Some casual and personal thoughts about these artists, this gallery and what we do and think. Warning: extensive use of the comma. Sienna
At the end of June, artist Myra Mimlitsch-Gray came to the gallery to bring her new body of work and set up the exhibition that was to open on the 29th, Something for the Table. I have known Myra since I went to my first student critique at SUNY New Paltz in 2000, where Myra is a professor. She was scary – swore like a sailor and asked questions using words I would have looked up if I wasn’t trying to be so grown-up at the time. Our first exhibition together, Force Time Distance in 2007 introduced me more fully to Myra’s brilliant mind, kind heart and outstanding work ethic, tirelessly challenging herself and those around her to step up or step out. It feels like just yesterday that she called me from her residency at the Kohler Arts Center where she was to be for three months, making the work I would eventually exhibit, telling me she may have just lost a thumb but that it wouldn’t slow her down. Not to worry, she said.
The exhibition that summer was wonderful. The physicality of the pieces was evident and combined with an awareness and intimacy of material, the work marked a shift in Myra’s work, the story obscured, the wit and wizardry, secondary to the form.
And then I waited.
It was worth it.
Earlier this year, Myra received the prestigious USA Artist Fellowship. “You need to buy silver!”, I yelled at her through the phone feeling like I was on floor of the stock exchange. “Silver!” Unlike paint and canvas, an artist who works with a material that has a fluctuating market price that seems to only go up, there are material concerns that have nothing to do with the conceptual and everything to do with real life. Simply buying material can drain you. She had been working out pieces in cardboard, fabric, copper, and tin for the past few years, the physical and financial weight of big sheets of precious metal is a heavy one. There was no concern that she wouldn’t know what to do once she had other material: she is a Master. The new body of work that Myra has been swishing around in her magnificient mind rolled from her hands like my grandmother rolls out dough: beautiful hands that can make anything, that understand and manipulate the material so well they can bet their life on the outcome.
Pablo Picasso could draw a bull. That looked just like a bull. He worked hard (natural talent aside… we can’t all be so lucky). He looked at the bull, thought about the bull, he knew the bull. Then he dismissed it. Bull, shoo! He created a new vocabulary that like all languages came from some other language, somewhere. Some other human being shouting and breathing out ideas for the first time until they are canon. Entrenched and nearly drenched in history, this new language referenced forms, lines, textures and colors, all of which had existed before him but were now his own. Marked, stamped. After all, he could always go back to drawing the bull, right?
Both Myra Mimlitsch-Gray and my grandmother know their material. Their hands have worked it, their ovens have cooked it, taste-testers have chewed it up and swallowed it down. Both are as good as it gets in their respective worlds. It is only because of this practice, this rolling, this elbow grease, this knowing without having to check the temperature, the time or look up the measurements, that they can alter the recipe with such exquisite subtlety and success.
Mark my words. Just as Myra Mimlitsch-Gray’s last group of work shifted her own practice, this current body of work will shift the whole of contemporary metalwork. The forms! The lines! The textures! All at once familiar and foreign. She has created a new language, with a solid and heavy foundation in an ancient one. After all, in the end, Picasso still brought pencil and paint to the canvas just as Myra brings her hands and hammer to the metal.
We wrapped up our day installing with a short lesson on cleaning. Dina fills the buckets, I set up the work table, and we sit to watch Myra scrub away what I now know to be my perfumed, oily, hideously and infinitely offensive and dirty fingerprints from her pieces. I watch in horror as I imagine days on end of cleaning these objects. I promise I will follow the rules. I make sure to wear gloves as I hold the work and I ask that those who want to touch to wear them as well, and they do. While they gingerly lift the piece off the table to get a closer look, I begin, “Just like Paul Revere, I say, “but different.”
I want to add that listening to Myra talk about her work and artwork in general is an inspiring and intense experience. I always knew she was a force; students and colleagues speak with reverence about her work and her mind. I believe she is the most influential American metalsmith working today.
I drove home that day feeling buoyant and just so very lucky and proud to be able to work with someone like her. Now I just have to sell all the work.