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Two married Herron faculty members debut a new exhibit after publishing two books

January 10, 2017

"Close Reading," an exhibition of works by Herron School of Art and Design faculty members Jean Robertson (Chancellor's Professor of Art History) and Craig McDaniel (painter, author, and associate dean and professor of fine arts), will open in the school's Basile Gallery on Jan. 11 and continue through Jan. 31. The exhibit explores relationships between visual and verbal modes of communication and the expression of meaning.

"Themes of Contemporary Art: Visual Art After 1980"

"Themes of Contemporary Art: Visual Art After 1980"

"Close Reading" also serves as the victory lap on a very productive 2016 for the co-authors and partners in matrimony. Not only have they completed "Spellbound: Rethinking the Alphabet," an inventive book picked up by the imprint Intellect LTD, they also finished the fourth edition of their popular text "Themes of Contemporary Art: Visual Art After 1980," published by Oxford University Press.

Robertson and McDaniel have flourished in an academic environment that rewards thinking. They credit the IUPUI Arts and Humanities Institute and the Indiana University New Frontiers in the Arts and Humanities program for research support of their two latest books. The manuscripts were due six months apart, the births assisted by yet another marvel of the academy -- sabbatical.


Ideas for "Spellbound" evolved in part through "what if" discussions at Herron with colleagues ranging from the IT staff to the visual communication design faculty.

A contribution from adjunct faculty member Earl Snellenberger, who created the mirror-image ambigram of the words "past," "present" and "future" that was featured in an exhibition at Herron, appears in Chapter 2's discussion of letter shapes. His interest in this art form is a natural extension of a fascination with typography and letterforms, he said.

"Spellbound: Rethinking the Alphabet"

"Spellbound: Rethinking the Alphabet"

"The word 'ambigram' has a kinship to 'ambidextrous,'" Snellenberger noted, "so they can be read from different viewpoints, such as a 180-degree flip of the word 'noon' spelled in all capitals. Ambigrams can provide insights at a subliminal level through connections that the reader makes, bringing a deeper meaning than just being able to read the word."

Jason McClellan, Herron's technology manager, recalled side conversations with McDaniel over about a year, in which McDaniel wondered if they could code an alphabet by assigning each letter a color. McClellan ultimately modified a spreadsheet, using the program's conditional formatting to make characters and their backgrounds the same color.

"His idea was to help people read who can't," said McClellan, "or to be able to develop a special code for 'Beliebers'" or other groups to use with each other. "It all started with the colors and incremental conversations." An example of the color-coded alphabet can be found in Chapter 4's "Gettysburg Address Revisited."

Aaron Ganci, an assistant professor and user-experience designer, had been thinking for some time about doing a project with McDaniel. Those conversations led to Chapter 10, written by Ganci, about digital replacements for the alphabet.

"It's fair to say the evolution of language is on a parallel path with driverless cars," Ganci said. "We're seeing the beginnings today with a website that reformats to fit the device you are using to look at it. How do we sense who is looking and then access information about those persons, such as knowing a disability so modifications can be made, like the sight problem of color blindness?" he asked, pointing to the day when a visual display knows who is in the room and adapts to that person's requirements.

From Ganci's point of view, Chapter 10 is the product of a desire to collaborate rather than having a specific goal in mind at the outset. "It speaks to the openness of Herron faculty," he said.

Themes of Contemporary Art

"Themes of Contemporary Art: Visual Art After 1980" got a full-color remake in its fourth edition, plus an expansion from 160 to more than 200 illustrations and discussion of digital technology's influence on visual art, said Robertson. "This is not what we were originally thinking," she mused wryly, "that they would keep ordering new editions." Work on the first edition began in January 2001.

"Craig and I have both been interested in the relationship between verbal and visual communication," Robertson said, with their fields of painting, poetry and art history melding nicely.

Robertson also commented on the reciprocal benefits of testing material in front of a class: "My students teach me so much by telling me what they like. It may not make it into the book, but I have looked up these artists when I travel. Students also improve the writing, because you are trying to communicate complicated information in a clear and accessible way. When I use my book in a lecture, I can tell when an idea is not getting across. I don't want to be simplistic, but clear."

Robertson noted that these two latest books are an outgrowth of "so much flux and change due to technology. We're barely at the beginning, with the average person having access," she said. 

Asked what the couple does to celebrate each publication, she indicated completion is its own reward: "Page proofs make us happiest."

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