Control Group

In a new exhibition, Minnesota artists massage a mess of messages

The south wall of the Minnesota Gallery at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts looks like the front of a classroom, sporting a sprawling and crude grid of overlapping dry-erase boards. The surface of this artwork, titled "What is Quality? And Other Questions," has been covered by its creator, Carolyn Swiszcz, with red, black, and blue marker drawings of telephone booths, characters from the Star Wars series, advertising logos, and snippets of disconnected text. According to the show's catalog, these images were composed in situ, leaving little opportunity to polish them. As such, it is representative of this Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program (MAEP) show, featuring work by Swiszcz, painter Lee Anne Swanson, printmaker Ruthann Godollei, and photographer and installation artist Alexa Horochowski. That is, while full of catchy and furious images, this work is somewhat muddled in terms of message or craft.

The show's title, "Quality Control," and its documentation seem to want to explore art as a type of social engineering. The catalog claims, for instance, that these creators celebrate art "as healing force (i.e., art as reconstructive surgery), [and] as tool for social action..." Yet what we primarily see in the show is the kind of angry and frustrated desktop scrawls made by bored schoolchildren when the teacher leaves the room.

Swiszcz, a young artist who shows regularly in the Twin Cities, ordinarily works by tossing a host of individual experiences into a big visual pot for the viewer to try to interpret. This results in a mysterious and disjointed kind of narrative. In "What Is Quality?" however, the absolute haste of its composition and the seemingly ironic lack of artistic quality in the work diminishes the effect. Yes, she is thumbing her nose at art convention in the rarefied air of the museum itself by using commonplace materials and making shabby work. And yes, she is poking holes in the consumer culture by incorporating images of pop detritus, including Star Wars images from just across the way in the Dayton Hudson Gallery (snicker). Yet such wink-wink-nudge-nudge humor in the end creates a composition that is little more than a one-liner ("Take my art, please"). It makes you chuckle once, perhaps, and then you move on, a regrettable response to the efforts of an artist who ordinarily has much to offer.

Art that unravels itself: Ruthann Godollei's "It'll Sort Itself Out"
Art that unravels itself: Ruthann Godollei's "It'll Sort Itself Out"

Like Swiszcz, Lee Anne Swanson devotes her work to an ironic examination of her own experiences. For instance, one series of small and colorful paintings is collectively titled "Now They Know How Many Holes It Takes to Fill the Albert Hall." There's a Beatles reference here (though one suspects Swanson was born after the release of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band). But at the same time these tiny paintings are intensely condensed versions of scenes from the artist's life (or imaginary life), flooded with deep and evocative splotches of psychedelic color courtesy of Swanson's novel technique of suspending pigment in a clear epoxy normally used in boatwrighting. In "Hollywood Hudson" two clumsily drawn ducks float on a limpid field of sparkling silver paint, a nearby riverbank indicated by a quick swipe of black paint. This image suggests a kind of eternally sunlit river that resides in the artist's imagination. In "Tax the Balance (Can You Say Circus?)," a ring of red circles on a blue field hints at the lights and colors of a circus. A cartoonish elephant painted atop the circles resembles an archetypal circus performer.

A hint to those who try to decipher Swanson's glib titles: You may not want to bother. These appellations come primarily from racehorses noted at an off-track betting parlor near Swanson's studio in Brooklyn, where she has recently relocated. While such novelties push her art toward the tone of an absurdist gag, Swanson's crafty painting techniques and adept use of color keep the viewer intrigued throughout.

More straightforward in both conception and subject matter are the monoprints and scratchboard drawings of Ruthann Godollei, an art professor at Macalester College. These stark, mostly black images have hand-lettered slogans at the top of them. Beneath the slogans, floating in the dense black ink, are single iconic images that are ghostlike and often angrily gouged. Some of the messages are embarrassingly obvious--such as the image of a chain saw in the medium-sized monoprint "Highway Planning." But others are a bit more enigmatic. In "I'll Give You Something to Cry About," an image of a glass of spilt milk bleeds into the black space underneath the titular slogan. This picture delivers an unexpected jolt, evoking tragedy--perhaps child abuse--on an almost intimate level. Godollei's works are strongest when they are more expansive and less earnest, and when her mastery of this simple technique is allowed to stand out from the political messages.

Rounding out the show is a fairly heavy-handed installation, "Purificator 2000," by Alexa Horochowski, who is known locally for her whimsical portrait photography. Bright-white boxer shorts and panties embroidered with words like "Virgin" and "Patriarch" hang in a pink laundry room. In the background is a soundtrack of orgasmic moans overlaid with cheerful birdsong. On shelves nearby stand bottles of "Purge," a laundry detergent with labels inexpertly hand-painted with ironic, faux ad elements: a cutesy image of a woman's pubic hair, a cross, the line "Holy Apostolic Detergents Inc," and so on. In the middle of the room churns the centerpiece, a Fifties-era agitator washing machine.

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