Saturday, November 22, 2014

Michael Torlen Remembers Hoyt L. Sherman

Photographs © Richard Koenig
Above We will never cease to be amazed by the illusionistic photographs (he calls them "photographic prevarications") of American artist Richard Koenig, who teaches in the Department of Art and Art History at Kalamazoo College in Michigan.

They are more than photographs; they are puzzling photographic views of dimensional constructions that were partly made from photographs. They are settings that have much to do with experiments in perception, not in a scientific sense, but more in keeping with the work that was done by artist and optical physiologist Adelbert Ames II in the 1930s-40s. Known collectively as the Ames Demonstrations, many of these were reconstructed in the late 1940s at Ohio State University by art professor Hoyt L. Sherman (see story below in this posting).

In one of Koenig's photographs (above top), a brick pavement (including a manhole) appears to levitate in the corner of a room. But in fact, the pavement pattern is comprised of smaller, precisely distorted photographs, some of which run up the wall. Nothing is actually floating. In the photograph below that one, we see what might at first appear to be two identical stepladders, side-by-side. The one on the right is indeed a stepladder, but the second one consists of smaller, photographic tiles that are entirely flat on the floor.


In the 1960s, among the graduate students who worked with Hoyt Sherman at Ohio State University was the artist Michael Torlen, who would later go on to become a Professor of Art at Purchase College, State University of New York. Now Professor Emeritus, Torlen recently published a paper about Sherman's ideas and Torlen's memories of him. The article is titled "Hit with a brick: The Teachings of Hoyt L. Sherman" in Visual Inquiry: Learning and Teaching Art. Vol 2 No 3 (2013), pp. 313-326. In the following, he recalls what happened at Sherman's first meeting with a group of graduate students at OSU in 1963 (p. 314)—

As we settled into our chairs, Sherman handed out a course outline and began his lecture. Then he turned and walked over to a table stacked with a variety of materials, include a pile of red bricks. Seemingly distracted, Sherman stopped discussing his syllabus and started searching for something beneath the brick pile. He stacked and re-shuffled the bricks, sorting and clinking them loudly against each other, until he suddenly turned and hurled a brick directly at our heads.

Certain he had aimed the brick at me, I scrambled to get out of the way, murmuring, "Is this guy crazy?" Sherman was laughing. The brick he threw was a piece of foam rubber, the same size as the other bricks, painted brick red. Sherman explained that we were unable to distinguish the foam rubber brick from the cluster of real bricks, because our past experience, our associations and our memory of bricks influenced us. Our reactions developed from the false assumption that similar things are identical.