Remember feminism? It's still going strong 40 years on and has delivered an earnest, well focused yet wide-ranging show on a pithy public issue, water rights, at the University of Minnesota's Katherine E. Nash Gallery through March 25. "Women and Water Rights: Rivers of Regeneration" is the centerpiece of a monthlong consciousness-raising exercise that involves several university departments and institutes, and comes with a passel of speakers, performances and programs sponsored by, among others, the Women's Caucus for Art (WCA) and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF).

Overflowing with acronyms and good intentions, the show has something of the look and feel of an elegant science fair, chockablock with useful information and instructive displays. It opens with a shrine to the subject -- a cascade of photos of water-related images unfolding from a glass shelf holding books about water, eco-feminism and globalization. Designed by Minnesota artists Sandra Menefee Taylor and Linda Gammel, the shrine is centered on Rachel Carson's influential 1962 book "Silent Spring," which launched the environmental movement by calling attention to the harmful side effects of the pesticide DDT.

Nearby, Sandy Spieler uses dioramas to dispense factoids about water: it is essential to brain function, occupies about 73 percent of the Earth, is unavailable to one-fifth of the Earth's population in drinkable form. And so on.

The politics of water use and control undergird some of the displays. A smartly designed cart full of grass and plants augments a video by Christine Baeumler documenting a two-year effort to install a demonstration rain garden at the entrance to the Bruce Vento Regional Trail in St. Paul. Cuban refugee Carmen Gutierrez-Bolger of St. Paul employs ocean imagery (jellyfish, sea maps, shredded rubber inner tubes) in "Alma Mia (My Soul)," a display evidently intended to evoke the perils of immigration by small boat. A pair of photos by Cheryl Walsh Bellville pays tribute to a weathered New Mexico woman, a fifth-generation cattle rancher leaning over a water tank, who has been fighting to stop a consortium of New York and Italian businessmen from siphoning and selling water from her territory.

Restorative metaphor

Water appears as a metaphor and feminist trope in many pieces. A woodcut of a boat by Sandra Lee Starck of Eau Claire, Wis., urges that we address global warming, pollution and overpopulation lest the planet be so degraded that we end, as Samuel Coleridge wrote, surrounded by "water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink." Cate Vermeland of Farmington photographed a dirty knife in her sink to chastise herself for complaining about having to do dishes when every day, women worldwide devote 200 million hours just to gathering water. And Alis Olsen of St. Paul built a little boat in a Coke bottle as a criticism of the Coca-Cola company, which apparently has sparked population migrations in India by polluting groundwater and drying up aquifers.

Minneapolis artist Diane Katsiaficas embellishes the water story with a historical footnote about "Mary of Egypt," a fifth-century heroine who evidently walked on water across the Jordan River. Playing up water's role in sacred rituals, Graciela Bustos, Fernando Calderon and Bertha Cohen place an altar-like table at the end of an aisle defined by salt. They claim that there is enough salt in water, presumably seawater, to cover the entire United States to a depth of a mile.

The imagery continues in paintings, a taffeta curtain printed with river maps, a "river of grass" in a ceramic table, a paper canoe, a prayerful meditation inspired by walks along the Mississippi. A sculptor who divides her time between Florida and Greece submitted an abstracted bronze of "Eurynome," an ancient seafaring goddess in the throes of an ecstatic dance. And Anna Metcalfe helped a group of Twin Cities teenagers write stories about living near the Mississippi. Illustrated on porcelain boats about the size of wooden shoes, their stories are a curious mixture of personal, environmental and coming-of-age issues.

Women's traditional associations with nurturing, healing, purity and the life force -- all of which can also be linked to water -- support the ecological underpinnings of this exhibition. Still, there is something peculiar about the idea of ignoring the water claims of the male half of the Earth's population. There is no overt suggestion that men are the world's chief polluters, though it might be possible to surmise that from their dominance of industry and commerce. Nor is there any reason to assume that women in general -- or female artists, in particular -- have a lock on water insights, nor that men are indifferent to water issues. Perhaps the larger point is simply that it's important to start somewhere, so why not with women?

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431