THE KATHERINE NASH Gallery never ceases to amaze me. Located squarely in the middle of the University of Minnesota's shrine to brutal concrete architecture (a.k.a. the West Bank campus), the Nash is an oasis of taste, bringing respectable, occasionally brilliant exhibits to a school that has consistently made a point of ignoring the arts (and anything else that doesn't lead directly to a corporate partnership). Case in point: The gallery's current exhibits, We Are All Related and We Are Many, We Are One, local and national collections of modern Native American art that focus on community and identity--for a campus that usually believes in neither.
Questions of mixed heritage and cultural memory saturate the conjoined exhibits. Phil Young's mixed-media scrawls combine earnest, childlike lines with a frantic spattering of reds, browns, blacks, and grays that suggest violence and miscegenation. Jaune Quick-To-See Smith's prints use two-headed figures amid backdrops of dense red lines and anxious textures to evoke unsettled questions of integration and historical obligations. Steve Premo's small oil painting "Casino Hair" depicts an American Indian with the eponymous haircut (long in back, spiky in front), and the subject's intense glare and the ornate, gilded frame result in a fierce mixture of shame and pride, objectification and defiance.
In another room, Gail Tremblay's installation Shadow Magic Traps Sweet Meat offers a deceptively tranquil scene. A wicker fish trap hangs 5 feet in the air, pointing downward. On the ground below it, a stuffed eel with dark skin and a strong nose rests on a bed of pebbles. It's an image of hope and portent, suggesting that survival lies in keeping close to the ground, and that inner peace is the best defense against any temptation.
A few miles north at the Soap Factory's opening for the MCAD MFA Thesis Exhibition, temptation had inner peace against the ropes. Artsy twentysomethings, buffered by the occasional parent, swarmed around the first opening of the year in this space--discussing art, to be sure, but just as often gossiping about mutual acquaintances or trying to catch the eye of some cute boy or girl standing across the room. (Art gallery black is, after all, a slimming color.)
The show itself offers a heady mix of diverse mediums and concerns, unified by a willingness to put in the necessary effort to tie form to concept. Ann Magnuson's print "Trophy #3 or 'Here I come, ready or not,'" overlays an image of a forest on a deer's head, highlighting similarities of form in leaf and fur, horn and bark. In John Asher's sculptures, clay torsos diverge and collide, bound together only by loops of barbed wire. In Jane Meyer's whimsical installation The Allegory of the Astonishing Being, a roomful of stuffed bunnies at a slumber party cast shadow puppets on the wall with their posed plush fingers, creating a tableau that's warm, engaging, and adorable in the best possible way.
Down the hall, Suzy Greenberg's two-room installation Precious Potential obsesses over the loss of an infant. And although the larger bedroom seems incomplete--elements such as an unremarkable couch and a dresser drawer seem poorly integrated--the bathroom creates a mood of claustrophobic discomfort. Most of its available surface areas--the tile, the toilet seat, the medicine cabinet's mirror frame--are covered with tiny infants, each no more than two inches long. It's an accusing, hallucinatory environment suffused with maternal guilt.
Melissa Hronkin's installation The Absurd Hero: test flight #2 takes an opposite tack, blending with the Soap Factory's own fixtures to build a mood through an accumulation of objects. It tells the story of an obsession with the flight of bees: In one corner, a magnifying glass is wired to a honeycomb next to a stack of beekeeper's diagrams imprinted on vellum. In the center of the installation, a human-size pair of wings hangs from the ceiling, its harness made of leather and its delicate feathers stamped with images of honeycombs. The Absurd Hero's most immediate reference is to the pre-industrial scientist, a visionary loner in an age before science was absorbed into the homogenizing organizations of the military, the corporation, and the university.
But Hronkin is another art student edging away from the safe embrace of an institution that's paid to give a shit, and her work also speaks to an acceptance of the artist's marginal place in an indifferent culture. On opening night, crouching next to a funnel fastened to a jar, I heard a lush burbling--almost too quiet to be heard above the chatter and the music. I gazed at the gorgeous obsolescence around me. And it occurred to me then that if you devote your life to something as glorious and useless as art, you need to be prepared to embrace the obsession for its own sake. You could study the flight of the bumblebee for your entire life and be left with only scribbled notes and grant applications for your efforts. Or a pair of ungainly, useless wings.
We Are All Related and We Are Many, We Are One continue at the Katherine Nash Gallery through May 22; call 624-7530. The MCAD MFA Thesis Exhibition continues at the Soap Factory through May 24; call 623-9716.
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