SF Chronicle Review: Mildred Howard’s “Spirit and Matter”
Mildred Howard at Richmond Art Center: Wide range of moods
By Kenneth Baker, Friday April 17
“Spirit and Matter,” Berkeley artist Mildred Howard’s retrospective at the Richmond Art Center, comes at an unhappily timely moment. Recent events have forced mainstream media to pay unprecedented attention to the jeopardy that African Americans, especially men, face at the hands of the criminal justice system. The backbeat of social injustice has always made itself felt in Howard’s art, though she has seldom let social concern outweigh the specifics of viewers’ encounter with artworks’ at-hand reality.
Howard has studded two walls of the corridor entrance to the Richmond Art Center with embedded shell casings in floor-to-ceiling grids to form an installation titled “Ten Little Children Standing in a Line, One Got Shot and Then There Were Nine” (2015).
This installation might have considerable impact anywhere in gunslinger nation, but Richmond’s reputation, deserved or not, as a place where bullets fly, stray and otherwise, gives the piece an almost site-specific power.
Howard has frequently worked by repositioning ordinary objects and materials so as to generate unforeseen meanings and force, and “Ten Little Children” counts as a pure instance of her methods.
Collage and assemblage have naturally played a big part in Howard’s art. A piece such as “U.S. Savings Bonds and Westside Court 3” (1981) typifies her use of old photos and other documents to evoke the inextricability, and perhaps irrecoverability, of social and personal history.
Howard has used her own image in her work occasionally, but threads of autobiography surface and submerge in her art in ways the casual viewer will find hard to follow. But the most poignant instance, which requires decoding by a wall label, is “Flying Low” (2006). It consists of a bronze garden glove, quietly reminiscent of the proverbial bronzed baby shoes, palm up, holding a pair of taxidermied sparrows. The work has an unaccountable tenderness about it even before the viewer learns that it refers to Howard’s loss of one of her twin sons.
The range of moods in this compact retrospective — from anger and grief to optimism and humor — also impresses. One of the most memorable pieces, “Méret” (2007), makes unmistakable reference to Méret Oppenheim’s 1936 Surrealist classic: a teacup, saucer and spoon lined with fur. Howard mingles this homage with another, to Marcel Duchamp’s second life as a chess adept, staging a confrontation across a fur-lined chessboard of pieces consisting of salt and pepper shakers.
Racial politics and Dadaist feminism filtered through modern art legend in a key of worldly-wise humor — who but Howard could do that?