The Soul Selects Her Own Society // Review

In the Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center is the less frequented Law Warschaw Gallery. Though its ongoings are quite transparent, it remains isolated from the school-day bustle.

The separation that might deter students from crossing the threshold is also one of the gallery’s most important attributes. It allows those who do venture inside to immerse themselves in the world created by the current exhibition and commune with art independently from other stimuli.

In an effort to prioritize visual interaction, Law Warschaw Curator Greg Fitz prefers to keep explanatory materials separate from the art. This seclusion allows for a contemplative space that is particularly necessary for viewing the art of “The Soul Selects Her Own Society,” which relies more on participation from the visitor than representational art does.

The pieces in this exhibition elicit a corporeal reaction from their viewers. During her visit to Macalester for the opening of the exhibition in late January, collector Sarah Miller Meigs ’84 noted that a work’s ability to create a visceral and physical response is a quality she seeks when acquiring art for her collection. She finds this trait more often in female artists, who she explains use their bodies as a point of reference for their art more frequently than their male counterparts.

Sarah Miller Meigs’s collecting parameters, like the physical response mentioned above, are the underlying current of “The Soul Selects Her Own Society,” and are the key to finding unity in the diverse exhibition. The 12 artists impart their female subjectivity, but what that subjectivity entailed for artist Louise Bourgeois (born 1911) was drastically different from what it entailed for Hannah Wilke, 60s feminist activist and performance artist, and for Sam Taylor-Johnson, Young British Artist (artistic movement of the 80s) photographer and more recently, director of Fifty Shades of Grey.

The pieces in “The Soul Selects Her Own Society” utilize a huge array of media, ranging from Bobbi Wood’s movie poster painted with enamel to Kimsooja’s perplexing shimmering red bundle, called bottari in Korean. For Miller Meigs, the ability of a piece to communicate to the viewer takes precedence over the use of any particular material or aesthetic tradition.

In the case of Ana Mendieta’s earth-body work, the medium is totally ephemeral. On display in the Law Warschaw Gallery are several lithographs of some of her Esculturas Rupestres, a series that developed out of a practice of creating silhouettes of her body in grass, pebbles, mud or even fire.

Jessica Jackson-Hutchins, whose sculpture Rope Stanza is the nucleus of the exhibition, uses materials like couches, piano covers, old pants and slightly amorphous ceramic forms in her artistic practice. She reworks the household materials until they coalesce and transcend their initial function, Jackson-Hutchins told curator Stephanie Snyder, who wrote the exhibition’s catalog essay about her tendency to use household materials. Newspaper, for example, “is for conveying information; it has no enduring value except in this flow of exchange, which is something I wish to underscore about my objects.” By saying that her works have no enduring value, Jackson-Hutchins acknowledges that the transient sensation viewers feel when they see her work is the most important thing. It seems her fellow artists in the exhibit are also trying communicate in sensations rather than explicit visual symbols.

Su-Mei Tse demonstrates this explicitly when she places herself on a mountainside with her cello for her piece “L’Echo.” Gallery visitors can sense the cavernous space through the cello’s reverberations. In the exhibition catalog, Stephanie Snyder calls this a “sensory call and response.”

Kimsooja’s red bundle incites curiosity of what lies within, and perhaps reminds us of a stork’s bundle. A bottari is a cloth that Korean women use to carry household objects. “To bundle up a bottari” in Korean, though, is also a euphemism used when women are forced from the household. The bottari then becomes a traveling sack, and the place where it rests is where its bearer will unpack and re-establish her livelihood. It holds the potential for rebirth.

Background information on the artists helps explain why they chose a particular experience to be the focus of a piece. This is especially true for those artists whose subjective experience was so linked to cultures unfamiliar to us, like Mendieta’s Cuba, or Kimsooja’s Korea. Fortunately, we need not know an artist’s life story to receive some of that experience. The art of “The Soul Selects Her Own Society” is so closely linked to human physicality that all you need to do to get a sense of the artists’ intents is slip behind the Gallery’s heavy glass doors, and stay open.

“The Soul Selects Her Own Society: Women Artists from the Miller Meigs Collection” closes on March 13th.