Mama Don't Preach

Melissa Stang's installation art makes a sly statement about latter-day womanhood

Should she ever tire of creating conceptual art, painter and installation artist Melissa Stang might find work in retail. Her latest show, "Homo Domesticus," at the Minnesota Artists Gallery of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts reveals an ingenuity at laying out interior space that could translate into a job positioning end-caps at Mervyn's. On a recent hot Monday, the 41-year-old Stang proudly shows off her latest installation, which has split the gallery into several distinct display areas. Tall and elegant, with curly brown hair pinned up, Stang provides a walking tour of the room. In the back left corner, she has created a mock living room, replete with oriental rugs, velvet couches, tables, and dishes hung on the wall. On the adjacent right and left walls, Stang has mounted traditional gallery trappings like artist's statements. Elsewhere, she has created a two-dimensional wall painting composed of decorated flat panels. Finally, a half-dozen pedestals hold sculptural objects--colorful plastic trash cans of a Target vintage on which she has painted and drawn common household objects.

Although Stang expresses an appreciation for grazing through the fertile fields of discount chains and dollar stores, her artist's eye is trained toward finding signs of disarray--spotting the friction in the machinery of contemporary culture. In part, this act has prompted self-reflection, as Stang's politics have come to mirror her experiences laboring to make it in the art world. "It's tough for me," she says. "I've been hanging in a long time."

According to Stang, the local art scene has long been dominated by men. She describes, for instance, graduating from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD) in the early 1980s and subsequently watching her male peers receive awards and fellowships and other accolades. Meanwhile, Stang has only this year received her first grant of any sort (a small Jerome Travel Grant to observe sea turtles in Mexico). Though Stang does not quantify these anecdotal claims, the problem was acute enough in the past that an artists' group was founded in 1976 to address this concern. Though less active in recent years, the Women's Art Registry of Minnesota (WARM) long provided a gallery space for women to show their work (it closed in 1991) and scholarship money for women to make art.

Home is where the mess is: "From the Real Life Drawing Co-op" (2001)
Home is where the mess is: "From the Real Life Drawing Co-op" (2001)

Whereas such observations fuel a certain bitterness in her outlook, Stang maintains an ebullience about the work itself. On the whole, her creations occupy a kind of middle ground between expressiveness and political dogma. This duality is clear in her From the Real Life Drawing Co-op: Still Life With Domestic Disarray. On the surface, this is a beautiful 2-D image composed of several dozen panels--Plexiglas, wood, paper, blue sheet metal--spread mostly horizontally across the gallery wall. On the panels, Stang has drawn a still life of her colorful and cluttered apartment. Stray objects fill the image: a pink bra flung over a chair, a saddle propped in the corner, a closet spilling out its contents, a blue telephone, and a sink of dirty dishes. The scene is composed as a jumble. Stang warps the perspective--objects are sometimes larger than seems logical, sometimes smaller--and renders everything according to whatever fancy seems to strike her. A few of the items are just simple splotches of color; others are a mass of intricate and delicate lines. The overall effect of the work is a poignant and proud re-creation of the sprawl of a woman's life.

"I'm from the generation not ashamed to say, 'Yeah, I'm a feminist. What's the big deal?'" Stang says of art-scene politics. Part of Stang's feminism involves taking joy from what she considers a woman's existence. On a small stage in front of the wall piece described above, Stang has placed cheap purses made of plastic, vinyl, and faux leather. These she has covered with drawings and paintings of tools--wrenches, pliers, and so forth. These objects bring the sprawl of the scene into the viewer's space and, by juxtaposing the chintzy plastic and vinyl materials of the purses with images of tools, seem to be prodding us toward examining the gendered quality of our retail purchases.

"I love what I call consumer culture," says Stang. "I like the look of materials we take for granted in our daily lives. Plastic is gorgeous....I love to hunt through dollar stores....I like new shoes and red lipstick."

Still, Stang says, she hates the idea that women are limited by certain societal expectations. She disagrees with the philosophy of WARM, for instance, arguing that it diminishes women artists by segregating them. "I have a love-hate relationship with cultural constructs," Stand says. "My work is all about documenting these constructs....I'm not preaching. I know a lot of women can't keep their house clean, but I figure, Why not use this material? I look at the fact that I'm busy, and don't have a maid, and do have a lot of dirty dishes."


Perhaps because many artists are, like Stang, forced to live a double life--one in the halcyon stretches of the mind, the other in the disordered realms of the tedious world--there is a tendency nowadays for some to inflate the significance of their art. The ability to carve stone, shape clay, or push paint around seems to encourage artists to claim higher callings--social criticism, linguistics, philosophy, prophecy, social engineering. A lot of this pretension finds its way, as most gallery-goers know, onto wall statements and the other written materials that accompany exhibits.

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