This exhibition represents a valuable opportunity for gallery-going audiences within England. Primarily, it gives such audiences a chance to view the work of one of the San Francisco Bay Area's most accomplished and widely recognised artists.
Mildred Howard is a prolific mixed media and installation artist whose work consistently draws on a wide range of historical and contemporary experiences. She is intensely perceptive of environments - both those within and those beyond the gallery space. Much of her art has previously focused on potent subject matter, rich with symbolism, such as the Black '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" (1). 'In the Line of Fire' presents one of Mildred Howard's most recent bodies of work. It consists of a number of life size figures, silkscreen-printed onto cut-out sheets of plywood. The solitary figure in question, reproduced many times over, is one of the artist's relatives, a young man not even out of his late teens, drafted or enlisted into the U.S. Army during the First World War.
Although each piece is identical, the effect of assembling a multiple body of these cut-outs is to create a silent, eerie, near human regiment of soldiers. 'In the Line of Fire' resonates with melancholy and notions of the sacrificial. For African Americans, the First World War presented an opportunity to prove their 'Americanness' This they did with distinction and valour. But this 'Americanness' was not rewarded with increased status and full civil rights. On the contrary, Black Americans found themselves, as before, in the line of fire, on the streets of American towns and cities, as they had on the battlefields of Europe.
This point is graphically illustrated by the target motifs that appear on the back of each figure. With this startling device, Howard laments the ways in which Black America was literally and metaphorically shot in the back. A piece such as this has direct relevance to audiences in this country, where there are renewed debates about the role of Black people within the armed forces, alongside ongoing debates about what it means to be 'British'.
In addition to this work, the exhibition contains other, wall-based work by the artist. Work that again references in sensitive, sophisticated and fascinating ways Mildred Howard's identity and history. As LeFalle-Collins also noted, "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."
Both of the LeFalle-Collins quotes are taken from her entry on Mildred Howard in the St James Guide to Black Artists, 1997
The above text was used to introduce the catalogue accompanying Mildred Howard - In the Line of Fire. The exhibition was shown at Gallery II, University of Bradford, January 20 - February 19, 1998; City Gallery, Leicester, April 1 - May 8 1999.