Nature to Advantage Dressed: Four McKnight Artists

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Sometimes in early morning, lines from long-ago read poems crop up–plants grow most at night! Now, it’s Alexander Pope, with his dressed advantage. “True wit is nature to advantage dressed./ What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.” Essay on Criticism, 1711. I’ve always loved the regular “periods” of the neoclassical style.

     Today, I’d say the true nature is stretched to its max. Viz: the four McKnight visual artists whose works are “displayed” at MCAD gallery, Minneapolis. One, an environmental artist, Christine Baeumler, who’s created a mini green roof atop the entrance portico. A bog brought to the city with tamarack trees, spangum moss, etc. Another what I’d call a performance artist, Marcus Young, is using the exhibit as a venue to declutter his home and in his words “find love.” I know Marcus as the face of St. Paul’s Public Arts program, inspiration of “Poetry in the Sidewalks,” and other interactive events, such as his “slow walks” and this means truly truly slow slow slow. As well as the Earth Day events on Harriet Island which have included drifty art in the sky.

     The other two McKnight artists fill the familiar notion of art by making objects: Liz Miller’s inverted “calliope” (my word) of cut-out, repetitive, floor-to-ceiling, black/red/silver/white/gold “flounces” (again my word), and Elizabeth Simonson’s lovely lengths of beaded patterns based on what she calls “sacred geometry.”

     Could these artists be more diverse? Of course. There’s nothing here that’s inspired by obviously cultural/racial/linguistic experience. We in the Twin Cities like to pride ourselves on our inclusiveness, but in my experience, homegrown art that crosses racial and cultural lines is segregated to certain groups–such as the theater company Penumbra’s astonishingly rich productions, recently of James Baldwin’s the “Amen Corner,” truly one of the finest performances of the year.

     Yet, Marcus is Chinese–born in China, though raised close to here: Des Moines. Some of the objects he’s trying to declutter at the MCAD gallery some from China (he held up two packs of gum purchased in China which he’s put on sale).

     Sitting in the MCAD gallery yesterday and listening to these artists, and studying Liz Miller’s truly huge calliope (or is it an inverted hoop skirt), I was struck by how little connection their works have to each other. All are witty in Pope’s sense of the word: The artists have thought about their practice, and somewhat about their works’ effect on the audience but except for Christine, they have little spoken awareness of their antecedents. True, the questions did not have a comparative or historical bent. But my sense was of four spirits floating each in their own richly fashioned essential liquid, while we, the outsiders, watch and wonder and puzzle about what it all means.

     Marcus Young calls his “behavioral art,” and at the opening Friday night, I saw this in motion. Since I know Marcus through my daughter–they went to Carleton together–it was easy to probe a small framed piece of paper with a message in pencil: “Marcus Young keep on walking.” As we asked Marcus about the paper, he told a story about leaving an art event and finding the paper back stage (if I’m remembering correctly). Startled because he hadn’t written this himself, he took the paper away with him, and now could relate the little story to us. This I like. Performance art as a momentary, rather intimate conversation, about a momentary, surprising piece of life. It sticks in the mind, especially when narrated by a tall, Chinese man wearing a black furry top and aviator glasses, with his hair in one of those “do’s” I’ve noted recently: standing up like a bird’s crest.

     “True nature to advantage dressed”–that was the three of us, talking, smiling, deciding that life and art indeed are full of amazing little coincidences.  

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