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.

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.

This is not always a good thing. Consider for example, a local artist who claimed recently of her work: "I transpose and transform text and context, form and content, exploring the presentation of the cultural artifact as signified sculptural object." Such a statement makes little sense, and as a sales pitch it is a disaster--a golden rule of marketing being "Never alienate your audience or make them feel stupid."

Fortunately, the words in Stang's show--there are many of them--run counter to the trend. Stang is the rare artist who, though she feels the need to write a lot, does not pretend to be able to solve the world's ills in her work, and who seems willing to let the art alone do its thing. In fact, most of Stang's wall statements are simple and somewhat self-deprecating explanations of her process. For example, Stang writes of the living-room installation, which is called A Period Room for a Moist Temperate Environment (Or a Natural History Guide for Interior Decorators):

 

Why plates? Originally it was simply a formal decision. Artists spend so much time working with squares and rectangles that I wanted to experiment with circles as a new format. Plates however got me thinking in different directions--we eat on them and women make them and collect them. They are firmly located in the realm of what we might consider the "feminine decorative arts." In much the same way that early feminist artists started examining and re-examining so-called "low-art" forms like quilts and fiber, I started thinking about objects like plates, wreaths, floral arrangements.

 

"I'm kind of verbose," says Stang, back in the gallery. "I like to write. But I always figured that in any specialized field that anybody knows about, whether it be quantum physics or whatever, people should be able to explain it so that anybody can get it."

Stang's Period Room takes up a large part of the gallery space. The aforementioned plates--in all manner of sizes, shapes, and colors--and the several floral arrangements and Franklin Mint-style wreaths fill two whole walls from waist level to ceiling. This is much like grandma's parlor: At least superficially there is a sense of middle-class refinement that we all recognize. It is only on closer examination that we may come across the traps the artist has set for us. On each plate, Stang has drawn a black-pen and white-paint rendering of a turtle, snake, or frog (in place of grandma's butterflies or floral patterns). They are jewel-like icons made seemingly as an act of worship or reverence.

Predictably, Stang takes a dual view of the animals she depicts. They are, on one hand, nostalgic ("I studied them as a child," she says); on the other hand, they suggest the political. Environmental degradation has stressed the populations of many of these creatures, and so on a table Stang has placed a dozen or so frosty plates with images of deformed frogs, carefully rendered in all their hideousness. And the installation gets creepier still if you look behind its genteel façade. The china cabinet contains jars of partly dissected specimens bobbing in formaldehyde--a lobotomized frog, disemboweled mice, and the like. Stang does not flinch at the imagery, despite the fact that only nine months have passed since an animal-rights protest effectively closed down a previous show in this same gallery (though that protest concerned the use of live chickens in a show, not dead specimens taken from a laboratory).

Oddly, not many people even seem to take notice of these details. Laughter and mirth dominated the living-room area on the show's opening night as people gesticulated and schmoozed with cocktail-hour eagerness. Only the occasional viewer peered closely enough to see the ugly truth behind the surface of the scene, and these people most often left the gallery with pensive or dismayed looks on their faces. But this makes sense: Most of us would rather leave such concerns for artists to worry about.

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