Take a random walk through a museum with collections as diverse as those of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and expect to be enticed by the unexpected.
Through Feb. 2 the MIA has two small, eye-catching shows that are virtual opposites in geographic origin, ethnicity, material, style and culture. One features photography from England; the other showcases clothing and silver jewelry from China. Both are contemporary expressions, but the Miao material springs from a tradition now under assault by modernity. And both reward a visit.
New Pictures 8: Sarah Jones
Now in her mid 40s, British photographer Sarah Jones stakes a claim on contemporary anomie. Or so it appears in the 13 color photos, each at least 5 feet tall and nearly that wide, in this Midwest introduction to her career.
In the British Isles and Europe, Jones has been widely shown and collected since she earned her M.A. at London’s career-launching Goldsmiths College in 1996. She is less well known in the United States, where her previous exposure has been largely confined to East Coast venues.
Her subjects are introspective and beautiful in a withdrawn and ambiguous manner. As seen here, they are typically slender, dark-haired young women who look inward or turn away, allowing scrutiny but denying eye contact. She photographs — in inky darkness — rose buds whose leggy branches sport thorns and pretty, pink or white blossoms that are wilting and a little twisted, poised on the cusp of decay. One picture shows a grubby white wall blemished with charcoal smudges around a space where another picture may have hung. Now the wall is bare except for emptiness framed by shadows.
The three images of a triptych show whip-thin prickly branches, a rectangle of deep blue light and part of an “analyst’s” couch wrapped in blood-red fabric. A huge black diptych features mirror images of a gleaming black horse staring mutely at the camera.
With their moody hues, brooding subjects and rather heavy-handed psychosexual symbolism, her images were catnip to several slender young women on a recent afternoon. They lingered, gazed and murmured as if they’d sensed a soul mate in Jones’ enigmatic poetry. Like Sylvia Plath’s poetry to an earlier generation, Jones’ archetypal imagery — stallions, blossoms, thorns, blood-toned fabric, emptiness — unleashes a psychological cry into the feminist cosmos. Pretty ears perk up, heads turn her way, and the analyst’s couch beckons.
Gown of Cloud & Rainbow: Miao Costumes and Jewelry From China
Mounted on T-shaped kimono stands in a gallery next to the museum’s Ming-dynasty reception hall, gorgeously embroidered Miao costumes and stunning silver necklaces offer a rare peek at traditional culture.
They are a mere sample of some 1,200 textiles and 450 silver necklaces, collars and other jewelry that the MIA acquired over the past decade when Robert Jacobsen, the museum’s former curator of Asian art, purchased them in remote Chinese villages. In an excellent video made during those trips, Jacobsen records the festivals, markets, village life and traditions the garments embody.
Known in China as the Miao, the represented people are distantly related to the Hmong who have settled in Minnesota, although that association oversimplifies a controversial political situation and lumps together many unrelated groups.
At any rate, the designs are fabulous. Most garments are simple tunics over thickly pleated skirts or leggings, all garnished with bands and ribbons of elaborate floral or geometric embroidery. Embellished with fringes and tassels, the jewel-toned panels beam from backgrounds of black, blue or other solid colors. The outfits are topped with embossed silver necklaces festooned with chains, bells and medallions that dangle to the waist.
Like traditional costumes throughout the world, the Miao outfits signal family ties, wealth, social status and origins of their wearers. That heritage is eroding, however, as outside culture and conveniences (rock music, bluejeans, motorcycles, sewing machines) arrive in the mountainous enclaves of southern China where the Miao traditionally live. By preserving their costumes, the MIA has secured an important bit of a fast-vanishing heritage and culture.