No anniversary is complete without a photo, and the University of Minnesota is no exception.
For its 150th anniversary, the university's College of Liberal Arts commissioned recent MFA graduate Xavier Tavera to photograph every department. "On Purpose: Portrait of the Liberal Arts," on display at the university's Nash Gallery through Dec. 8, could have been a very boring portraiture show. Fortunately, it is not.
All 60 of the college's departments or organizations got in front of Tavera's camera. The fun comes from the collaboration. Rather than have people sit and be photographed, Tavera serves as both artist and commercial photographer, aiming for an image that brings his subjects into the creative process.
Each photo is accompanied by a statement from the department, which ranges from the sort of bland text you'd see in a course catalog to commentary that's meta/conceptual.
The Department of Spanish and Portuguese Studies, for example, gets smart, weird and whimsical. Five people from the department — Michelle Hamilton, Javier Zapata Claveria, Lauren Truman, Thomas McCallum and Maria Emilce López — fashion themselves into a contemporary take on Spanish Golden Age painter Velazquez's "Las Meninas," playing with point of view, reality and illusion just like the original. There's even a mysterious person reflected in a looking glass.
The accompanying statement references the ways in which "Las Meninas" challenged the norms of a royal court portrait, deconstructing the department's own power structure. Isn't that sort of what a liberal arts degree is about? (I say this as someone with a liberal arts degree.)
In the Chicano & Latino Studies Department's photo, a professor, a recent graduate and the program's founder are grouped together in front of Morrill Hall. On the steps, two people hold up red signs saying "Viva la Huelga!" and "Unidos Estaremos, Unidos Venceremos" — symbols of the Chicano movement. The text reproduces a 1972 press release announcing the department's establishment — the first program of its kind in the five-state region — along with more recent actions, such as a 2017 objection to the university appropriating Dia de los Muertos.
Not every department is that creative. The Institute for Global Studies is represented by a portrait of a woman with connected dots in the background, while the English Department gets very literal with cutouts of words and folks chilling on the stairs. Tavera is a talented photographer, and the photos themselves are lush, large and in charge. Some departments could have benefited from a bit more nudge in the creative direction.
The show itself is a little blandly curated. Photo after photo cover the walls, all at eye level. It's like wandering the campus from building to building, trying to find the right office. It is also self-serving to both commission these photos and show them at the U. Then again, where else would they best find their audience?
Posters from the '70s
Just a short bike ride from the Nash Gallery, an exhibition at the university's Weisman Art Museum is also worth a visit. "I Want to Make This Perfectly Clear," up through Dec. 30, is a collection of 23 political posters made during the 1970s at the Poster Factory, an ad hoc program created by Art Department faculty member Mario Volpe and retired local artist George Beyer.
Confronting issues such as the Vietnam War, the fight over abortion, environmental activism, social justice, and opposition to then-President Richard Nixon, many of the posters are unsigned, because student activists were concerned about civilian surveillance programs created by the Nixon administration to target them. This is a wonder to think about, in relation to the self-surveillance today via social media and the super-sharing age.
The posters look like they could've been printed yesterday and posted all over Instagram. The screenprint "Untitled (I Want to Make This Perfectly Clear)" shows the shadowy black figure of Nixon with a Pinocchio-long nose, holding a TV monitor that displays the titular words, a stock phrase that Nixon used to suggest a sense of honesty, when in fact he was regularly manipulating the media.
While the posters have a charming vintage feel, their messages are timely: Native rights, Black Lives Matter, a desire to decrease reliance on technology a la Henry David Thoreau's "Walden" in a poster that shows an image of two white geese and red cursive text describing a longing for simpler times. And let's not forget awareness of government surveillance on citizens, and abuses of power. The parallels are subtle, but plain as day.