More a freebooter's hideaway than an art space, the Soap Factory is located in an industrial zone just two blocks from the power station on St. Anthony Falls. A rough conglomeration of four or five squat brick warehouses that long ago lost any sense of regular occupancy, the place first strikes a visitor as raw, musty, and dirty. The artwork selected by the nonprofit No Name Exhibitions seems an afterthought, placed on the exposed brick walls and around the open holes in the raw wood floors, or draped from the exposed pipes and in between the wide, sliding iron doors marked "hazardous--do not enter."
As is typical, the current show in the Soap Factory, "DavidsonGatsonSklarKennedy," is replete with works that seem to deliberately court an image of being dangerous and severe. This is art as piracy, a sacking of our preconceived notions about what art is. Each of these young artists starts with mundane and ordinary subjects and then attempts to show us all the other ways we could perceive such things.
As if to emphasize the point, just three hours before the show is to open a sense of wide-ranging recklessness fills the space. Volunteers walk with open strides through the halls among the steel-framed, nylon-draped, nightmare sculptures of teacups and teapots by Kirk Sklar, and past Stacey Davidson's seething, Pepto-Bismol-hued portraits. In front of these hang small, eerie Punch and Judy-like homunculi, dangling from strands of twine that loop around their necks. "It's always a scramble," says No Name creative director Christi Atkinson of the last-minute preparations. "It's a little crazy, but that makes [the Soap Factory] a great space to show work, because everyone who's here wants to be here."
As we talk, Brooklyn video artist Aunrico Gatson arrives, a slight swagger in his walk and a nonchalant look on his face. He peers into the gloomy gallery for a moment, says he didn't realize the space would be so big, and shrugs before skulking off.
Meanwhile, over in building four, a dank, mostly concrete structure at the southwest corner of the Factory, St. Paul artist Shannon Kennedy is putting the final touches on her video display. Appropriately titled "building 4 (soap factory)," it is a hypnotic eight-minute video that shows queasying, pulsing views of stringy organic stuff and shadowy tunnel spaces filled with what looks like gray matter, moon rocks, and masses of tumescent tubers. Overall, the display has the kind of creepy, otherworldly quality of the best parts of The Blair Witch Project, with the kicker being that all the scenes were shot at this exact site using a gastroscope, a lighted tube ordinarily used to film the human digestive tract. Kennedy spent several weeks exploring the open pipes, shadowy corners, and dark holes of the building as an act of mapping out the mysterious hidden space that lurks beyond our consciousness. We experience a growing sense of shock and dismay as our perceptions of the space are shown to be incomplete and false. This shock is what instructs us that perhaps we should take more care in reaching an understanding of the realm we occupy.
Just a mile or two down the Mississippi River, near the Washington Street Bridge on the University of Minnesota campus, stands the stainless steel cathedral of the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum. This building's vaulted ceilings, bright white halls and galleries, and grandiose architectural façade designed by Frank Gehry overlook the gently rolling river and the glimmering downtown skyline. Yet, the outward glitz notwithstanding, the Weisman is as staid as museums come.
For instance, the museum's current exhibition, "World Views: Maps and Art," is a clean and neat affair, full of the academic speak and edifying intentions that serve as fodder for art-bashing populists like the two Jesses (Ventura and Helms). Though "World Views" is not particularly daring, this three-part show is at times fairly interesting.
Gallery one includes an array of maps from throughout history made by various methods. Here, guided by the curatorial notes hanging on the gallery walls, we are apparently supposed to see how funny it is that borders change over time and how misguided were the cocksure souls who made maps with Europe featured more prominently than Africa.
Gallery two, meanwhile, displays the works of artists who employ current technology and information to make their maps. Here's where we're meant to see that we have new insight into heretofore unknown and invisible spaces and how we're therefore generally better off than before. Or as the exhibition information reads, we should know that our "world is radically changing" as we "approach...a new millennium," and we should come to understand how "issues of personal identity" are shaping our lives.
Finally, in gallery three, maplike artworks by a number of well-known artists attempt to re-envision the world in different shapes. Often this is to make a political point, as in Robert Indiana's map of Mississippi, wherein he raises the issue of that place's racist past by calling the state "the nation's hind quarter." Here's where we see that despite our current technologies and remarkable know-how, we still have a long way to go.
In the end, individual selections in this show are remarkable. In gallery one, several hand-drawn or hand-printed maps going back to the 15th Century document rudimentary human attempts to comprehend the world. In gallery two, a work by artist Laura Kurgen makes use of large, French SPOT satellite photos printed on acetate to capture the devastating details of battles in Kosovo, giving us an unparalleled view of the horrific logic of modern warfare. And in gallery three, beautifully rendered and individually distinctive versions of the world are presented by such celebrated artists as Indiana, Claes Oldenburg, Joseph Cornell, Richard Long, Joyce Kozloff, and Juane Quick-to-See Smith.
Still, these individual touches are lost amid the Big Messages on cultural relativism presented by the wall signage and show documentation. Guest curator Rob Silberman, an associate professor of art history at the University of Minnesota, has perhaps overproduced this show, trying to fill it with the kind of postmodern and cross-cultural phraseology that garners grants from the grant givers and blank looks from the rest of us. In one sense, this worked like a charm: The show cites five institutions as supporting with generous donations. Ultimately, though, what this show maps most accurately is the shape of our current social sensitivities.