Mildred Howard Review

 

Artist Intrigued by Interaction of Materials, Ability to Revise at Will

San Francisco Chronicle

Friday, February 9, 2007

Kenneth Baker, Chronicle Art Critic


Mildred Howard takes full advantage of the latitude that modernism won for artists in the use of materials and expressive idioms. She has used photographs, glass, architecture, housewares and other found objects of all kinds.


Because she maneuvers so freely within the conceptually soft borders of "installation" work, people tend to think of her as a sculptor, but she prefers the vaguer, more open term artist.


A native San Franciscan, Howard, 61, began her adult creative life as a dancer before shifting her energies to visual art.


Her work has appeared in exhibitions around the world and has garnered numerous awards, including the San Francisco Art Institute's Adaline Kent Award, and fellowships from the Flintridge and Rockefeller foundations and the National Endowment for the Arts.


Howard has also taught at Stanford and Brown universities and, currently, at the San Francisco Art Institute and California College of the Arts.


We spoke in her Berkeley studio, where finished artworks mingle among raw materials, as she prepared to depart for Morocco on a lecture tour sponsored by the U.S. State Department. She has a work in the U.S. Embassy in Rabat.


She said she looks forward to discovering a whole new terrain of found objects on her trip.


Q: Do you think someone can be taught to be an artist?


A: Well, my students say yes. But I think I'm just a facilitator of the information. I just teach what I know.


Q: Your work sometimes touches upon injustice, especially what African Americans have endured. Do you consider yourself an activist artist?


A: People have called me that. But no, I just make stuff. I respond to what I feel and I'm far from a shrinking pansy, and if that's how it comes across, I don't mind. But I'm not as radical as I was when I was young.


I've always made things because I enjoy that interaction with materials, moving them around. Things are worked and reworked in my head. Art is my blessing and my curse, because it's always with me. It wasn't until my late 20s that I realized this is a discipline and that some people were actually interested in what I did.


Q: For whom and to whom do you hope your work will speak?


A: To as many people as possible, but foremost, to me. If I don't want to deal with it, then why should anyone else?


Q: You've done quite a bit of work in public places. Have you ever had a piece vandalized?


A: Yes. The piece for the Fillmore Street bridge. I commissioned Quincy Troupe to do a poem called "Three Shades of Blue," which I had etched in glass.


It's been scratched. It's been shot. I don't get why art in this country gets vandalized. You can go to other countries and they have public art everywhere and it's untouched.


I guess the question is how do we value what is meant to beautify the city and to inform?


Q: Does Black History Month have any meaning to you?


A: Every month has meaning to me. I'm not afraid to be black, so in that sense it doesn't bother me. Because it is paying notice to an aspect of society that was not always acknowledged, I suppose it's all right. But I haven't seen it reflected in my paycheck yet.


Mildred Howard at Porter Troupe

Art in America

March 1998 by Leah Ollman


Mildred Howard, an artist from the San Francisco Bay area, has worked in assemblage, collage and installation for more than a decade, but her real medium is memory, which permeates her work with vitality and poignancy. Howard centers her recent work on the human face, using old family photographs to suggest the continuing presence of those departed, as well as to assert the significance -- if only by claiming attention through a small plot of visual space -- of ordinary African-Americans who have been underserved by those in charge of written history.


The most evocative works in the show were the simplest, a group of window sashes whose glass panes bear photographically transferred portraits. The pale paint of the wooden frames is weathered, chipped and scraped, and Howard has studded the surfaces with fancy buttons and old, ivory-handled knives -- sensory remnants of lives now reduced to sepia-toned two-dimensional images. In J.M., the portrait rises to the level of domestic icon. The image of a man in suit and hat is repeated three times, and in each pane, Howard smudges a bit of paint on the figure -- some Prussian blue on a lapel, a streak of red behind one leg, a muddy ocher around the neck and face. This subtle intervention is just enough to interrupt the continuity of the image and suggest the compromises, alterations, betrayals and embellishments inherent in the translation of experience to nostalgia. Portraits in other works here were also conspicuously incomplete in some way -- a streak of white paint blinds or blindfolds a young woman i one collage, for instance -- but none echo the workings of memory as acutely as the window sash pieces.


In the Line of Fire, an installation abbreviated from previous incarnations elsewhere, positions 15 life-size wood cutouts of a World War I-era soldier (made from a photograph of Howard's cousin) in a formation loose enough to walk through. This small army of identical soldiers sparks questions concerning the often downplayed service of blacks in the military. The target pattern painted on each of their backs turns inquiry into accusation and transforms each of these young men into a victim of friendly fire. In her recovery of individual, African-American faces, Howard pits the strength of personal memory against the totalizing efforts of the goliath History. It's a worthy battle, one she fights, at her best, with both tenderness and aplomb.