Unvarying imprisonment theme weakens Millett's sculpture

March 13, 1997|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

In yesterday's review of "Kate Millett, Sculptor: The First 38 Years," the wrong phone number was listed for the Fine Arts Gallery at University of Maryland Baltimore County. The correct number is 410-455-3188.

The Sun regrets the error.

The retrospective of Kate Millett's sculpture at the University of Maryland Baltimore County demonstrates that it's possible to admire everything about an exhibit except the art.

Millett is primarily famous as a feminist writer whose best-known work is the 1970 book "Sexual Politics." But she's more than that. She is a champion of civil rights and human rights, including gay and lesbian causes.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

She is an equally dedicated artist. For 30 years her sculpture and installations have declared her opposition to imprisonment, both physical and mental -- whether the literal imprisonment of jails and mental institutions or the figurative imprisonment of poverty, age and lives of quiet desperation.

Now Kathy O'Dell, assistant professor of art history and theory at UMBC, has given Millett a retrospective.

"Kate Millett, Sculptor: The First 38 Years" covers the period 1959 to the present. O'Dell has gathered works from Millett's most important series and given them a logical installation. She has also produced a praiseworthy catalog with an essay by Millett as well as O'Dell's own clear and thorough essay on Millett's work. The exhibit also includes a video interview with Millett talking about the work.

So there is much to like about this project. But repetition and lack of force make the work itself disappointing.

Millett's work separates into two periods: the early, up to 1966, and the rest. The early and better work, created partly in Japan, consists of cerebral, often witty sculpture dealing with issues that range from the atom bombing of Japan to relations between the sexes.

In works such as "Hiroshima" (1962) and "Number 1 Fire Department" (1963) Millett used found objects in constructions which, as O'Dell indicates, suggest that nothing Americans can ever do will expiate the sin of the bombings.

For the series "Furniture Suite" from the late 1960s Millett created works out of household objects, such as dishes, chairs and a bed, to explore human relations. They imply, surely daring for the time, that homosexual relationships are really no different from heterosexual relationships.

Then in 1966 Millett read about Sylvia Likens, a 16-year-old girl who was starved, tortured and murdered by the family she was staying with. Millett writes that all she has done in sculpture since stems from Likens' story. Her commitment was reinforced by her own fortunately brief imprisonment twice in mental institutions.

The work has taken various forms but consistently deals with imprisonment. In the series "Small Mysteries" (1975), a woman, an old man and a child, all wrapped as if mummified, occupy separate cages. The child has a ladder and is about to escape; but the title of this part, "Approaching Futility," tells you that escape from childhood is merely admittance to the prison of adulthood. In the series "Madhouse, Madhouse" (1987), a woman's head is imprisoned in a cage ("Fear Death by Water"), another head lies in a coffin ("Buried Alive") and a hand reaches out of a window in a futile attempt at escape ("Window in Clare"). In the series "Flux Sculpture" (1995), Millett deals with the prison of life as a long wait for death.

Two problems mar these works. First, they are obvious and repetitious. Millett has been saying the same thing for decades, and the variations on it become less interesting as she goes along. Second, if her sculpture had the same emotional force as her catalog essay it would be a lot more compelling. But it doesn't. It comes across as didactic, not passionate.

In her essay, Millett writes of sculpture, "If it succeeds -- and how difficult it is in sculpture to succeed -- then the object made is its own meaning, stronger and better than words could say it." It is probable, though, that Millett will be longest remembered for her words.

Sculpture

What: "Kate Millett, Sculptor: The First 38 Years"

Where: Fine Arts Gallery, University of Maryland Baltimore County, 1000 Hilltop Circle

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, through April 5

Call: (410) 455-2270.

Pub Date: 3/13/97

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