Thursday, March 01, 2007

Women Artists at Mills (Oakland)

Note: This exhibit closes on 3/15/07. The museum is open Tuesday-Sunday.

The Mills College Art Museum, currently seeking a director, has maintained its exhibition program by bringing in guest curators. The present exhibit was organized by Janet Bishop, curator of painting and sculpture at SFMOMA. She was asked to do a show focusing on women artists, and she wasn’t given much lead time. Nonetheless, by resorting to SFMOMA’s permanent collection and loans from a handful of collectors and galleries, Bishop has pulled together a fine exhibit called “Take 2: Women Revisiting Art History.” Nine artists are included.

As usual in this venue, the artwork looks too spread out, but the quality of the selections keeps the visual energy from dissipating as you move through the show. It’s a thoughtful exhibit that allows the works to unfold. It engenders a mood of calm alertness that is refreshing.

In a brief curator's talk, Bishop said that Sherrie Levine was one of the first artists she decided to include. More than a quarter century ago, Levine made her name—indeed, became notorious—for re-photographing Walker Evans’s documentary photographs of the Depression era and presenting them as her own work under the title “After Walker Evans.” (She photographed the images from catalogues.) This project sparked interest among Post-Modern and feminist theorists. Looking at the examples presented in the Mills exhibit, you might conclude that reading about this work is as good as seeing it.

Levine’s sculptures have a greater physical impact. Located in the center of the show is a work from 1990 that is derived from an image in a 1938 painting by Man Ray, “La Fortune.” (Photo above from the Whitney Museum website). The sculpture is a carom billiards table, regulation-sized, with its 3 billiard balls glued to the felt and turned wooden legs that look eccentric, though similar to the one visible in the painting. (See photo below.)

Traditional portraiture is brought into the mix with selections from Cindy Sherman’s History Portraits. In one of these photos (fairly large), she seems to be channeling Madame de Pompadour as painted by Boucher, but with a decidedly louche air. (Surely 18th-Century French women of this class powdered away the sweat from their bosom?) In a smaller photo, she impersonates a Colonial American type whose prosperity is matched by sobriety. This photo has an emotional core that seems absent from others in the series. (Images below).

Kara Walker is represented by several works, including the following silhouette (detail):

Janine Antoni turned to silversmithing to produce a small but riveting sculpture entitled “Umbilical” (2001). It’s a sterling cast of a silver spoon from the family collection, which is attached at the bowl end to a negative cast of the artist’s mouth, and at the handle end to an imprint of her mother’s fingers.

Even more perverse is Antoni's “Coddle” (1999), a color photograph in a hand-carved oval frame, about 22 inches tall. It depicts the artist cradling her own leg—a narcissistic version of a Madonna and Child painting. (The two images below, from the Luhring Augustine website, are clearer than my own.)

British artist Sam Taylor-Wood has made references to art history in a number of works, including the two short films at Mills, which are presented on monitors in separate galleries. One film, “The Last Century” (2005), looks back to classic photographs of Parisians in bars and cafes—for example, Doisneau in the 1950s and Brassaï in the 1920s and 1930s. Those photos in turn look back to 19th-Century paintings of similar subjects. Taylor-Wood’s film presents a scene in a British pub that looks momentarily like a still image, but isn’t. (Photo below.)

The other film, “A Little Death” (2002), is based on a painting by the 18th-Century painter Chardin. (The painting shown below is probably the specific source; the image is from Detroit Institute of Arts). This type of work by Chardin is based in turn on 17th-Century vanitas paintings, which were designed to remind viewers that time conquers all. Taylor-Wood’s version is time-lapse photography of a dead hare and a single peach. The hare decays horribly and become a host for swarming insects. Meanwhile, the supermarket peach stays “fresh.” (See images below.)

German artist Beate Gütschow fabricates large photographic images based on classic landscape paintings. Seventeenth-Century artist Claude Lorraine seems a particular influence. The elements of each image are skillfully assembled, but subtle mismatches are deliberately left unaltered. The results look lovely at first, and then quite unnerving. (The image below is from the Danziger Projects website.)

The youngest participant in the show is San Francisco artist Stephanie Syjuco, who was born in the Philippines. References to art history occur in some of her work—and she has acknowledged her attraction to the formal qualities of Modernist art and design—but her practice is more focused on issues of globalization, identity, and mass-marketing of goods.

In the first gallery at Mills, Syjuco has installed “Wirtschafts-werte (Economic Values)” (2003), a display of anonymous “products” on industrial shelving. (Photo at top.) The products are Minimalist blocks covered in woodgrain contact paper. The concept for the piece and its title are derived from a 1980 installation by German artist Joseph Beuys, in which he displayed food products from East Germany in the drab packaging produced by that Communist state.

In a rear gallery, there is a selection of poster-sized prints from Syjuco’s “Comparative Morphologies” series (2001). Digital images of electronic parts are arranged in the style of antique botanical prints. One example is shown above, and a detail from another is shown below.

Two other artists rounds out the exhibit. From Mills faculty member Catherine Wagner, there are large color photographs from her “Re-classifying History” series. Unfortunately, these are not her best work. Likewise, the drawings by Pakistani artist Shahzia Sikander do not show her to advantage. They are underwhelming, and there are so many of them. It's regrettable especially because Sikander is the only artist in the group who makes references outside the Western art tradition.

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