Odd these conjunctions: lifesize Chinese tomb warriors from 200 BCE striding in their stone shapes at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Then rooms full of women’s art, made from the mid-1970s to the present era, associated with one of the earliest American women’s art galleries, WARM.
I knew nothing and still know very little about the Chinese warriors, but two clashing standards stay in mind. The warriors are extremely lifelike, with faces full of individuality, clothing different too, some with doubled over skirts, others with thick trousers, some tunics, hair rolled into cords around the brow. Others with heads covered, only a bit of hair showing above arrow-proof vests. Yet, these figures were not meant to be viewed and appreciated. The artists, in fact, were buried alive to prevent word from escaping about the entombed warriors. Either their instigator, the first emperor to unite China, fervently believed they would meet him in the afterlife, and wanted the faces of real life people around him. Or the artists could not help themselves–they had to create what they knew, in other words what we call realism. Realism, without the viewers to appreciate it. It makes our seeing them even more compelling.
Now to our modern warriors. It’s hard to recapture the stress and excitement, the rigor (I only heard about this) with which the WARM artists interrogated themselves as they launched their radical experiment. Hard to recapture because what they won has entered and changed the fabric of American art. As I viewed the current show at the Nash Gallery, University of Minnesota, I was struck by this. There is Lynn Ball’s assemblage of continuouly playing: photographs portraying an artistic love affair in Italy. I had to see this several times, almost better than a movie because I knew the landscape and the lovers. Art as biography, art as personal history. The photographs are even grainy and slightly out of focus. A real life camera, quick shots, now shown slowly–contemplation after a lover’s death..
There was Quimetta Pearl’s astonishing deployment of embroidery–every stitch known to woman–to outline in flame silk a woman’s body. Quintessential women’s work, yet with such exquisite finesse. It’s going, going, gone. How many women do you know who embroider, who stitch? An homage to common occupation become artistic in her unique hands.
Then there are elements from Linda Gammell and Sandra Taylor’s “seed” house construction on the Grinnell College campus (since dismantled). I didn’t see the original, but got a taste of the artists’ wide experiimentalism–sun-dried peppers become a window dressing. A baby dress rendered ghostly through an odd photographic medium–suggestive of how frequently children died from diseases now long past, and of the elusive, quickly changing character of childhood itself. This is wild realism that takes communal truth and forces us to see it fresh.
Which, for many of these artists, was the point. They wanted to rename through art what in women’s lives is taken for granted, subsumed, ignored. Now that their struggle has born such fruits, now that their examples inform many younger artists, male and female, environmental and political, it’s fine to unearth from the past what shines with such vigor and knowing.