The Arts
June 14-20, 2006

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'Aprons' on the line: Morality plays and wordplay inhabit Hovey's work.

Political Is Personal

HCA project space artist Karrie Hovey's war with words

By Gretchen Giles

On a recent spring afternoon at the Headlands Center for the Arts, installation artist Karrie Hovey stood in the doorway of a small rented room in the Center's barracks quarters. Her hair pulled back in a tight bun, wearing nylons, a skirt and sensible shoes, Hovey clutched a wad of library file cards, printed in block letters with such proper nouns as "Satan" and "George Bush."

In the room behind Hovey hung traditional school maps. A bookcase covered one wall, and traditional oak card catalogues were slung against another. On a camera mounted high, a red light indicated that, as with most actions in public life, the entirety of the room was being monitored via video. Blinking anxiously, Hovey explained to her visitors that there had been a mix-up in her filing. Handing over a stack of cards, she asked for help. But instead of finding the Dewey decimal system, the unsuspecting person who had stumbled into Hovey's web had to file them under such headings as "Fiction."

Once the action was complete, Hovey pulled visitors aside and asked if they knew much about current events, history or literature. Assessing the answers, she awarded each of her departing guests a color-coded card--green, orange, red--that evaluated his or her danger to the government according to the Bush administration's now-forgotten "alert" system. (The editor of a newspaper, it is unsurprising to learn, earns a red card--"Severe"--with no extra effort.)

Titled The Reading Room, this interactive installation was something of a stretch for Hovey, whose best-known work is the Soldier Star project in which she made magnetized ceramic stars representing each U.S. soldier's death during the first nine months of the war. Ordinarily, Hovey uses words mutely, laying them out and stepping back.

"That was a first for me," she says of the Reading Room, speaking by phone from her Mill Valley home. "I had my husband come in occasionally and take photos, and people reacted very oddly to that; they were very uncomfortable with it. They were on video and being monitored the entire time, but the physical presence of having someone in the space threw them. I thought that was interesting, because we're all being monitored all the time. It felt odd that the physical documentation was more invasive and discomforting to people than having their every action recorded on a camera."

Hovey, who has just completed a prestigious yearlong post-MFA residency at the Headlands Center and who occupies the Project Space through June 19, is best known as a fiber artist, though she balks at the narrowness of that definition. However, she does make most of the objects found in her installations. For a recent West Marin installation, Aprons, she created 32 white aprons--one for each year since the decision of Roe v. Wade--and strung them out on a rural clothesline, each emblazoned with small innocuous-seeming tatters of text, actual quotes from the current right-to-life debate.

Hovey also uses such homely craft as felt- and quilt-making in her work, but rejects any suggestion that there is an underlying political intent in her handicraft. "I grew up in northeastern Vermont, a very rural area," she explains. "It was just part of living there. I don't really like art that doesn't show a human hand. I discover a lot about the project through doing the work."

There is no denying that there is an overt political intent in the overall installations. "Prior to our invasion of Iraq, my work was really personal and very interior," Hovey says. "Initially, I was completely frustrated with what was happening and felt that I didn't have a voice. Sure, I could go donate money and campaign in Nevada, but the only way that I really know how to communicate more than what I could physically do is to make work about it. I don't think that this is the right time for me to be making personal work, there are so many things that I want to talk about."

Whether using performance or installation, language remains the informing constant. "The erosion of words is remarkable to me," she says. "It's astounding how much can be communicated in common words, how language is being used to manipulate public thought and how they can reverse something so easily through subtle ways."

Karrie Hovey joins other MFA residency artists in a presentation of their work on Thursday, June 15, at 7pm. She occupies the Project Space, Sunday-Thursday, 11am-5pm, through June 19. Headlands Center for the Arts Project Space, Bldg. 944, Fort Barry, Sausalito. Free. 415.331.2787.

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