The artist as anthropologist
Bridging past and present, people and place
Earlier this year, Susanna Crum spent five weeks as a visiting artist at the Edinburgh Printmakers studio in Scotland. The ancient city and the artists’ studio together provided an ideal incubator for her work, which attempts to bridge the gaps between past and present, people and place.
The result of Crum’s Edinburgh sojourn is her exhibit A Collecting Place, which opened last Thursday (Oct. 27) at the 1078 Gallery.
Crum is a tall, slender woman who enjoys talking about her art and does so with expressive gestures. She lives and works in Louisville, Ky., and teaches printmaking at Indiana University Southeast. (There’s a local connection: Her husband, fellow printmaker Rudy Salgado, is a Chico State grad. They met at the University of Iowa. Both were present for her show’s opening reception.)
For her primary resource, Crum researched the history of a six-story Edinburgh building that, beginning in 1853, housed a collection of telescopes and other scientific instruments. It was called Short’s Observatory, Museum of Science and Art, and its most popular feature was a camera obscura—a large pinhole camera—on the top floor.
The Short family owned the site until 1892, when Patrick Geddes, a pioneering town planner, sociologist and ecologist, purchased the building and renamed it the Outlook Tower.
Geddes chose that name because he wanted the tower to change visitors’ outlooks. He wanted them to see that the city was interconnected with its region, its country, other nations and, indeed, the whole world. Exhibits at each level of the tower illustrated this interconnectedness, with the top-floor camera obscura providing real-time views of Edinburgh and the countryside beyond.
Today, it’s a popular tourist attraction, privately owned, called the Camera Obscura and World of Illusions. Instead of ecological exhibits, it features interactive attractions demonstrating optical illusions, the origins of photography, holograms and such. The camera obscura remains a big draw.
I offer this information in the hope it will help interested viewers better understand and appreciate Crum’s exhibit. It’s a sparse show, only 10 works, but sufficiently complex and engaging to reward viewers if they know the historical context. Unfortunately, Crum’s artist’s note doesn’t provide that information, though it is available on the gallery’s website.
The exhibit’s title appears to refer not only to the city where Crum collected her historical resource material, but also the camera obscura itself, which collects overview images of the city using just sunlight and a small hole in the wall.
There are three distinct sets of two-dimensional wall pieces—nine altogether—and a single 3-D piece on a pedestal in the center of the gallery.
This last, titled “City—Country—World,” is a collection of blue cyanotypes Crum created from photographs she took during her stay in Scotland. (Cyanotype is a printmaking process similar to blueprinting.) Arranged architecturally in three tiers, they illustrate themes originally broached by Patrick Geddes.
The first set of wall pieces comprises three large, oval woodcut prints titled “A Drama in Time” and numbered I to III. They are based on photos Crum took of three different oval-shaped Edinburgh cityscape images produced by the camera obscura.
Woodcut is an ancient medium, and these skillfully rendered prints seem like historical artifacts, despite the buses and other indicators of modernity they show.
The next two sets of prints use a variety of printmaking media—photolithography, silkscreen and stone lithography—to show historical images of the Outlook Tower and associated materials such as handbills advertising its wonders. They too bridge the gaps between past and present, people and place and help to give A Collecting Place its thematic unity.