St. Catherine University showcases feminist art by 11 contemporary women

  • Article by: MARY ABBE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 27, 2014 - 3:55 PM

E­lev­en con­tem­po­rary women embed fem­i­nist ideas in a po­tent multimedia show at St. Catherine University.

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Camille Gage blacks out the background of military caskets, much as the conflicts themselves have disappeared from American life.

Are we there yet?

Can women fi­nal­ly chuck the fem­i­nist pol­i­tics and just lean in, along with bil­lion­aire Face­book CEO Sheryl Sand­berg, con­fi­dent that suc­cess is ours to seize?

Prob­a­bly not. For most women there’s the daily 9-to-5 with the kid care has­sles, of­fice wran­gles, 75-cents-on-the-guy’s-dol­lar sala­ries, self-doubt and nag­ging ques­tions about wheth­er there might be more to life, if only.

If the women hap­pen to be ar­tists, there’s more use­ful ad­vice than “lean in” to be found through the Women’s Art Institute. For 15 years since its founding by Minnesota ar­tists Elizabeth Erickson and Pa­tri­cia Olson, the institute has chal­lenged and nur­tured women seek­ing to re­fine and fo­cus their art, in part through a monthlong sum­mer sem­i­nar co-spon­sored by St. Catherine University and Minneapolis College of Art and Design.

“How to Be a Fem­i­nist Art­ist,” a smart show organized by Erickson and Olson that’s on view at St. Catherine through March 23, offers a wide-rang­ing sam­ple of work by 11 institute par­tici­pants. The work is nuanced and po­tent, even when deal­ing with top­ics as dif­fi­cult as U.S. mil­i­tar­y deaths, a­buse, male-fe­male pow­er strug­gles and the role of women in Ar­a­bic cul­tures. There are also personal im­ag­es, ab­strac­tions and play­ful di­ver­sions.

The most e­mo­tion­al­ly af­fect­ing piece is “Su­i­cide Sur­vi­vors’ Club: A Family’s Jour­ney Through the Death of Their Loved One,” a se­ries of little books de­signed and pro­duced by graph­ic art­ist Laurie Phil­lips about a fam­i­ly’s emo­tio­nal up­heav­al fol­low­ing the su­i­cide of a hus­band and fa­ther of three. Each book tells the sto­ry of one sur­vi­vor in sim­ple, mov­ing words, the moth­er tan­gled in legal and sur­viv­al prob­lems, the col­lege-age daugh­ter e­mo­tion­al­ly de­railed, sons ages 5 and 7 drift­ing be­tween play and in­com­pre­hen­sion.

Phil­lips’ im­agi­na­tive watercolors, shift­ing perspectives and whim­si­cal car­toons set just the right tone, con­vey­ing the trag­e­dy’s pain and res­o­lu­tion with­out sen­ti­men­tal pa­thos. In a re­mark­able out­burst of do-it-your­self thera­py, sev­er­al gal­ler­y visi­tors on a re­cent morn­ing paused to read the little books and then be­gan spon­ta­ne­ous­ly talk­ing about them with oth­er visi­tors.

War is the os­ten­sible sub­ject of Ca­mille Gage’s photos, but loss is their theme. In her “War Mediated” se­ries, she has al­tered photos of U.S. mil­i­tar­y per­son­nel by black­ing out ev­er­y­thing but the flag-cov­ered cas­kets in which they car­ry the bod­ies of sol­diers killed in Iraq or Af­ghan­i­stan. Those stark im­ag­es are complemented by a gauz­y white scrim on which she’s stitched words nam­ing things that con­tem­po­rary soci­ety has lost — fam­i­ly, god, friends, in­no­cence and so on. The medi­ta­tive sim­plic­i­ty of the piece hov­ers like a benediction in the gal­ler­y.

Near­by hang beau­ti­ful screenprints by Hend al-Man­sour, a Sa­u­di Ara­bian doc­tor turned Minnesota art­ist. Called “Face­book 1 and 2,” they are double por­traits of the art­ist writ­ing Ar­a­bic cal­lig­ra­phy amid tra­di­tion­al tex­tiles. Be­cause rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al im­age­ry is pro­hib­it­ed in tra­di­tion­al Ar­a­bic cul­tures, the por­traits are more star­tling in her home­land than here where, once a­gain, Al-Man­sour has ef­fec­tive­ly fused mod­ern sen­si­bil­i­ty and tra­di­tion­al mo­tifs.

Oth­er im­ag­es range from Ra­chel Breen’s wall-sized ab­strac­tion of white dots that coa­lesce into grids, to charm­ing por­traits of cats and dogs by the apt­ly named Kat Cor­ri­gan. In blunt­ly can­did self-por­traits, Anna Garski takes on male-fe­male body is­sues from menstruation to women’s a­ware­ness of men’s scru­ti­ny. Kar­en Wil­cox em­ploys ar­che­ty­pal im­age­ry in a woman/ser­pent sculp­ture and paint­ings emphasizing male and fe­male sex-linked traits (breasts, pe­nis, fa­cial struc­ture). Paige Tighe docu­ments public re­ac­tion to a street theater per­form­ance in which she strolled about hold­ing hands with vari­ous peo­ple — young, old, male, fe­male, dif­fer­ent rac­es.

Made from twist­ed wire and a spa­ghet­ti-like pile of ani­mal gut, the sculp­tures of Carolyn Hal­li­day are vis­u­al­ly strik­ing though less clear­ly “fem­i­nist” in theme. In hand­some watercolors, Nic­ole Drill­ing rais­es the per­en­ni­al ques­tion of wheth­er ab­stract beau­ty mat­ters and what it means.

For o­rig­i­nal­i­ty and raw emo­tio­nal im­pact, Sar­ah Kass is the art­ist to watch. Lit­er­al­ly. Run­ning con­tin­u­al­ly on a vid­e­o mon­i­tor, her five-min­ute “Hay Breath” per­form­ance is grip­ping and gut­sy. In it Kass, on the verge of tears, stuffs her mouth full of hay and then strug­gles to speak, her words gar­bled and muf­fled by the dry grass­es. As a met­a­phor for women’s a­buse, re­pres­sion and self-cen­sor­ship, “Hay Breath,” and an ac­com­pa­ny­ing suite of poems, is po­tent and mem­o­ra­ble. Pay at­ten­tion.

 

Mary.Abbe@startribune.com • 612-673-4431





 

  • related content

  • Hend al-Mansour alludes to her Arabic heritage in a self-portrait as a traditional and modern woman.

  • Anna Garski’s “Your Gaze Hits the Side of My Face, Homage to Barbara Kruger.”

  • In a vivid metaphor for women’s abuse and censorship, Sarah Kass tries to speak through a mouth full of dried grass in her “Hay Breath” video.

  • In her “Suicide Survivors’ Club” books, designer Laurie Phillips uses photos, cartoons, drawings and their own words to help surviving family members resolve their grief following a family member’s death.

  • How to be a Feminist Artist

    What: Paintings, sculpture, fiber art, books, videos, installations and performance art by 11 participants in the Women’s Art Institute.

    When: 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Mon.-Fri.; noon-6 p.m. Sat.-Sun. Ends March 23.

    Where: Catherine G. Murphy Gallery, Visual Arts Building, St. Catherine University, 2004 Randolph Av., St. Paul.

    Tickets: Free. 651-690-6644 or www.stkate.edu/gallery.

    Reading: Curators Patricia Olson and Elizabeth Erickson will read from their in-progress book about the Women’s Art Institute, also titled “How to Be a Feminist Artist.” 7 p.m. March 12. Free. Visual Arts Building lecture hall.

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