Arts Magazine: Quality Control

From Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program

Quality Control: An exhibition of new works by Ruthann Godollei, Alexa Horochowski, Lee Anne Swanson, and Carolyn Swiszcz

Quality Control features new work by Ruthann Godollei, Alexa Horochowski, Lee Anne Swanson, and Carolyn Swiszcz-four artists known for innovative use of materials and narrative irony. Their collective stance and individual works fly in the face of an art world that still insists on rarity, on a hierarchy separating "fine art" from everyday life, and on a formal analysis disregarding pleasure, entertainment, and emotion. Their work remedies many twisted, past standards by celebrating art as healing force (i.e., art as reconstructive surgery), as tool for social action, and as magical or hilarious container for the mundane aspects of daily life.

A sign hangs in the print studio at Macalester College, where Ruthann Godollei has recently been named dean of fine arts. It reads: "The power of the press belongs to those who can operate one."

Godollei's fierce devotion to the power of printing processes is longstanding. As a master printer, she is well aware that the graphic properties of print media can dramatize even the simplest of drawings and that the distribution potential of printing has made it a political tool for centuries. Today's Internet parallels the revolutionary power of those early presses in its ability to deliver images and information to a mass audience. In both cases, vast amounts of information are available to everyone. Both print and the Internet are exquisite containers for democratic action-with the potential to carry the voice of every woman to the ears of every woman. Dangerous stuff.

As a woman and an artist, Godollei (b. 1960) has for two decades pioneered evolving social and political positions for women. She ran with the boys' track team in high school, championed many political causes, and was the first tenured woman in Macalester's studio art department, where she has taught studio arts and women's studies for thirteen years.

The pioneering spirit demonstrated by many other artists inspires Godollei. She values an art "history" that acknowledges great women artists and pioneers. Women such as Maria Sibylla Merian, the seventeenth-century Dutch botanical artist and engraver who sailed to Surinam, in South America, to observe nature and record what she saw. Or Sue Coe, a contemporary printmaker with a strong social conscience, whose series of prints done in collaboration with AIDS hospice residents is, for Godollei, supremely humane.

Godollei has focused for the past few years on an expanding series of monoprints and scratchboard drawings about growing up in a violent, dysfunctional household. They are mementos of her survival-mementos she intends as tools for discussion. The series is composed of monochromatic images depicting simple domestic objects and text, each placed on a one-time plate inked with a gestural sweep.

Between image and language in these works there reverberates an ironic tension that the viewer can resolve only by changing her own mind. Social commentary is often about trying to get people to change their minds, and Godollei's personal narrative builds a bridge from her own life experiences to those of countless Americans. As a result, the personal becomes political. Godollei is asking us to change the way we behave.

In one print a hopelessly tangled mess of string sits in a heap next to the words "It'll sort itself out." Clearly this will never happen. The message is plain: denial can be deadly. There is no hope for change without facing the truth.

Godollei's dark psychological space is also informed by the work of artists such as Francisco Goya (especially his Caprichos, or Nightmares, series), Leopoldo Mendez (from Taller de Grafica Popular), and Käthe Kollwitz. For her own part, Godollei is deeply committed to a transformative process that moves from psychological dysfunction to a place where humans treat each other well. Her work goes to the intention of transforming culture. "Yes! Imagine it. We can make it happen," she says.

For a simple, illustrative piece about funding the National Endowment for the Arts, Godollei retrofitted an archaic press in order to print a message along one side of a number two pencil. The message reads "This five cent pencil is .00000008229 percent of the NEA budget. "What does this mean? It means that if every person in the United States bought four pencils for five cents each, they could fund the NEA for one year. In "Quality Control," the pencils are presented in tin cups, showing that the arts must beg for even such meager funds. By way of contrast, Godollei sculpted a giant pencil, on which she printed the current 323 billion-dollar military budget.

The darkness of this piece lies in our disregard for the arts and in the way a few controversial works became the easy target of many politicians who pretended they were doing something great for America by tearing apart an organization that had supported hundreds of programs for visual art, music, and the performing arts across the country. The light comes with Godollei's reality check and with a solution so direct: if we want to build something that keeps our culture strong, it can be as simple as changing our minds and buying the pencils.

Since Alexa Horochowski immigrated with her family to the United States from her native Argentina at the age of ten, she has occupied a position between cultures. Her family's home was the only Hispanic safe haven from the American culture that engulfed her teen-age years in Missouri. Her fair complexion belied her Latina interior, and dressing like other American girls. Horochowski "assimilated" into the mainstream. But things are rarely what they appear to be, and Horochowski's double identity gave her a unique position from which to witness culture.

As an artist, Horochowski (b. 1965) began her study with language-creative writing and journalism-but transferred her pursuit of the "story" to the visual realm with her discovery of photography. She earned an M.F.A. in photography from the University of Michigan in 1996. And while photography is still very close to her heart, her current work also encompasses elaborate site-specific installations with assorted and combined materials and objects, painted surfaces, and text.

In a recent series of staged theatrical photographs entitled Latina Incognita, Horochowski explores the invisibility of her Latin heritage. Playing with extreme Latin stereotypes (such as Carmen Miranda), Horochowski constructed ornate wigs that she piled high with tropical fruits. She and other "Latina incognita" women, whose physical features do not reveal their origins, posed for the portraits.

In Blue Latina from Argentina Horochowski sits against patterned vintage fabric, wearing a tall blue wig. Her expression is guarded and mysterious, her body poised as if to keep her identity in balance. The almost painterly quality of Horochowski's portraits has the startling effect of turning the hidden cultural heritage inside out-as though the theatrical drama of the work truly symbolizes the difficulty and blessing of a polycultural position.

Horochowski admires the work of many artists, both dead and alive. Frida Kahlo, Manuel Ocampo, Annette Messager, Jana Sterbak, Hannah Höch, August Sander-all have influenced her. She is drawn to the iconoclastic spirit of Dada, to dark humor, to attitudes that are culturally based. But her aesthetic is also inspired by the décor of midwestern taverns, Latin and African American hair salons, and the general detritus found in the thrifts stores of a consumer society.

She does not believe that art processes or media have an inherent hierarchy.

I am interested in making entertaining art which expresses explicitly what is going on in my "twisted/human" mind at a particular moment. Basically I am transforming the dark thoughts and visions into sweet, cherry-flavored aspirin that the viewer can swallow with a smile. I employ whatever is at my disposal to make my statements and build my installations.

Horochowski's installation in "Quality Control" is a multi-senory laundry room through which she scrutinizes that "behemoth institution" known as marriage. This walk-in art object, with colorful stenciled walls and linoleum flooring, is fully equipped with bubbles, a working wringer washer, and a clothesline hung with men's and women's underwear embroidered with text referring to the trials and tribulations of matrimony.

For Horochowski embroidery is an ironic choice, giving the work a feminist twist. She has quite simply despised it since her childhood in Argentina, when she was forced to embroider in school. The undergarments serve as surrogates for the perpetrators and victims of betrayal and heartbreak. As a metaphor for purification, Horochowski's installation provides a chance to cleanse the dirty laundry. Hung out for all to see, the family secrets (previously maintained through denial) lose their hold, and healing can begin.

Lee Anne Swanson is a hilarious woman and an exuberant artist, whose debt is as much to her grandfather "Swannee" as to any artist. "He was a huge indestructible man who could make absolutely anything!" Swanson's sense of humor and sensual responsiveness drive her ever-ranging desire to work with, manipulate, and search out the particular integrity of materials.

Always on the lookout for weird things. Swanson carries a spy camera wherever she goes. She loves pop culture, reads tons of natural history books, and as a woman feels no need to reclaim anything. Swanson sees humor as an essential tool for coping: "Life can be miserable. Sometimes laughing can make all the difference." Her material repertoire includes paint made from special recipes, resins, high-tech epoxies, fiberglass (she knows how to repair boats), fabric, and an endless array of objects.

Swanson (b. 1971) received her M.F.A. from the Maryland Institute of Art, Mount Royal School of Art. Over the past five years, her painting has gone through several stages. Her original impetus was observation of the material world. Then, using resins, she began making nonobjective paintings based on faraway observation; then, shiny paintings of Smurfy shapes with scalloped edges; then in the fall of 1999 she came full circle in a series of paintings of hot dogs, fried eggs, Jell-O salad, and the like, all based on her collection of food postcards.

In her latest series of small paintings (nine of which are featured in a grid arrangement for the exhibition), Swanson named each piece after a racehorse. As she explains: "I walk by an off-track betting place every day on the way to the studio [her winter studio in Brooklyn] and one day I was feeling worried that I might run out of good titles for my paintings, and suddenly I stopped and thought-race-horses, that's it!" While each small painting is uniquely named, the grid is titled Now They Know How Many Holes It Takes to Fill the Albert Hall.

Swanson looks for material-based work by artists who can deliver beauty, humor, and heartbreak. She adores Joseph Beuys, Eva Hesse, and Annette Messager for helping her appreciate the sad and creepy evocations and transmutational powers of material essence-and for those unlikely combinations that can actually stop you in your tracks.

A case in point (for stopping you in your tracks) is Swanson's 1999 Lake Muffler, for which assembled and laid down, on a frozen, snow-covered lake, a thirty-foot quilted silk muffler in various pastel shades. Is she insisting that we contemplate the landscape as a living thing needing our care and comfort? Or is the muffler a feminist critique of Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty? Given Swanson's quirky humor, it could be a riff on either idea. What I do know is that, like Swanson's big painting of fried eggs, it's damn funny! As Swanson puts it, "My work is largely unapologetic. I can't help but combine this stuff in ridiculous ways."

For "Quality Control" Swanson "accessorized" a huge moody painting of the Verrazano Narrows bridge, seen at night with three-waist-high skirted water tanks containing splashing glitter-covered mechanical duck decoys. In her paintings, Swanson combines high-tech epoxies and resin with oil paint in a unique process that, through a fair amount of chance in the chemical interactions, yields beautiful, glowing, and highly reflective surfaces. To achieve effects like the glowing aureoles of the bridge lamps. Swanson drops enamel paint onto wet resin and then vacates the premises while toxic fumes are emitted. Only when she returns to the studio does she discover just how far the paint has spread within the resin.

Really, Swanson says it best: "The painting and sculpture set are a memorial to my grandfather who was a truck driver and loved that bridge and was a hunter who loved to kill ducks."

Swanson's work has been referred to as "the punch line without the joke" or even "a party in every painting." How ever exuberant, her work is all about the things that happen to her; it is her essential way of witnessing the world.

Carolyn Swiszcz is intrigued with the fleeting nature of things. In her mixed-media paintings, Swiszcz overlays stark, mutely toned architectural forms or neighborhood scenes with contours of people or Etch A Sketch-like lines delineating a variety of subjects. Her fragmented and layered iconography suggests the transitoriness of life. The subtlety of her palette and the relationships between her forms are strangely personal and nicely resonate with the mundane, with the little things about ordinary activity that are often lost because they are not noticed or are just forgotten.

Swiszcz is forever fascinated with accidents and with how she might ruin or save a work of art. She and fellow artist Lee Anne Swanson often exchange drawn or painted "messes" to see if the other might effect a rescue.

Born in 1972 in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Swiszcz holds especially dear the painter Albert Pinkham Ryder, also a New Bedford native. She names Ryder and Marsden Hartley as real influences on how she thinks about painting. Moved by their simple graphic style and the abstract qualities of their landscapes and seascapes, she reads their work as very "human" almost as self3portraits.

As for the rest of it, Swiszcz looks to the bittersweet longing and vibe of goodwill contained in the music of jazz legend Mose Allison and Jonathan Richman (of Modern Lovers fame). For the particulars of everyday existence, she goes to the works of comic book artist Ben Katchor and writers Nicholson Baker and John Updike.

Her recent three-year fellowship in Miami, through the National Foundation of Advancement in the Arts, will culminate in an installation at the Corcoran Gallery with scads of drawings featuring her favorite buildings of Miami Beach and northeast Minneapolis, and a line of scale-model "product" (such as her museum guard action figure).

For her part in "Quality Control," Swiszcz departs from her usual work on paper. Taking aim at the "audacity" of a world so concerned with product, she has constructed a huge eraser-board mandala punctuated with Post-it note drawings and larger-than-life action figures. Designed (like us) to exist only temporarily, her mandala will be obliterated at a closing (erasing) ceremony on the exhibition's final day.

Through her eraser-board mandala, Swiszcz establishes a creative relationship with ambivalence and also plays with the museum context in which the work appears. At The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, a Tibetan sand mandala (fixed with special resins to make it last) is permanently displayed, and the exhibition "Star Wars: The Magic of Myth" is on view during part of the run of "Quality Control." (Note that Buddhist sand mandalas are traditionally destroyed upon celebration and that Swiszcz's childhood Star Wars action figures lived in a dollhouse furnished with handmade props and accessories.) Whatever the museum's good intentions in preserving things that were not meant to last, or in promoting Hollywood culture, Swiszcz is certain that our need to consume threatens our future.

Yet her critique is tempered with an absurd, almost lyrical sense of her own goodwill. Her Post-it notes do something to make the heart grow fonder. Could it be that we cherish these little things that signify the everyday? Or is it that in our need for comfort-our need to know that we will live forever (along with our rare treasures)-we have been seduced?

All in all, the work featured in "Quality Control" sparkles with narrative irony. Perhaps through that irony we can come to terms with paradox, so we can simultaneously comprehend and appreciate love, shame, outrage, and beauty. And through the darkness will come the light.

Cynde Randall is an artist and the senior program associate for the MAEP.

Artists

Ruthann Godollei

I am working on an extended series of monotypes and scratchboard drawings commenting on the human condition. Simple household objects are juxtaposed with texts to produce a sense of disquiet in the viewer. This unease is meant to provoke empathy or call up memories or provide topics for discussion around issues many people choose to ignore. In my work the most prevalent of these issues is family violence, as it is something I witnesses extensively in childhood. I have also been motivated to comment on social dysfunctions. I feel the two areas are related, in that mistreatment and abuse, unchecked, creates tolerance for inhumane social policies, which cycles into continued violence without recourse of intervention. The texts and objects I depict intentionally float in an "empty" black space, the darkness of dreams or the imagination, meant to prompt viewers to associate their own contexts with the ideas presented. Black humor and irony are the tools I employ, both to mediate the overwhelming nature of such cruelties and to point to their absolute absurdity.

Alexa Horochowski

The art critic Dave Hickney writes, "People despise critics because people despise weakness, and criticism is the weakest thing you can do in writing. It is the written equivalent of air guitar..."

I appreciate this statement for two reasons. First because I feel the same way about trying to explain in writing what I create visually as an artist, and second because it is a self-deprecating statement, and I have a penchant for weakness and broken things in general. I look for inspiration in broken-down, down-and -out, low-down places. I find old midwestern taverns and garish Latino hair salons uplifting and charming. I am attracted to singularity because when I see something ordinary I think of death. I become nauseated and uncomfortable in malls and modern offices with amenities. But I am not a misanthrope and rather like people. I feel a need to communicate my individuality to people and have found that art offers that opportunity.

I don't believe in a hierarchy of art processes. My installations will often employ the detritus from thrift stores along with more conventional art materials. Through these installations I transmute my unpalatable twisted/human thoughts and visions into sweet, cherry-flavored aspirin that can be swallowed with a smile. I view each installation as a walk-in art object that is entertaining and simultaneously beautiful -that is, more beautiful than real.

Lee Anne Swanson

My work is largely unapologetic. I use industrial, domestic, and regular art materials to make the objects and images that need making. I have two different launching pads for making an object, a painting, or an installation. One point of departure is being inspired by something that I see, usually weird or funny, whereupon I snap a photo with my spy camera, knowing that someday that image will grow up and become a painting. The other source of action is the materials themselves. They can be sparkly, fuzzy, or just plain ugly (the kind of ugly that you fall in love with, like a mangy dog), but a material will grab me and I begin to collect it until I know what, when, and where to do with it.

I want my work to be extremely accessible to the viewer. My work is friendly and curious. It is important to me that the audience feel that what they see is somehow familiar, yet know that they've never seen it before. I want people to be as perplexed and as cracked-up as I am in the privacy of my own studio. It isn't that my work is not serious, or that I'm not serious about it. My approach to my work might be most like what goes on at the playground. There you find the weird kid getting tortured, someone falling off the swing (again), someone spinning themselves sick on the merry-go-round, and I'm sure you've seen the look of concentration on that kid's face in he sandbox. All those characters are me, and I'm as serious about play as they come.

Often, my criterion for a successful piece is that it makes me laugh out loud. I attempt to keep the work free from pretense and then further enable it to communicate to my audience. The humor is a coping mechanism, not to cover up, but to help digest all of those heartbreaks that we suffer every day. Once, someone described my work as diabolically whimsical. That was a really good day.

Carolyn Swiszcz

The piece I did for this MAEP project came out of a desire to see what kind of work I would do if I knew that what I made would be destroyed in a few weeks. I thought it might be a way to allow more room for play. There was also something that seemed thrillingly dangerous in this way of working, as the drawing was made here in the gallery and I wasn't sure how it would turn out.

In the past few years I have had to move several times, and I have changed from a person who used to collect things into someone who is loath to acquire more stuff, no matter how well-designed or inexpensive. Often this desire to liberate myself from my belongings is at odds with my role as an artist, adding to the amount of objects in the world.

In the early nineties I was a gallery guard at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts. In between giving directions and asking people not to touch the sand mandala, I had a lot of time to think and look at the museum's collection. As I began to develop an appreciation for many objects that in past visits I had either glanced at or skipped by altogether, I realized I had been a lazy observer. The job was an education in looking at art. I also watched the museum patrons who often seemed bored or confused, as if they too were trying to figure out how to interpret what they were seeing. The work I have made is, among other things, an attempt to examine the role that artwork has in a world where we are more accustomed to looking at advertising.

Citation: Cynde Randall, "Quality Control: An exhibition of new works by Ruthann Godollei, Alexa Horochowski, Lee Anne Swanson, and Carolyn Swiszcz," Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2000.