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Paintings by Malangatan on display in a gallery Paintings by Malangatan on display in a gallery

The Empty Gallery


Welcome to the Empty Gallery, a virtual space to explore how, during the COVID-19 pandemic, we can meaningfully engage with art objects without physical access to the objects themselves.

Close looking, material analysis, embodied experience—these are a few of the basic implements in the curator’s toolkit. But what tools does one use when the artwork at the center of art-historical research becomes inaccessible?

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As fellows in the museum this year, under the aegis of the Chicago Objects Study Initiative, we spent the first months of our fellowship devoted to an art-historical approach centered on objects. In the context of the global COVID-19 pandemic, we have continued to pursue the projects we initiated. However, in response to the physical distancing that the pandemic demanded of us, we reorganized our toolkit, as COVID-19 has reorganized so much else.

We have developed new tools and strategies, turning to digital resources, replicas, and simulations of processes of making to advance our research. We have also looked at existing materials differently—both tangible materials, such as conservation documents, and intangible materials, such as the memories and affective experiences of artworks that can be summoned up long after our physical encounters with them.

The Empty Gallery compiles a group of objects that we have been researching under these new conditions. We invite you to explore.

Object Studies

Object Study as Critical Play: Sonia Landy Sheridan’s Sonia in Time (1975)

Jessica Hough

As I consider the possibility of object study without objects, I am drawn to artworks that hail the ordinary and everyday world of bodies, objects, and technologies. What can we learn from art objects that—perhaps historically on the periphery of canonical practices—invite us to replicate them, perform them, or imaginatively explore the objects that surround us?

How do such works prompt us to consider art and technology’s social and political conditions of emergence—and how might they animate our own roles as users, practitioners, or researchers?

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The Many Lives of Landscape in Ridolfo Ghirlandaio’s Portrait of a Gentleman (c. 1505)

Chloé M. Pelletier

As an art historian working at the intersection of Italian Renaissance painting and the cultural history of the environment, Ridolfo Ghirlandaio’s striking portrait with a landscape intrigued me a great deal. When COVID-19 closures made it impossible for me to continue examining the painting in-person, its conservation file became my new
“object” of study. This took my research in a new direction, ultimately deepening my understanding of how Italian Renaissance paintings—and particularly their landscapes—have been experienced, understood, and engaged with over time.

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The Politics of Breath / Mediated Materialities: Object Theory in the Age of COVID-19

Jacob Henry Leveton

In the absence of the vital presence of being with works of art, I’m most compelled by the critical possibility of thinking with them. As a field of thought, as well as a matrix of materials, artworks—such as Valentine Green’s A Philosopher Shewing an Experiment on the Air Pumpopen to the world in a way that is always in process, at once expanded and constrained by social, political, and medical conditions of reception. By putting an object’s epistemology, or way of thinking, ahead of an object’s ontology, or being, I want to advance the question—how might the moment of COVID-19 provide an opportunity to imagine new forms of object theory?

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Conceptual Art and Its Relationship to Object Study: Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) (1991)

Maggie Borowitz

As I contemplate the possibility of object study without objects, I wonder: what can we learn from those artworks whose stories cannot be excavated from their physical manifestations alone—when a conceptual framework quite literally defines the form of a work?

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A Seamless Painting Simply Does Not Exist: A Case Study on the Mystery of Street Scenes in Times of Peace

Zhiyan Yang, Lucien Le Sun

A Chinese handscroll painting is often made by conjoining multiple sheets of paper together to create a continuous narrative or a panoramic view. In Street Scenes in Time of Peace, commonly attributed to 14th-century painter Zhu Yu, nearly 500 figures were depicted on a blank, uninterrupted background, creating a spectacular yet mysterious effect.
It is the digital display and viewing experience that help us notice an anomaly hidden in the seams of this work that may shed new light on the painting’s composition, material medium, and conservation history.

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