When the New York-based artist Christine Garvey first visited Florence, ten years ago, she was most moved not by the Botticelli at the Uffizi Gallery nor the Michelangelo at the Galleria dell’Accademia, but by a small and eclectic natural history museum called La Specola, and by a sub rosa resonance she perceived between its collection of wax anatomical models and the stockpile of historical scientific instruments at the Museo Galileo, a science history museum located just across the Arno river.
Garvey, a painter who incorporates mixed media and collage into her work, at first couldn’t tease out the connections between the two collections. But she spent hours in both museums, drawing items there in order to record and process her experience of observation. For Garvey, “drawing is a study, a form of questioning. What’s interesting about it is you’re processing content. Drawing gives objects a voice, allowing them to reveal something to you.”
The two collections continued to intrigue Garvey long after she returned to the United States, and while she pursued an MFA at Concordia University, in Montreal. In 2013, Garvey returned to Florence, and she went back again last year as a Visiting Fellow at the Florence University of the Arts on a Fulbright Research Grant. She furthered her study of the La Specola and Museo Galileo collections, increasingly coming to believe that they were of the same body of knowledge. Both museums are monuments of the Enlightenment, when scientists disavowed spiritual explanations for natural phenomena and instead began collecting, naming, and ordering the observable world. These new taxonomies of rational observation were aided by new tools and technologies, such as the microscope, that enabled mankind more penetrating insights not only into the natural world, but also himself.
It dawned on Garvey that this was the kernel of the resonance between the two collections: a link between technological advancement and artistic representation of the body. (She also learned that the scientific instruments and the anatomical models were once part of catholic compendium of miscellany and curiosities gathered by the Medici.) “Technology constantly offers new ways to have access to ourselves,” Garvey says. That makes fluid the “idea of surface, opening up different kinds of vulnerability.”
Ever since, Garvey’s artistic line of inquiry has been about how technology mediates our understanding of ourselves, the central questions being: historically, how have we come to physically know our bodies; how is that knowledge represented in art; and how do those disciplines redefine our sense of self as they change with time and technological advancement? How did dissection, for example, change our self-understanding and -representation? How did the compound microscope? The camera? Social media?
“When you look at my work, you don’t think, ‘Oh it’s about technology,’” Garvey says. “It’s about what makes us whole, vulnerable, human. But how to order those things–that’s an obsession. The process of ordering them makes us human, and technologies are the tools with which we do that. It’s about access and order.”
Photo by Sandrine Delattre
Order–even if it’s a fitting descriptor of her process–isn’t the first word that comes to mind when you look at Garvey’s art. She works on large canvases or paper, layering bright smears of paint and manipulated digital images to create bold, abstract paintings that beckon a closer look. Her work resists easy classification: there’s something garish about it, even as it’s seductive; something painterly, even in its pop sensibilities. “I’m trying to make the ugly work,” Garvey explains. “To bring pleasure back into difficulty”–the goal being to force viewers to consider what’s being represented, and how.
Collage is a key component of Garvey’s process, both in a generative sense–she collects and edits images into her work–and in a metaphorical one. “Collage is all about claiming things and making them physical,” she says. As such, there’s something inherently self-representational about it: the collagist makes choices about how to represent herself, selecting from an infinite and ever-expanding array of images and materials. In doing so she can also collapse, to an extent, the yawning gap between what it feels like to have a body and what 21st-century technology allows us to know about how the human body looks and operates, the horror vacui between sitting with yourself in a room and, say, looking at a hi-res image of a chest cavity, or a macroscopic view of the Earth from space.
“Collage is immediate, responsive, material,” she explains. She appreciates the medium’s “lowbrow” aspects, connecting it to accessibility and immediacy. “It’s also very obsessive: there’s something powerful in the idea of reclaiming something, refashioning it. We’re inundated with images as a society; it’s easy to feel anxious, a sense of dislocation. Collage a way to reclaim and reconstruct an identity.”
Photo by Beatrice Mancini
Reclaiming, ordering, and refashioning the world: it’s the old Enlightenment ideal, here brought into the world of the personal. It also makes the concept of identity something like a palimpsest: a layered text, capable of being curated and remade. “We’re an answer-driven culture–even if the answer is uncertain, we want some grasp,” Garvey reasons. “Whether that’s through a taxonomy or an insight, we want the illusion of certainty. Art-making is an obsessive practice: you’re creating something that doesn’t exist, and it’s never what you imagine. It’s intuitive and involves reason, and it’s insatiable. That quality is very human.”
Of course, cities are palimpsests, too, and perhaps none is more densely layered than Florence. The city presents itself as a sort of metonymy of certain ideals–the Renaissance, Italian culture and cuisine, tourism–sprang fully-formed from the collective imagination. There’s a level of experience in which to visit the city is simply to ratify ideals and images you’re already aware of, have already experienced. (It has this in common with New York.)
But it’s much more complicated than that, if you know where–and how–to look. When Garvey returns to Florence this November, she will teach a course that aims to use drawing as a means to connect with the city in a more meaningful way. “Florence can feel like such a place of consumption–a facsimile of itself,” Garvey says. “But historically it’s a place of great interdisciplinary study and knowledge. I want to provide a contemporary perspective of what it means to live and work in this city.” The weeklong course will include guided museum tours, visits to Tuscan farms and wineries, studio tours, and home-cooked meals with local artists and designers. You can register here; the enrollment deadline is August 1st, and housing and meals are included in the price.
In the meantime, Garvey is teaching two courses at the Brooklyn Brainery and one at the School of Making Thinking, a new artistic concern at the Abrons Arts Center on the Lower East Side. The first Brainery class is a two-session course, beginning tonight, called Drawing and Knowledge, which explores “the practice of drawing as a place to generate and express ideas.” Garvey will expand Drawing and Knowledge into an 8-session program for the School of Making Thinking, starting September 27th. The second Brainery course is a collage and mixed-media workshop on Friday, August 19th, entitled Collected Images: The Collage Artist Book.
All of Garvey’s work, including her courses, interrogates the meaning of being a participant-observer in a culture flooded by images. “We constantly curate things–we have that built in judgment,” Garvey says. “How do you use technique to get you to observe a phenomenon, to pay attention? I find huge connections between making a drawing or collage and learning a new language. You can try to pay attention to every single word, or try to perceive and trust in the whole. In order to draw, or speak a language, you need to do both.”
Featured Image by Beatrice Mancini