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The Art of Sonia Landy Sheridan

Hood Quarterly, autumn/winter 2009-10
Katherine Hart, Associate Director and Barbara C. and Harvey P. Hood 1918 Curator of Academic Programming

Art is closely linked to the twin muses of creativity and imagination. Whether expressed through paint on canvas, words on a page, emulsion on paper, or pixels on a screen, art originates as an expression of human intellect, emotion, and aspiration. This fall, the Hood will showcase the work of pioneering artist Sonia Landy Sheridan, who inspired herself and those she taught to work with new media, testing the very limits of their expression.

Sheridan’s artistic career began like many other artists’. In her early years, during the 1940s and 1950s, she specialized in drawing, printmaking, and painting. However, underpinning all of her artistic activities was, and still remains, an adventurous spirit who embraced the new. The “new” of her time included technological innovations in image reproduction and communication and the first software programs that enabled artists to create on a computer screen.

As part of her desire to understand the world, Sheridan envisioned art as a means to explore the questions that are central to human experience, both the personal and the existential. Her use of deduction and trial and error in creating her work links it to the intuitive follow-the-evidenceand-possibilities approach at the heart of scientific investigation. When she became a professor at the Art Institute of Chicago in the 196os, Sheridan shared her vision of the creative process with her students, and they with her. Her classroom became a laboratory, and she fostered an environment that encouraged the understanding of systems, and also what happens when you operate outside of their parameters.

During the tumult of the late 1960s in Chicago, she and her students became involved in political protest, which led to new ways to make posters and broadsides to distribute to fellow counterculture activists and use at demonstrations. Initially she used photo silk screening as a way to make multiple images. This eventually led to the use of “other commercial imaging systems such as 3M Thermofax.” It was Sheridan’s openness to innovation and experimentation that led her to become artist-in-residence at 3M company from 1969 through the mid-1970s and in 1970 to found a new program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago called Generative Systems. As Sheridan states, “We . . . did oppose the traditional mode of teaching art and sought to create a new system of art education that emphasized process and transformation, society and technological change; we wanted to bring the modern world into the ivory tower.” In the process, Sheridan trained her students to work collaboratively and experimentally with new media.

While much has been written about Sheridan as a teacher and experimenter with art and science, as well as her sustained role in the movement that led to collaboration between artists and scientists, there has been less concentration on her contributions as an artist. This exhibition, drawn from the Hood’s archive of over six hundred works dating from 1949 through 2002, chooses to do just that. The exhibition, which includes over sixty works by Sheridan, is organized according to the themes that continuously engaged her— time, energy, light, growth and decay, and the interconnection between female and male. No matter the medium—drawing, watercolor, or images made with various machines—her concern with the fundamentals of human experience, especially the transformative and unexpected, permeates her work.

The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue with essays by Diane Kirkpatrick, Professor Emerita of the History of Art, University of Michigan, and Mary Flanagan, Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Professor in Digital Humanities, Dartmouth College.

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