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Art&Seek Q&A: Scholar Caitlin Overton
by Betsy Lewis 15 Jun 2009

Art&Seek talks to Caitlin Overton about the academic side of the visual art world.


Caitlin Overton decided to major in art history as a University of Texas undergrad because she thought that being both a good doctor (someday) and a good mother (someday) might not be a happy arrangement.  She will instead be a different kind of doctor someday, the Ph.D kind, in Art History. She has just completed an intense first year of graduate school on full scholarship at Southern Methodist University, currently focusing on 1980s New York. Art&Seek talked to Caitlin, 24, about the academic side of the visual art world:

Art&Seek: Why art history as opposed to studio art?

Caitlin Overton: Both of parents were art majors – UT for my father, UNT for my mother. My father was a hardline abstract expressionist. Kind of. My mother was a draftsman. She does marketing now. My father now does graphic design.

I was always on an academic course. I always planned on being in school until I was 30, planned on being poor until I was 30 because I was going to be a doctor. I was 18, I had gone to a medical conference. I flipped out because I realized I couldn’t have a family, and family is very important to me. It wasn’t the right fit. My biggest thing is to be happy in life, and I realized you could study art for a living. I was a huge Matisse fan, a huge Kandinsky fan. I like colors and I like shapes and I like curves. So.

A&S: Do you worry about surviving financially?

C.O.: No. I’ve always just expected it. Part of the reason I want to take two years off is they’re not offering doctoral positions as readily as they once did. I’ve been preparing for this field since I started college. I’m trying to get published, get in conferences, start forming a name for myself so when I get out I can get a job.

A&S: Do you frequent galleries?

C.O.: I don’t have a lot of time. Curatorial world/gallery world is not for me. I want to do academia. I do look at local artists. I’m really big into Andrea Rosenberg – the power of the line. John Pomara – the direction he’s taking into digital. A lot of photography in the Dallas area right now is really impressive.

A&S: Do you think that’s reflective of national trends?

C.O.: Large-format photography, definitely. I’m liking this move toward drawing in charcoal; like I said, movement of line, curvature and expression with the line and mark-making.

A&S: What trends do you see that you think are unfortunate?

C.O.: I really am not a big fan of Elizabeth Peyton. Portraits. Famous people. She took what David Hockney did and made it for a pop culture. I don’t like this celebrity part and I think it’s almost good the economy is down, because it’s going to kill down this inflated art market. People who don’t deserve to make lots of money are making lots of money. Back to talent and not just who you know and who your friends are. It is my opinion; I’ve never wanted to be an art critic, but I have a strong critical eye. I want art to challenge me.

A&S: So how was your first year of grad school?

C.O.: It was so hard. It was really wonderful. You realize how unsmart you are and build yourself up from there. I’m working with a phenomenal professor who’s also going to be my thesis adviser, Eric Stryker. He does Francis Bacon and Eduardo Paolozzi, British art and the reconstruction after World War II. He focuses on art and technology, which is a big love of mine.

A&S: Do you ever get into fights about art?

C.O.: Yes! I get in a lot of them with artists. If an artist, a fellow grad student, comes to me and asks my opinion, I will always give it. The common thing with artists is they complain about being interpreted and this is unfair, and my answer always is: If you didn’t want it to go into the public realm, keep it in your basement, keep it in your closet, keep it in your room. You’re bringing it into the public, and because of that the art now has three separate lives – the meaning it was first given when it was created, the meaning it will have in the future when it’s reinterpreted, and the meaning the actual viewer is getting from it. That’s one of the things I really love about art that I’m playing around with – reception theory. From things that are completely abstract — where the artist wants them to read a lot into it that’s not there or they didn’t intend — to things that are very pictorial but people still have such a different connection with it. That’s one of the things that makes art continue to live, that everyone has a different connection to different pieces.

In the market we have now, you really need to get some balls to be an artist. Be strong about it, but be flexible, and know that a great artist will not only be happy with people interpreting their work differently, that’s something to strive for.

A&S: You’re also  into video work?

C.O.: I think it’s easy to look past video work, to not give it a chance. Susan Sontag, in Regarding the Pain of Others, argued that one of the problems with art and putting it in a gallery setting is that it’s a stroll, normally accompanied with a friend and possibly with a glass of wine. So you are strolling by the work, you are not giving it its full power. She saw that as disrespectful. I was looking at that; if you are going to sit and give it a chance, you are giving time to it and it pays off in a higher way. There’s a sensory deprivation aspect to it that I’ve always loved about film. The focus it takes is different from looking at a painting, different from looking at a sculpture, where you’re more aware of the outside area.

A&S: What would an art revolution be like?

C.O.: The art revolution I’m hoping for will shift people into looking …  not harder …  more intelligently. Some of my favorite artists I love just because they’re beautiful, but it’s difficult right now because of how much visual culture is around us at all times. But there’s hope for it, too. This mass visual culture is helping people train a better aesthetic eye, and a more discerning aesthetic eye. I’m hoping we can try to focus art more into our personal lives and let it empower us, too.

The Art&Seek Q&A is a weekly discussion with a person involved in the arts in North Texas. Check back next Thursday for another installment.