Back in the go-go 1980s, corporate art collections were all the rage. Evidence of financial success, they were touted as amenities for employees and clients, signaled community engagement, beautified boardrooms and lobbies, and laid a veneer of culture over capitalism.
Twin Cities corporations then known for their art collections included 3M, First Bank, General Mills and the predecessors of Target, Thrivent and Wells Fargo, among others.
Priorities and financial times have changed, however. First Bank sold its collection. Wells Fargo gave its holdings to the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Aside from Thrivent, few of the others are collecting as aggressively as they once did.
Now comes “The Human Touch,” a well-focused display of 35 paintings, photos, drawings and sculpture at the University of Minnesota’s Weisman Art Museum through Jan. 3.
On loan from the 400-piece collection of RBC Wealth Management, the art is contemporary, figurative and thoughtfully personal, as befits a company whose focus is helping affluent individuals manage their money. RBC is the Royal Bank of Canada and Minneapolis the headquarters of a division that manages $280 billion for clients at 200 locations in 41 states.
Chosen by Don McNeil, former curator of the General Mills collection, the RBC collection was started in the early 1990s and set for itself the ambitious goal of using art “to reinforce RBC’s values of inclusiveness and globalism.”
The chosen artists are a rich cross section of multiethnic talent. Most are now based in the United States but many were born or raised abroad — in Mexico, Canada, Morocco, Germany, Israel, Brazil, Peru, China, Japan and Vietnam, among other countries. Their art often simmers with the puzzlement, tensions and ambivalence immigrants feel as they struggle to balance their history and personal aspirations against American expectations, opportunities and disappointments.
The show opens with a serene and lovely photo of a vaguely Asian-looking beauty surrounded by the azure miasma of a Los Angeles swimming pool. Taken by German-born Roland Fischer, it appears, perhaps without irony, to be the affirmative embodiment of an ideal RBC Wealth Management client — young, beautiful, at leisure and doubtless rich.
Elsewhere Kerry James Marshall hints at the economic frustrations of black Americans in “Blind Ambition,” a painting that depicts a very dark-skinned guy gazing warily at a steep ladder whose bottom rung is labeled “ambition” and the distant top “success.” In an effort to show that mug shots are not the only way to depict young black males, Kehinde Wiley paints a black man in a hoodie on a brocade background more commonly associated with upmarket salons.
In what she calls an “Afro-Asiatic allegory,” Iona Rozeal Brown depicts Japanese teens who incongruously have appropriated American hip-hop culture complete with bristling afro hairstyles and blackface makeup.
Jaune Quick-to-See Smith draws an “Indian Head,” silhouette over a collage of products that exploit Indian associations (Jeep Cherokee, Big Chief Tomatoes). In a drawing called “Western Front #4,” Minnesota artist Frank Big Bear Jr. conflates World War II with the tragic 19th-century destruction of American Indian life on the Great Plains.
Asian-Americans muse on their own tragically mutilated history. In “Syncoa Coma,” Roger Shimomura — who spent part of his childhood confined in an Idaho camp for Japanese-Americans — illustrates the transition from Japanese warrior to American golfer. Hung Liu, who was born in China in 1948 and was sent to the countryside for “re-education” during her country’s Cultural Revolution, depicts Pu Yi, China’s last emperor when he was a “Baby King” taken by the Japanese and turned into a puppet emperor at age 2.
In “Les Femmes du Maroc, #21C,” Morocco-born Lalla Essaydi suggests the continued repression of women in some cultures by photographing a woman — seen from the back — whose body, clothes, and surrounding walls are covered with Arabic-looking calligraphy copied from her own diaries.
On a more bucolic note, Minnesota photographer JoAnn Verburg records her poet husband Jim Moore reading peacefully in St. Paul de Vence, France, and a photo by Paul Shambroom studies the intense expressions of three city council members at work in “Stockton, Utah (Pop. 657).”
And on a deliberately comic note, Luis Gispert affectionately satirizes the lavish aspirations of Cuban Americans in “Living Room (From Urban Myths).” In a boudoir-pink salon furnished with a pastiche of highbrow taste (Rococco and Chinese vases, Venetian chandelier), a matron swagged in Spanish lace flirts with the camera while two out-of-control girls throw tantrums.
As an exercise in consciousness raising, these complex images represent a notable array of talent grappling with the often contradictory narratives that define contemporary America.