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Mildred Howard @ Richmond Art Center

Last Train From Dixie $1.25, 1978, collage on paper with stitching, 10 x 8".  Photo: RAC

Mildred Howard’s quasi-retrospective installation of assemblages, mixed media prints, collages, and sculptures at the Richmond Art Center is elegantly spare and richly reverberant. If you stand at the entrance and squint the show falls softly into place. We intuit this to be an organic whole, an assemblage of assemblages. While the gallery space is not very big, its reputation as a decades-long outpost for noteworthy Northern California art precedes it, adding a buzz to the atmosphere. A few well-positioned red walls incite a modernist semaphore, signaling the era from which Howard’s works emerge. She is a modern artist, of course, but from its wing of conceptual collage, which draws mostly upon photo-and-other-graphic impressions from the not-so-distant past, her family’s. She also draws upon a kind of thrift, hand-me-down, or secondhand material culture for the assembling of her sculptures. 

One of the earliest works, Last Train from Dixie & $1.25 (1978), is a diminutive layering of silk, pages from a stamp collection book, thread, carefully scripted handwriting, a Xerox transfer image of a boy (from an old family photo), and what appear to be coffee stains (paint). These layers are stitched together in a kind of wandering bookbinding thread that, like the route of a train on a map, renders this closed little “book” as irredeemable as it is intimate. With its Xerox layer, it nods toward the new media of the coming millennium (which in 1978 seemed so far away), but draws mostly upon family memory, which here lies sealed in a delicate breviary that can never be opened, only coveted.
In general one senses from Howard’s works a creative tension between conceptualism and surrealism – between the foregrounding of an idea (about poetics, about language, about history, about identity, about memory) and the dream-likeness of an otherwise realistic image. A miniature US Capitol with a single house of congress sprouts a taxidermic chicken head from its dome; its title? “What Came First.” (No question mark). Per scale, the chicken is a silly but gargantuan beast, an American satirical Godzilla. Looking over her shoulder at the congress, she seems horrified by the egg she’s laid. The answer to the question, of course, is already in our heads, but it’s also another question:  Which came first…?  The sculpture’s title, sans a question mark, is really a statement. This chicken-and-egg conundrum is how Howard’s art tends to open up in the space between the mind and the eye (in the mind’s eye). Meanwhile, regarding the congress, one thinks wistfully of Eagles.

 
What Came First, 2007, plastic building, chicken head 11 x 16 x 9 1/2”.  Photo: Gallery Paule Anglim
Maid in the USA Blues (2003) is a small silver serving tray, its platter painted in a red-and-white checkerboard pattern, offering up two pawn-like ceramic salt and pepper shakers.  One is a portly black butler serving tea, his master’s top hat in hand; the other is a bell-shaped black maid, her hair tied up in a Mammy bandana.  In both racist depictions of house slaves, the figurines are glazed a royal blue. They are representations of servants served up a second time as keepsakes of a patriotic, second-hand white sentiment about the presumed gentility of the antebellum South. Howard’s cool gesture, of serving that re-heated presumption to the modern viewer as made-in-the-USA art, mocks the mute minstrelsy embodied in the older, non-threatening couple.  It brings to mind Marx’s comment on Hegel: that “all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. “He" [Hegel] "forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”
Howard’s works, especially her sculptural assemblages, appeal less to our habits of aesthetic detachment (for viewing art) than to a sentiment about discovering and possessing keepsakes. Because her works are assembled from thrift store ephemera or family artifacts they offer up their meanings the way something does

Maid in the USA Blues, 2003, metal, paint, mixed media 6 x 16 x 10 1/2”.  Photo: Gallery Paule Anglim

when it has been lived with, opened and closed, or passed down.  Perhaps art can be thought of as formal hand-me-down culture; it’s what artists leave behind for the rest of us, albeit without the sentiment usually associated with personal keepsakes.  But Howard’s assemblages, rooted in what might be called African-Americana, draw upon that sentiment as a source of meaning. And yet it feels like an expression of loss.

Howard is trying to hold something together in her works, some moments of recognition, perhaps, when keepsakes become art; when vernacular speech becomes titular and punny; when the given histories of found objects cede to the emergent content of the artist’s process; when family storytelling combusts into modernist black magic; when incongruous juxtapositions of objects and media become easy exchanges of history and memory; when an artwork asserts its aesthetic privilege while remaining open to worldly influence. Seeking moments of recognition in the practice of art is a matter of finding your spirit in the materials at hand. Maybe you’ve handled them before (during childhood, at reunions, in grandma’s house), but not with an artist’s awareness. Aesthetic cognition is always re-cognition, like when you see something familiar as if for the first time. It requires what Harold Rosenberg once called, in reference to post-war action painting, “alert waiting.” Howard has been waiting alertly for decades for the objects in the studio to tell her what to do. She recognizes their metaphoric potential in relation to each other, the way words and images add up to a story. Then she “tells” them.

Safe House, 2005-15, vintage silver objects and shell knives, adhesive, 10' 5" x 10' 5" x 8'. Photo: RAC

Safe House (2005) is a ceiling-high outline of a small house whose steel lines are gilded with butter knives placed end-to-end, and whose floor is filled with polished and tarnished silver tableware. At the same time, a host of platters, goblets, and serving trays stream out one end of the house along the wooden gallery floor toward a wall punctured with dozens of cutting knives, as if a vortex was sucking the house’s contents into a blinding white sky. This rapid transition from domestic containment to the projection of rage is unsettling. For generations of African-Americans, safe houses were integral parts of the Underground Railroad, offering sanctuary for slaves escaping bondage in the south. It is in this sense that Howard’s sculpture provides a symbolic place for all the ornate silver serving-ware polished and tarnished by countless black hands.

“My hand is there,” says Howard, referring to a number of sculptures in which her hands are cast in what appear to be gestures of offering, holding, shaping, receiving, and bestowing. In Switchin’ in the Kitchen: From Dakar to Detroit & the Mississippi Delta (2013) bronze castings of the artist’s hands, as if severed from the body, hover above old vinyl records, séance-like, or seeming to rotate the disks back and forth, like a hip-hop DJ. The 78 rpm records Howard uses were once called race records. Beginning in the 1920s they were marketed to African-Americans, although whites bought them, too. By the late 1940s the music became known as rhythm and blues, and changed American society by popularizing music rooted in African-American experiences. From playing the trumpet to mixing vinyl, the bronze hands in Howard’s Switchin’ seem like they are conducting generations of music through their fingertips – and giving off sparks. 

Skillet to the Frying Pan: Sitting Black (2001), a wooden four-legged stool with a large, long-handled black skillet sticking up from its seat (a la Duchamp’s bicycle wheel) seems a lightening rod for Howard’s stance as an artist, linking the conceptual and the surreal. Like those in

Kiss the Cake, 2007, bronze, wood, plaster, paint, 5 x 21 x 6”. Photo: Gallery Paule Anglim

Duchamp’s iconic “readymade,” Howard’s materials are commonplace.  But Skillet is a ready-remade of the 1913 original, a further distortion of that already surreal juxtaposition of a stool and a wheel, looking like an upside-down unicycle.  The skillet, black as coal, feels hot to the psyche. And yet it rises skyward, like black sunflower to the sun. Affixed to the pan is a tiny, ornate picture frame, which frames nothing but the blackness of the iron. 

Kiss the Cake (2007), is the materialization of its title, a baker’s phrase imagined as sculpture.  Two rubberized (bronze) baker’s gloves, gray-greenish of hue, hold a rolling pin as if rolling out dough for a pie. Sticking to the roller like a wad of chewing gum is a somewhat flattened pair of glossy red lips. Strikingly naturalistic, the lips are painted resin cast from the artist’s mouth, along with a cleft of brown skin between her upper lip and nose.  (Man Ray’s Observatory Time—The Lovers, a 1936 painting of floating lips, also known commonly as The Lips, comes to mind.)  This may be Howard’s most surreal image as well as the literal and tender imprint of her kiss. Perhaps it is in the intimate space between the kiss and the rolling pin that we feel an almost aching
sense of something having been lost from the original moment in which the matron (and perhaps her children) kissed the flour before it went into the oven and became a cake. Art does not retain that moment, which decamps like sweet aroma into life, but it can embody the absence that remains a part of us, and that drove us to art in the first place. 
–JEFF KELLEY
“Mildred Howard: Spirit and Matter” @ Richmond Art Center through May 24, 2015. 
About the Author:
A critic since 1977, Jeff Kelley has written for such publications as Artforum, Art in America, sand the Los Angeles Times. From 1993 to 2005 he taught Art Theory and Criticism at the University of California, Berkeley, and edited/authored two books on Allan Kaprow published by the University of California Press. Kelley was a consulting curator of contemporary art at the Asian Art Museum from 1998-2008, and in 2008 hecurated the popular and critically acclaimed Half-Life of a Dream: Chinese Contemporary Art from the Logan Collection for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. He lives in Oakland. 

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