Mildred Howard: Some Considerations

The San Francisco Bay Area is home to any given number of committed, accomplished and energetic artists.  In a region of the country greatly enriched by the communities of professional artists who reside there, Mildred Howard has distinguished herself as a practitioner whose work is particularly compelling, engaging, and conspicuous. Howard has maintained, indeed expanded, her career over a number of decades, and, as this overview of her recent work, at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, University of Oklahoma, so ably demonstrates, she continues to make the most engaging and singular of artwork. 

Howard is a prolific mixed media and installation artist whose work consistently draws on a wide range of cultural and social associations embedded in historical and contemporary experiences. Much of her art has previously focused on potent subject matter, rich with symbolism, such as the African-­American ‘storefront’ church, enabling her to create installations of profound aesthetic and cultural significance.  As Lizzetta LeFalle-­Collins has noted, “Howard uses materials that reference African American folk culture, but she reinterprets them in a contemporary art language.  Fragments of memory and history, architectural elements, and found and purchased objects are employed to create a visual language that is both personal and communal.  In the early 1980s her architectural constructions began as manipulated windows from storefronts and churches; they later evolved into constructed environments that not only recall real-­life structures but provide walk-­in environments.”  LeFalle-Collins also observes “Her work is engaging for its folk expressions of African American life and ways, yet she has consistently created conceptual works that speak to a wide audience.  Howard shares her personal experiences and interpretations of her culture with all viewers, regardless of race or degree of artistic sophistication.” 

… Mildred Howard is an artist capable of making no end of sophisticated and deeply nuanced interventions. She mines multiple histories –  be they her own, her family’s, her community’s, her nation’s –  to fashion new interventions that cogently reflect on these histories.  Consider for example her use of that most everyday of objects, the glass bottle. Fascinatingly, Howard’s bottle houses bring to mind the colored glass bottles that were traditionally used to make bottle trees associated with Hoodoo, African American folk magic historically found in black communities in the southern United States. We might also consider the associated practice, among African Americans in the South, of planting upturned bottles. Memorably, the unnamed narrator in The Autobiography of an Ex Colored Man recalls that, “I can see in this half vision a little house,--I am quite sure it was not a large one;--I can remember that flowers grew in the front yard, and that around each bed of flowers was a hedge of vari-colored glass bottles stuck in the ground neck down. I remember that once, while playing around in the sand, I became curious to know whether or not the bottles grew as the flowers did, and I proceeded to dig them up to find out; the investigation brought me a terrific spanking which indelibly fixed the incident in my mind.” While we tend to read such cultural practices as distinct in their African origins, manifestations of traditional African American folk spirituality represent a fascinating and complex amalgamation of West African, European, and Native American spiritual traditions. Howard’s bottle houses, and other examples of her practice, encourage us to reflect on the nuances of the multifaceted histories she visualizes, even as we, the viewing audiences, marvel at the formal and spatial dimensions of her astonishing bottle houses, and their pronounced luminosity.  Beyond such fascinating associations, her bottle houses present themselves as architectural investigations. In creating her glass bottle houses, Howard conjures primeval associations with human habitation and shelter and brings to these readings profound cultural associations. Within Howard’s larger bottle houses, a wonderful, emotionally-charged immersive aspect comes into play, when those encountering such works were able to enter them.

… In making such thoughtful and sensitive work, Howard consistently utilizes culturally and socially potent subject matter, enabling her to create installations and other works of great beauty and profound aesthetic and cultural significance. To these ends, this exhibition features a particularly intriguing body of work, Parenthetically Speaking: It's Only a Figure of Speech (2010), which is a gallery-based installation consisting of over-sized punctuation marks realized in red and black in heavy, blown lead glass.  Described as “the cartoonish outline of abstracted speech, the 3-d glass marks reveal the structure and emphasis minus the meaning,” the artist’s inspiration for Parenthetically Speaking came from the widely respected and celebrated poet Quincy Troupe's poem “at the end,”which is said to reference punctuation as metaphors for the passing of time. And yet, though certain types of readings might indeed be vacated from this installation, it is undoubtedly the case that copious amounts of meaning is not only present, but conspicuously so, within the work. If any one feature might be said to characterize the plentiful amount of text messages that pass between us every hour of every day, that one thing might be the sliding scale of the use of punctuation. Periods, commas, correctly capitalized words, the use of hyphens and of course, parentheses are frequently regarded as optional extras, in our messaging. What remains, or indeed, what is absent, when such punctuation is set to one side?

The above extracts are from “Mildred Howard: Some Considerations” the opening essay for catalogue accompanying exhibition by the Jerome M. Westheimer, Sr. & Wanda Otey Westheimer Distinguished Visiting Artist Chair: Mildred Howard, at Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, University of Oklahoma, 555 Elm Avenue, Norman, OK, January 25 - April 7, 2019

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