Art beat // Art in dialogue

MCAD’s “Intersections” pairs academic leaders with former students

WHITTIER —There’s a popular conception of the artist as a visionary toiling away in monkish solitude and, in many cases, it’s not too far off the mark. Collaboration doesn’t always come easy.

When the Minneapolis College of Art and Design recently asked 14 women art department chairs from 11 Minnesota colleges and universities to reunite with former students for a collaborative project, it was meant to be a challenge — a way to shake up the student-teacher hierarchy and traditional academic models. Some balked, at first.

MCAD Media Arts Chair Stevie Rexroth was paired with S. Catrin Magnusson, an MCAD alumna, and in a joint statement about their work together, they acknowledged being “a bit stubborn and perhaps private” individuals. They didn’t create side-by-side for the project, but did speak regularly, and their two pieces turn out to be one of the more harmonious pairings in “Intersections: Women, Leadership, and the Power of Collaboration.”

Rexroth photographs a sculpture she’s assembled of all-white material against an all-white background. The object looks something like a row of books seen from above, but the form is only hinted at in faint shadows, and the white-on-white effect seems to drain it entirely of mass.

It’s a striking contrast with Magnusson’s piece: thick, dark-gray felt layered with more felt sliced into a spider-web pattern of shards, like a cracked windshield. Both pieces are the same size and shape and, hanging next to each other, Magnusson’s layered felt has real heft, while Rexroth’s photograph is light as air. They are two different personalities in conversation.

There are some other resonant pairings, including digital prints by Val Jenkins, the College of Visual Art fine arts chair, with paintings by CVA alumna Kim Benson. Calling to mind images from the recent Arab Spring uprisings and reprisals, Benson’s semi-abstracted paintings depict bruised and bloodied faces, forms echoed in Jenkin’s prints of bruise-like ink splotches.

The painters Alexis Kuhr, art department chair at the University of Minnesota, and university alumna Stephanie Thompson both practice geometric abstraction, and worked side-by-side on two similarly shaped large canvases for “Intersections.” Kuhr’s piece — graphite over sea foam green paint, with right angles and diagonal lines converging just off center — feels powerful but restrained, while Thompson’s expressive black-on-cream brush strokes positively hum in comparison.

Then there’s the case of Carleton College Art and Art History Department Chair Linda Rossi who is reunited with perhaps her most famous student, the photographer Alec Soth, about 20 years after Soth took Rossi’s Introduction to Advanced Photography class. Their careers intersected not just in that class, but in their choices to set projects in the college’s historic Goodsell Observatory.

Several photographs recap Rossi’s 2005 installation piece, “Optic Nerve,” in which she replaced some of the observatory’s scientific displays with images from her own rather mysterious experiments. They infuse the scientific process with poetic associations and intuitions.

Soth also plays off the sober nature of scientific inquiry, although there’s a bit more heat coming off Soth’s project from 2001. In photographs and a staple-bound art booklet, the photographer conjures the passions of an astronomer whose attention should be on the cosmos above, but who is distracted by the co-eds below.

The artist-to-artist dialogue feels most complete, though, between Patricia Olson, the former chair of art and art history at the St. Catherine University, and St. Kate’s alumna Roxi Swanson. Both are portraitists, and for “Intersections” they both painted their own and the other’s portrait.

Their dialogue is both with each other and the history of portraiture. Olson puts the younger Swanson, who sports dreadlocks, prominent tattoos and facial piercings, in the dignified pose of Ingres’ “Madame Moitessier” — standing at an angle, with one arm held across her stomach. Schiele’s “Portrait of the Artist’s Wife Standing” informs Swanson’s portrait of Olson, but youth and rosy innocence are replaced with middle age and a face — deeply lined, holding piercing eyes — that speaks of experience.

One gets the feeling Olson and Swanson each saw something of themselves in the other. On canvas, both women are proud, individualistic and even a bit defiant — daring you to look back.

Go see it
“Intersections: Women, Leadership, and the Power of Collaboration” runs through Feb. 26 at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, 2501 Stevens Ave. S. 874-3700.