Faculty Profile: Julia Bryan-Wilson
Julia Bryan-Wilson, Professor of Art History and Archaeology, spoke with us about her research and about being part of the LGBTQ+ cluster hire.
Can you speak about your background, your upbringing, and the beginnings of your interest in your current field?
I am originally from rural Texas. For most of my childhood, my single mother struggled financially to support her three daughters and we were quite poor. Maybe because of that, I have a strong inclination towards work that comes from the margins, and that can mean many different things. I've always been interested in challenging the boundaries of what is considered proper or normative art history, and to me that is a queer tactic. I myself came out of the closet in 1988, at the age of fifteen in Houston — a vital site in the queer South. It was a virulently homophobic moment, with gay bashings and public officials calling for quarantines of gay people. Of course, I was hugely impacted by the HIV/AIDS crisis, which was also one of my entrance points into activism. The stakes were high — literally life and death, and coming of age at that time was extremely formative for me as a young queer feminist.
Another important point in my formation was right after college, when I moved to Portland, Oregon and participated in a loose, DIY/punk/riot grrrl network where we made queer feminist zines, videos, and organized exhibitions in record label warehouses. It was a scrappy art scene that was homegrown, improvisational, and resistant towards capitalism and its institutions. Rather than waiting for someone to give us permission, we were trying to make our own culture.
It was at that moment, making friends with all these artists in their early twenties, that I realized that I wanted to know more about longer histories around the politics of art, especially around dissident art collectives or alternative practices within the art world. I had not majored in art history as an undergraduate, but rather in literature, so going to graduate school for art history was a disciplinary shift for me. And though my dissertation wasn't a queer project, it was definitely a feminist and Marxist project about contradictory classed understandings of artistic labor in the 1960s, and ‘70s. And I have always been drawn towards trajectories of feminist and queer thought, including the kinds of objects that I write about. My second book, Fray, is about handmade textiles, and it is a decidedly queer book, including a chapter about the AIDS Quilt. Textiles have not always been included in conventional art histories, and I discuss how they are in the fray of debates around racialized labor and gendered making. In my criticism and curatorial projects, too, I consistently bring a queer feminist perspective.
My new position at Columbia is an incredible opportunity and honor, given how important the Department of Art History and Archaeology is to the field, and given how dynamic the Institute for the Study of Sexuality and Gender is. It is also thrilling to be in New York, where there are so many resources around queer feminist contemporary art.
"It was a scrappy art scene that was homegrown, improvisational, and resistant towards capitalism and its institutions. Rather than waiting for someone to give us permission, we were trying to make our own culture."
What are some of the larger problems that you're hoping to address in your work?
Throughout my research and teaching, I continuously ask: what is this form of making we call art? And what are the ramifications around that category vis-à-vis class, race, gender, and sexuality? Because it is in fact a troubled and hierarchical category, one that is charged with tremendous amounts of value and monetary investment. Ultimately it's a market category. What happens when we unravel it? I don't care to police the line between art and craft, and I'm not interested in simple inversion, by bringing the low up into the high or demoting what's high into the low. I want to rethink these structures altogether.
Art history can be so alienating: an elite space for the study of rarified commodities. I'm teaching a class in the spring called Visual Activism—that's a term that was popularized by the Black queer photographer Zanele Muholi, as a way to confront what images can do. When I have taught this course in the past, I get different kinds of students than I do in classes with the word art in the title. Students in Visual Activism often come from less privileged backgrounds, and this says volumes about how art can be a gatekeeping device.
I also really care about history. What does it mean to think about history through creative practices or through cultural production? I have a new book coming out this spring about the Jewish-Ukrainian sculptor Louise Nevelson (1899-1988). She's a well-known figure, but one of the methodological questions I ask is: Whose story is included when we write art histories in the plural? I consider it a queer feminist question.
"Within art history, the monograph is such a vaunted category that carries the weight of authority, and I wanted to thwart those expectations and disrupt how we consider chronology, and expand the conversation around influence to include what I call queer aesthetic kinship."
In researching this book, I delved into Nevelson’s archives and found a whole repository of fan art. Professional critics have examined her work, and that’s one source of information that I account for, but I also devote attention to the amateur audiences who incisively interpret her sculpture. This includes not only fans, but also children who make art projects inspired by Nevelson. For me these kids’ projects tell us just as much about her work as do reviews in The New York Times. I really grapple with, and take seriously, the many spaces in which her work circulated. The book will have an unusual interface: it will be published in four separate volumes that can be read in any order, bundled together in a black slipcase. The format echoes the modularity and the iterability of Nevelson’s sculptures. Within art history, the monograph is such a vaunted category that carries the weight of authority, and I wanted to thwart those expectations and disrupt how we consider chronology, and expand the conversation around influence to include what I call queer aesthetic kinship.
We've had a huge influx of technological advances that make disseminating work so much easier and more accessible to so many more people: does that play a part in your work?
I’m still pretty committed to questions of the tactile in my scholarship, and I am skeptical about linking technology to access given the “digital divide” fault-lines around race, economic status, and disability. Where I do confront these technologies, I would say, is in my teaching, as I acknowledge that we now encounter images in a very particular way. In the past, there were materially distinct formats in which you would access information, especially visual information, by looking at the newspaper or turning on the television. And now that's been largely consolidated, and images mostly stream through one portal, the screen. This relative undifferentiation provides an opportunity to think critically about the manipulation of images and their histories. When I started teaching some twenty years ago, I would have to emphasize again and again that a photograph does not transparently represent its subject. Photography’s truth claims were still seductive. Now, when students see a photograph, they immediately raise questions about its veracity. To them, a photograph is already a lie. That's an epistemic change that we're all reckoning with, and it has enormous consequences.
What opportunities do you think being part of the LGBTQ+ Cluster might afford to you and your work?
I am excited for more collective thinking around LGBTQ+ justice and its connections to abolition justice, disability justice, anti-racist work, and other critical struggles. Columbia should be applauded for this initiative at a time when LGBTQ+ rights are under attack and are such a flashpoint for politics not just in this country, but globally. I also acknowledge the complexities of having such positions institutionalized, as Roderick Ferguson discussed in his book The Reorder of Things. What happens when discourses arising from the margins become ensconced in the academy, and how can we mitigate against the dilution that comes from this mainstreaming?
What are some of the factors that influenced your decision to come to Columbia? Are there any scholars in particular who you're looking forward to working with or collaborating with?
New York City is a big draw, naturally, and so are all the scholars on campus, including Kellie Jones, Jack Halberstam, Vanessa Agard-Jones, Saidiya Hartman, and many more, who have been doing the kind of work that I feel like I’m responding to. I also have a lot of connections with the art practice department and am looking forward to exploring more.
You mentioned the class that you're going to be teaching on visual activism. What are you teaching this semester?
I'm teaching two seminars. One is an undergraduate seminar, “Handicraft and Contemporary Art,” with amazing students. Yesterday we read Marx on textile manufacturing and the Industrial Revolution, and I put that next to bell hooks writing about quilting, and it was so fruitful.
I’m also teaching a grad seminar called “Queer Feminist Theories in Art.” It's a seminar in which the students collaboratively and collectively make the syllabus along with me. So, it is modeling a more horizontal model of knowledge creation, which, to me, is kind of putting feminist theory into action. This method can be very nimble and flexible and dialogic, in that we can adapt the syllabus as we go and in response to how the conversations move.
Though I worried that the students wouldn’t be up for it, they are fantastic, and are eagerly working with each other. Coming out of COVID with all its isolation, it’s such a pleasure to watch ideas be generated in the classroom.
You arrived in the summer; what has it been like so far in New York?
Overwhelming! Art openings are a mad crush of people. Every day there are a million things that I feel like I’m missing out on, or could be dipping into, and I guess that's part of the New York experience. It is also completely exhilarating, and I am so stimulated by all the exhibits and performances that I have been seeing.
Is there anything specific that you're looking forward to personally or professionally as you get acclimated?
I am curating a show in Greater Manchester in the U.K. called “Liz Collins: Mischief,” that opens on October 1st. It's a mid-career retrospective of a queer feminist textile artist and the exhibit is in conversation with the historical textile mills of the region. I’m really looking forward to seeing how her dazzling abstract fabric sculptures inhabit the galleries. And an exhibition-within-the-exhibition of queer work includes pieces by Lubaina Himid, Maud Sulter, Paz Errázuriz, Jorge Eielson, and other heroes of mine—so that’s going to be epic. I am also excited to continue my work as a Curator-at-Large at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo, though I am dreading the election in Brazil. And the rollback of abortion rights in the US means that I anticipate continuing to fight, fiercely, for all the things I care about, both within my scholarship and on the streets.