Restorative, communicative, and hopeful in a crumbling world

Struggling to find my voice as the country disintegrates. Not confident that I should write at all, as words seem futile in the midst of state-sanctioned violence. The attacks–both the direct brutality of uniformed thugs and the indirect aggression of massive leadership failure–leave me scared and angry. But what about the activity that I always turn to, what about the act of looking, what about artistic practice? Where does art making fit into this crumbling world? 

I have written about Nirmal Raja’s work previously, and now she is working on another really interesting project she calls Feeble Barriers. The work is intimate and ambitious, beautiful and wrenching. The creation of these new delicate objects has unfolded on Instagram and the entire body of work created so far is on view at the Grove Gallery during July 2020.

Nirmal Raja, Feeble Barriers

The artist has posted a short video about the current installation, and she was interviewed about the work by the UW Center for Design and Material Culture. The project is on-going, as Raja continues to gather thoughts from medical professionals across the globe who are working in pandemic response. As a daily practice, the artist stitches their words onto delicate face masks constructed of sheer cotton organdy. The individual pieces are ghosts of personal protective equipment, their fragile structure bearing the worry that pours from mouths that are hopefully shielded by more functional barriers. 

The resulting work is thoughtful and terrifying. So far, 75 masks have been made. There is desperation in the words from these frontline workers: they speak of racial inequalities, personal fears, and societal dangers. These are individuals who are committed to saving our lives, here they describe the personal, tragic impact of the pandemic.

The fragility of these masks suggests a profound contradiction: the very idea that protecting life takes only a piece of fabric. It is a humbling thing. So easy an action–wearing a mask–makes its refusal confounding. A small thing to ask, the fabric placed between you and me. There are people selling useless masks on Etsy–crocheted items that in their creation mock the deaths and losses the world is enduring. Such action raises the specter of what exactly is it that is feeble here? The sheer cotton organdy, the fragility of over-stressed medical frontlines, the actual PPE, or the fact that any controversy exists at all about the use of masks to prevent the spread of an airborne virus? 

Raja’s use of delicate handwork to represent healthcare workers’ personal experiences is powerful, yet it is frustrating in its existence. It is devastating that we need work like this. But in her choice of a close and time-consuming method like hand-stitching, this artist honors the dedication of the medical professionals who are trying every day to save our lives. This project demands attention to their (and our) plight. 

Nirmal Raja, Feeble Barriers

Another exhibit, at The Warehouse in Milwaukee, presents a different kind of connection during this period of isolation. On display into October, I Am A Story: Self-Portraits provides an opportunity to see a variety of faces, an activity that I found surprisingly refreshing after weeks of mostly online interactions.

Many artists are included. Carol Pylant’s representation of the intense stare of a tension-ridden younger self, and Richard Diebenkorn’s drypoint face made from lines that divide the plate into discrete areas like those in his landscape paintings, provide contemplative relief. Della Wells is represented with a painted and collaged side-glance self-portrait commissioned for the exhibit. Pat Steir inserts herself into art history as Caravaggio’s Medusa and Rembrandt in a Cap, and Ann Hamilton presents herself as gorgeously obscured.

This is a really nice show to visit, although with very little interpretation available the experience is limited to looking and responding rather than learning anything about these artists and their representational choices. But that’s exactly what I needed right now, a chance to see some new faces and think about something other than my four walls and the crumbling world.  

Restorative, communicative, hopeful. The physical experience of looking allows access to other people–through their handmade objects or their representations of self–at a time when distance is required for personal safety. Human connection is worth pursuing right now, and saving. Despite the terror, the anger, and the fear, we have to keep trying. It may be a struggle to get through every day, but acknowledging what we have and reminding ourselves what we fight for, continues to be a vital effort.  

Objects Redux @ Racine Art Museum

Harvey Littleton, Reflections, 1969

The Nov/Dec issue of the New Art Examiner includes my review of the Objects Redux exhibitions, an ambitious project on view at the Racine Art Museum into January 2020.

Moving Beyond the Boy’s Club (with the help of two Lindas)

Almost two years ago Linda Nochlin passed away. Soon it will have been 50 years since she helped to birth the field of feminist art history with the publication of her ground-breaking essay. Introduced to her work through classes with Whitney Chadwick at San Francisco State University, Nochlin’s thinking and research broke open my world, revealing a language that felt like my mother tongue.

Dr. Nochlin is one of two Lindas on my mind because within the last couple of weeks I’ve had the pleasure to see a few projects that feature the work of women artists. I wish the best response to this statement was, “so what?” or “who cares?” I wish I didn’t feel the need to highlight work solely because it was made by women. But a study recently released by artnet News concluded that only:

“11 percent of all museum acquisitions over the past decade have been of work by women.”

Frustrating and disappointing news, certainly, but not all that surprising, especially when, within the last year, the decision-making positions in museums have been found to remain mostly white and male. What does this mean, other than systemic change is slow? Of course it means more than that. It means that, 50 years after Nochlin’s essay demonstrated the power of critiquing institutional privilege, women are still dealing with the angry results of challenging institutional privilege. Adrian Piper responded to the artnet News article by pointing out the responsibility of the press:

It is remarkable that your report neglects to examine what is arguably the most significant factor of all in perpetuating the invisibility of art made by women. It says nothing about artnet News’s own role in protecting the status quo.

Women ride motorcycles, weld metal, lead bands, serve in public office, and write plays. Women make art, too, and their work needs to be supported and critiqued and celebrated.

Following are a few of the projects that I’ve seen lately.

10 Wisconsin Sculptors: Not Just A Boy’s Club is an exhibition currently on view at the UW-Milwaukee Union Art Gallery. Featuring artists working in Wisconsin–most with ties to UW-M, UW-Madison, or MIAD–the show is thoughtfully curated and beautifully installed.

Although only on view through October 11, 2109, the artists are all worthy of additional attention: Emily Belknap, Prithika Deivasigamani, Yevgeniya Kaganovich, Katie Martin Meurer, Nirmal Raja, Mary Roley, Jill Sebastian, Valaria Tatera, and Kristin Thielking and Lisa Beth Robinson.

Earlier this month, Marielle Allschwang & The Visitations performed Precession of a Day: The World of Mary Nohl, a work that was commissioned by the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Milwaukee Film, Wisconsin Union Theater/UW Madison, and the Cedar Cultural Center. Celebrating the life and work of a legendary Wisconsin artist, the performance was a mix of music and video. Not presented as documentation, the imagery, words, and sound explored the artist’s vision as life-long inspiration. The project is accompanied by a gorgeous vinyl production with extensive notes (sadly my last turntable was dorm-room compatible and given away in the 1990s). One more performance is yet to be scheduled, it will happen in Minneapolis sometime this winter.

Another artist who takes inspiration from earlier works is Lauren Gunderson, a playwright whose 2017 The Book of Will was the only play by a woman presented at APT this season. Maybe this play was so powerful, or there were such riveting female protagonists in other plays on the schedule (A Doll’s House, for example), that other women playwrights weren’t considered? I don’t know the reason, but this is a spectacular work, performed in Spring Green by a deeply talented company.

(This play is about the first printing of the collected works of Shakespeare. The performance struck me intensely, not only because of my lifelong interest in these plays. In 2016 I had the opportunity to be part of the team that brought an actual First Folio to Wisconsin when the Folger Shakespeare Library organized a traveling exhibition. The book, and the play, captivated me. As I watched the actors on the stage, I recalled the first folio in its crate, in the gallery, in my hands. I installed one of the books that the actors talked about, that the play was written about, that is the legacy of that late-16th century playwright. Now three years after the exhibition, watching this play, I understand it in very different terms).

Another touchstone for me (and maybe for my generation?) is the music of a second, latina Linda: Linda Ronstadt. The documentary about the singer’s life that was just released reveled in her powerhouse voice, but also revealed the influence she wielded in the music industry of the 1970s. Despite a sexy, cute public persona, this is an artist who encouraged careers, supported other women artists, put up with harassment and verbal abuse, and ultimately performed and recorded the music that she wanted.

And that’s what Linda Nochlin was writing about: the ability of women to pursue their work, and the roadblocks that they have encountered throughout history. Ronstadt was singing and recording at the time that Nochlin was writing her essay. After almost 50 years, when we look back over the careers of these two Lindas, what can be considered “great?” To pursue your vision, to do your work, to receive recognition, to be inspirational.

Gracias, Lindas, we are in your debt.