“Bangs! I crack myself up” was the text message that accompanied an installation photograph of Mopping Up at Frank Juarez Gallery. The artist, Melissa Dorn Richards, who works between painting and sculpture, snapped the picture and sent the text as I churned through my course syllabus for Women in Art, contemplating the implications of feminist art and activism. I quickly realized, that beyond the humor of the Dorn Richards artwork is a set of serious ponderings about identity, women’s rights, and issues of labor.
A row of bangs greets me at the gallery door and welcomes me, with a touch of textile softness, into an exhibition that is at once both cool and closed and warm and open. This rare and intriguing ambivalence questions the validity of the art world’s obsession with transparency and revelation. These mop bangs adorn both the entry and back wall of the space. Mop fringe also adorns the floor along the baseboards, soft anemone tentacles that pull me in.
Mopping Up is full of tactile pleasures from latch hooked mop strands to highly textural paintings. Dorn Richards, who describes her hair as moppy, recalls her mother calling her a mophead as a teen. With this added context, the paintings become self-portraits, mop heads, capturing a mood or feeling in the gesture of simple forms, complicated by the maximal use of texture.
After the initial sensory experience, I begin to muse: Why mops? What does it mean to work with mops? textiles? craft? Is this women’s work? labor? The art objects, in their messy, wild state, refuse to be hemmed in. They are an investigation of independence, as Dorn Richards thoughtfully notes, “The form needed to rely on itself.”
A pair of small paintings, Mop XXI and Mop XXII, converse about shape and texture. Each is a stray strand of mop, cut during production of the latch hooking project that adorns the same wall. Other artists would ignore these scraps, but Dorn Richards looks at the overlooked and asks others to do the same.
Mop XXV, composed of latch hook and snow fence, draws in and then envelopes me as I approach. The 8 x 4 foot wall hanging provides warmth and comfort like a blanket on a snowy afternoon. Mop XXV manipulates the minimalism of geometric abstraction, conjuring Agnes Martin and Eva Hesse.
Finishing out the wall, Mop XXIII is a protest sign; mop handle and oil painting combine in the imagery of dissent. Dorn Richards uses the tools and materials of women’s work (a mop handle, her own painting) and and her own particular visual vocabulary (maximal texture, outlines that function as negative space, and her unique mop form) to call attention to feminist issues.
Mopping Up is an unusually successful solo exhibition. With an entry point of humor and softness, it is a holistic experience that examines memories of the past, compels a vital dialogue about issues of the present, and proposes a new possibilities for the future. Dorn Richards has created an exhibition that relies on itself. She is mopping up.