General 10-15-2007

Monica Sheets: Minnesota Emerging Artists Exhibition

Kristin Makholm, director of the MCAD Gallery which hosts the Jerome Fellows Exhibition, here writes on Monica Sheets, one of this year's Jerome winners, who used an old Fluxus strategy to turn her allotted wall space into a curatorial opportunity.


If you’ve come to this exhibition to see talented Minnesota artists, you’re in for a double whammy. Inside this year’s MCAD/Jerome Artists show is an additional exhibition of 42 other artists who applied for the Fellowship but were not selected. Through video projections, artists’ statements, a catalog, and a Web archive, these emerging artists break through the Fellowship glass ceiling (as it were), crash the party, and stand up to be counted. Their work—and, due to proximity, the work of the “winners”—becomes part of a critical dialogue about the grant-making process in Minnesota and the issues of competitiveness and artistic worth that dog it.

The Minnesota Emerging Artists Exhibition is the brainchild of Monica Sheets, one of this year’s Jerome Fellows who uses public controversy and social and political issues as her artistic platform. In her public art projects and actions, she tackles big issues: the right to own property or get an education, freedom of speech, patriotism—those “inalienable rights” we’ve known about and perhaps taken for granted or misunderstood since grade school. Sheets gives us opportunities to express ourselves, tell our stories, and form our own opinions through free speech boxes at city festivals, temporary tattoos, and blogs. But she also shows the fickleness of the American Dream by letting us dispense fortunes and gumballs from coffee-shop vending machines that reveal our statistical probability of succeeding in life or alternately falling through the cracks.

In her early work as a photographer and fiber artist, Sheets critiqued social and cultural institutions such as marriage or religion that seduce us with promises that often go unfulfilled. It wasn’t until Federal Holiday Series, a project she initiated with artist Jane Powers in 2003 under the name “Patriots Act,” that politics and the power of the public voice were openly implicated in her works. With a series of postcards, flags, and other symbolic objects handed out at eight federal holiday celebrations, Sheets and Powers prompted people to respond in writing to questions raised by national holidays and issues of patriotism. In the wake of President Bush’s support of the Patriot Act, this dialogue on patriotism and nationalism took on new urgency as civil liberties and the rights of immigrants in this country were directly challenged.

Using research and data located on Web sites for the U.S. Census Bureau, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and other federal agencies, Sheets began to investigate other ways in which our lives are influenced by the institutions around us. SurfaceMarks offered free temporary tattoos depicting the Church, the State, and the Corporation; Free Speech Machine allowed anyone to speak their mind through a megaphone on a soapbox platform; Rendezvous Café, an installation at the Art Shanty Projects at Medicine Lake, gave visitors the opportunity to write down or record their own fish or water story—in effect, a Minnesota oral history project. In all cases, Sheets followed up the action with an opportunity to share information, feedback, opinions, or stories through notebooks, Web sites, or blogs, creating a true collaboration and flow of ideas between the public and the artist.

Because the form and location of Sheets’ projects are so content-driven—fish stories told on a frozen lake in Minnesota; soap-box stump speeches at municipal fairs; most recently, questions of land-use reclamation in her installation at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum—it was inevitable that her work in the MCAD/Jerome exhibition would relate to artists and their resolute search for recognition and financial support. Her first of such projects located in an art gallery, The Minnesota Emerging Artists Exhibition relies less on the participation of a general public than on the willingness of Sheets’ peers to weigh in on a critical and sensitive issue for the arts community. It is a particularly relevant issue in Minnesota, the state most active in both private and state-funded support for individual artists. But with the accolades comes critique. Applying to fellowship programs year after year with no success, many artists end up feeling frustrated and alienated by a system that hinges on the judgment and expertise of individual jurors.

In calling attention to the seeming capriciousness of the grant process, Sheets admits in her introduction to the catalog for The Minnesota Emerging Artists Exhibition that her purpose “is decidedly utopian and perhaps radically egalitarian.” In developing and staging a show such as this one within the belly of the beast, so to speak, she provocatively challenges all participants in the system to reflect on the process, opening up a critical space for dialogue as she has in all her myriad public art projects.