There is a multitude of ways to approach it.
Frequently, students neglect to fully consider the formal language of an artwork and the weight it’s intricacies have on the way we construct meaning. Even when a work is conceptual like Kosuth’s chair, we are still looking at something concrete and considering this object in a very particular visual context. The autopsy assignment creates a focused opportunity to consider how proportion relates to space for example, or scale to our associations with shape. The final challenge is to reassemble the parts into a new work. I think of this as the Frankenstein. They delve into the blood and guts of a work and then give it a new life.
Part of the assignment’s success also lies in the many choices afforded students in the process of working on it. The students choose an artwork they are interested in, they choose the materials they want to use to translate the information into a concrete form, and they finish by making a work of their own devising using the knowledge they accumulated in the process of the autopsy. The other important part of the work is that, no matter the experience level, or the type of previous exposure to other works of art, the assignment reveals the nuances of a visual language and develops a sensitivity and awareness to all the inherent subtleties. Ultimately, I intend to leave students with a lingering curiosity and get them to ask new questions about art and how it works to provoke a reaction, instill a new idea, or change perceptions.
As an artist and educator, I am skeptical of routine so I can’t assume that the assignment will always work for every group of students. That said, I have learned to celebrate the successes when they occur. This past summer in my Materials and Process class with Graduate Students in the Art Education Program I saw first hand how the art autopsy assignment served to propel students’ personal endeavors forward. I followed the impact of the assignment from its initial stages to completion and then witnessed its continued influence in sketchbooks and independent works that were created long after the assignment was finished.