Disability Studies in Art History

Encountering Disability

One of the continuing goals of The Lantern is to highlight Colby students’ research in and engagement with the arts. Here senior art history major Emily Martin ’18 shares her recent work on art and disability. 

More than one billion people—fifteen percent of the world’s inhabitants—live with a disability. Yet their experiences continue to be characterized by oppression and misrepresentation, despite the fact that they account for a large percentage of the global population.  In Nothing About Us Without Us: Disability Oppression and Empowerment, author James Charlton spoke about our world system, a system that is dominated by the few who regulate and determine who survives and prospers, who controls and is controlled, and who is on the inside and who is on the outside [of] power.[1] Simply put, people with disabilities are not allowed to be inside this centrifuge of power.

Throughout history, people with disabilities have been represented in art more often as visual and cultural objects than as active participants and creators of the culture and media that define their communities.  As such, representations of disability constructed by those who do not identify as disabled are dangerous because they result in misrepresentations.  Existing disability studies literature fails to fully address the experience of how to understand disability the artist creates for the benefit of himself/herself and the viewer. This failure distances the art historian from the artist in a way that lessens the art’s overall impact.

Recognizing my lack of shared experience, given that I am a nondisabled individual, I want to learn how to best critique and interact with artwork created by disabled artists.  How are my responses to their art shaped by the artists’ ideas of individuality, empowerment, and self-representation, and how do these responses impact my understanding of disability?

I focused my research on two artists: Chuck Close and Lihua Lei, both of whom are categorized under the societal label “disabled artists.”  While their backgrounds and styles differ, they share a decision to represent their experiences of disability in their art while at the same time redefining how they are seen and perceived. In analyzing my experiences with pieces by Close and Lei, my goal is to understand the ways these artists chose to portray the disabled body through their art, how they chose to represent their own disabilities, and how this impacted my experience as a nondisabled viewer.

Chuck Close, an American painter and photographer, was not born disabled but experienced a spinal artery collapse on December 7, 1988, a day he refers to in retrospect as “The Event.”[2]  This spinal injury left Close paralyzed from the neck down.  Close also has prosopagnosia, a cognitive disorder known as “face blindness” that impairs visual processing and recognition of familiar faces.  Despite this condition, he produces photographs, daguerreotypes, and paintings of his friends and acquaintances.

When I encountered Close’s Self Portrait, 2002 (Figure 1), it was my first experience with a daguerreotype or image overlaid on a mirrored surface.[3]  Regardless of where I stood, I saw myself reflected on the mirrored plate, juxtaposing my face with Close’s.  The artist’s decision to overlay his self-portrait on a surface that would reflect the viewer creates an experience that forces eye contact between the two individuals.  Seeing my reflection overlapping with Close’s unblinking, intense stare gave me an unexpected feeling of connectedness with the artist.  Because the piece only shows Close’s face, a viewer has no idea that the lower part of his body is physically disabled and that the artist is dependent on a wheelchair.  No matter where I moved and viewed the piece, I could not escape my own reflection as part of the daguerreotype, and this created a powerful, collaborative experience between me and the artist.  Despite Close’s cognitive inability to recognize faces, there I was, an able-bodied and able-minded viewer, trying to differentiate my face from his.

Figure 1: Chuck Close, Self-Portrait, 2002. Daguerreotype, 8 1/2 in. x 6 1/2 in. (21.59 cm x 16.51 cm). Colby College Museum of Art. Museum purchase from the Jere Abbott Acquisitions Fund, 2004.010.

Lihua Lei was born and raised in rural Taiwan.  At four months of age, Lei contracted polio, which left one of her legs malformed and required her to use crutches to walk.[4]  For this project, I focused on the sculptural installation and video projection of her Phantom Pain, located in the center of the Colby Museum of Art’s Davis Gallery (Figure 2).  The sculpture begins at the floor, where molten-glass molds of Lei’s legs support the upper half of the sculpture, which extends far into the ceiling of the gallery.  One of the molds of Lei’s legs is shorter and thinner than the other, a true-to-life characteristic of the disability the polio caused her. But the misshapen cast of her leg gives birth to enormous sheets of white cloth stretched over arching and twisting wire in a structure she describes as the wings of a butterfly.

Accompanying the sculpture is a continuous audio loop of Lei’s mother talking about her first reactions to her daughter’s polio.[5]  These words, while full of emotion and memory, are spoken in a language that is incomprehensible to me.  Even though I had both the audio recording and the sculpture in front of me, I did not fully understand or appreciate Lei’s mother’s message.  Because of Lei’s intimate awareness of disability and the effects it has on the course of one’s life, she deliberately tries to initiate a dialogue with her viewers to generate a deeper understanding of disability.[6]

Figure 2: Lihua Lei, Phantom Pain, 2006. Cloth and wire armature, glass, plexi, sound, video. Colby College Museum of Art. Museum purchase from the Jere Abbott Acquisitions Fund, 2007.007.

Phantom Pain invites us to reflect on problems we may encounter at any moment and the ways these problems may affect our futures.[7]  Lei specifically addressed the stares she receives as a result of her disability, saying, “People’s first impression of me is a stereotype.  They see my handicap.  As a result, they miss a lot of me.”[8]  The intentional casting of her polio-affected leg emphasizes Lei’s acceptance of her disability and her intent to make it visible, challenging audiences to engage with and confront the disability directly.  The artwork creates a shared experience of confusion and loss for both the viewer and artist.

Examining pieces by Chuck Close and Lihua Lei, I realized that both artists engage in metaphorical ideas and representations that distance them from being solely defined as a “disabled artist.” Lei’s metaphor of dreams and memory is connected directly to the massive wings of her sculpture, which look as if they have been caught in a sudden gust of wind.  The twists and turns of the billowing cloth mimic wings in motion despite their actual stagnant nature.  These wings have been linked to the Taoist concept of “yuhua,” in which the character “yu” means “wings” and “hua” means “transformation.”[9]  In Currents3, Lei says that in Taoism culture a butterfly could represent a bridge that helps us see that we are all one, no matter what form we are.[10]  Here, Lei puts into words the metaphorical bridge I sought to find—a bridge between the disabled and those who are not.  This bridge connects the viewer and the disabled artist in a relationship of shared experience and offers an understanding of how the artist approaches his or her disability. Disabled artists and their art should not be placed into a separate “other” category, because this can reinforce the societal hierarchies of power.  Instead, embracing the idea that “we are one” transforms the idea of disability art, making it more universally accessible.

When asked if he considers The Event a catastrophe, Close responded: “I don’t think anyone would call their own event a catastrophe.  I call what happened to me an event.  It’s just something that happened.”[11]  Close implores us to look at him beyond his disability.  He resists the notion that his disability will alter, deter, or define him and his art.  Close and Lei’s representations of the human figure in ways that differ from the idealized and able-bodied challenge the normative culture that surrounds disability.[12]

How do I, as an able-bodied and able-minded art historian, write about disability-representative art produced by artists with disabilities?  My conclusions continue to evolve.  I believe that as art historians, it is our duty to engage with art personally and understand the impact our lives and identities have on our interpretation of the art.  My identity as a heterosexual, cisgendered, middle-class, female college senior affects my understanding and interpretation of art I encounter.  I believe art historians must not only recognize and legitimize their experiences but must be aware of artists’ experiences as well.  Visibility for the disabled community must come through candid, honest representation by people who identify as part of that community themselves.

Close and Lei push back against the othering that disabled artists are often subjected to and instead create art that engages the viewer directly and intimately. Close’s photographs and Lei’s sculpture and audio actively compel viewers to contemplate how their own existences can reflect those of the artists.  Close’s use of the daguerreotype visually captivates the viewer and creates a shared experience.  Lei’s sculpture and audio piece envelop the viewer in feelings of loss and disconnectedness—feelings that she herself shares in relation to her disabled legs.

I believe that art historians must collectively stop speaking and writing about disability art in a way that puts Close, Lei, and other artists into a box labeled simply “disabled artists.”  Chuck Close and Lihua Lei are influential artists who experienced life-changing disabilities, which left significant imprints on their minds and bodies. Yet Close and Lei used their ordeals in communicating their experiences—of loss, memory, and determination, as well as acceptance and understanding of disability—through their art.

[1] Charlton, Nothing About Us Without Us: Disability Oppression and Empowerment. (Brantford, Ont.: W. Ross MacDonald School Resource Services Library, 2011), 28.

[2] Finch, Chuck Close Life. (Munich: Prestel, 2010), 271.

[3] Finch, 297.

[4] Bai, Currents3—Lihua Lei [Catalogue]. (Waterville, Maine, 2006), 12.

[5] Bai, 12.

[6] Bai, 13.

[7] Bai, 16.

[8] Harrison, 2012, Solo artist begins new chapter in her life as U.S. citizen, Web page. https://bangordailynews.com

[9] Bai, 11.

[10] Bai, Currents3—Lihua Lei [Catalogue]. (Waterville, Maine, 2006), 29.

[11] Guare, Chuck Close: life and work, 1988–1995. (New York: Thames and Hudson in assoc. with Yarrow Press, 1996), 22.

[12] Watson, 2016, Disability in Art History, Web page, http://arthistoryteachingresources.org.