After a year-and-a-half of writing about more basic cultural differences between New York and Milwaukee, the results of my cultural reconnaissance will now take the form of local art coverage. This being the first piece, I’d like to mention that, unlike NYC where almost everything including what passes for ‘underground’ are usually pre-dug, locating art culture in Milwaukee has proven to be a little, well, subterranean. So far the digging has been the most gratifying part of being here. Not having the luxury of a media guide dedicated to informing masses of art goers about what is yet undiscovered, is a pleasure. Searching for art in Milwaukee makes me feel feral – it’s the art equivalent to hunting and gathering.
Like a weathered master to a young apprentice, he wrote cryptically in an email, “Look out, they think they’re more pure there.”
“There” is Milwaukee, and “they” are artists. That master is my friend who had lived in Milwaukee for years before moving to New York and eventually opening a gallery.
And I am the implanted apprentice in the trenches, trying to understand the lay of the irregular terrain of the Milwaukee art scene.
Several weeks ago I was urged by a friend of a friend to attend an event called the “Umali Awards” at a space called Imagination Giants (IMG). Unfortunately, I couldn’t be there, but, was encouraged by yet another friend to check out a current show at the host space anyway.
Other than some ambiguous text on IMG’s ultra spare website, I knew nothing when I contacted them to meet for a conversation (which was a nice departure from years of reviewing shows on 22nd Street in Chelsea.)
“Approaching work that deals with literal, theoretical, or conceptual space, Imagination Giants takes on interpretations of the infinite world.”
I met proprietors Ashley Janke, Lara Ohland, and Tim Stoelting on a particularly steamy late evening last week. Tim greeted me at the door of a non-descript corner storefront, let me in, and suggested I take in their latest show, “Vinyl Love”, while we waited for Lara and Ashley to arrive.
I milled about the show by Polish-born, Milwaukee local Waldek Dynerman feeling by turns repulsed and attracted to the strange scattering of objects and a dozen or so quirky and surprisingly handsome provisional paintings that were integrated into the space’s hardware such that one might assume the thermostat and exposed piping are on the show’s checklist. Dynerman’s installation amply filled the gallery with everything from contorted sex dolls atop stools, to haunting video projections on bed sheets, to a working QR code that opens to a “family portrait” of the dolls in their unaltered state. A friezelike print of a glistening blue beachfront hung cheekily above a wall of gestural painting, like a Cy Twombly assaulting a Corona commercial. The entire mélange was bathed in half carnival-festive, half sex-dungeon, neon light. The kitsch here is the spoonful of sugar that helps Dynerman’s more personal medicine go down. It does go down, and stays with you after you part with the work.
I had flashes of the show even as the four of us moved into a separate parlor area to discuss IMG with its creators.
Ashley, Lara and Tim met while at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, and began planning the space shortly after Ashley graduated in 2012. IMG is dedicated to an expanded and reimagined notion of exhibition space, as is made clear in their somewhat obscure mission statement, which, as it turns out is more straightforward than I first gathered. They are interested in helping artists realize projects that require a large contiguous and alterable space, and to occasionally assist in producing those projects. Gallerists-cum-meta artistic collaborators.
This mission was well articulated in performative events ‘Bon Voyage’ and ‘Amorphous Self’, and in “One Ton Beach WI”, a collaboration with LA-based artist Jena Lee that provided “you and yours with a day of sunny respite and warm relaxation.” Meaning, they literally installed a beach in the gallery on which guests could lounge, meditate and practice yoga in the thick of the Wisconsin winter. Fun for the entire family interested in leisure activity and quirky relational esthetic projects.
But unchecked relational projects can be a challenge for a young gallery working out preperatorial issues as it goes.
Lara Ohland mentioned that IMG has faced some interesting logistical problems in their short run, but also held that their willingness to work through such issues are exactly what makes the project indispensable to the local art community.
According to Ohland, “When roadblocks have come up as we transformed our location into an inhabitable space, and developed past shows, they have come as opportunities to creatively meet the problem. When we brought the building up to code we sifted through legal documents that were not written to accommodate a project like ours, but lead us to creative solutions like turning a boarded up window into a mural. In a similar way the process of obtaining liability insurance lead to developing a performance piece, as we sifted through insurance forms that are worded in a way that they undo themselves. Obtaining one ton of frozen sand in Milwaukee during the winter and then transporting it to our gallery felt more like a performance than a task. This process, even when met with logistical problems, is informative. What I am motivated to make is influenced by the processes I know, and through IMG has come a constant flow of these opportunities.”
They seem to relish unorthodox interventions. A good example is their upcoming show with Milwaukee artist Shane Walsh and his recent painting series of mix tapes he made in the 80s and 90s. Stoeling mentioned when we spoke that IMG collaborated with Walsh to find a way to place his 2-d works into a logical dialogue with the 3-d space of the gallery by turning it into a fully functioning music store circa 1987.
Given two roads, it seems IMG looks for the unpaved first, and if both are smooth, searches next for the more elevated.
When I asked what motivated the trio to start IMG, they were matter-of-factly unified in the idea that projects like theirs are what give Milwaukee’s art scene its vitality. They agreed that the lack of commercial distraction combined with cheap real estate makes the scene ripe and relatively risk-free for untrammeled experimentation, though even the most worthwhile projects can shortened by the easy-come-easy go mindset of the community.
Ashley Janke elaborated:
“Milwaukee rent is affordable enough where you can get away with building a room in your attic, partitioning your studio, using the front room of your house, or making a deal with a landlord to refurbish a warehouse space into a 6,000 square foot white cube. These projects cannot be fueled by dreams forever. With little funding or market, they often evolve into transient spaces or break down completely allowing their founders to move on to larger projects or move with them.”
Janke to her own credit has run an independent side-project called nAbr (pronounced neighbor) which began in her attic and has since migrated to a number of locations, settling most recently on the outdoor grounds of the Lynden Sculpture Garden. nAbr has had its own run of critically challenging shows that cross pollinates with other pop-up spaces, ultimately reinforcing the fabric of the local DIY art scene.
Imagination Giants is headed ambitiously into their second full season, with a book launch and sewing workshop by artist and author Brian Nigus, whose work derives from a summer spent with a native tribe in Papua New Guinea. This, along with the aforementioned record store to accompany Shane Walsh’s mix tape collection, and a fourth year of “00000 GH00ST $HOW”, a one night exhibition of horror and occult projects, should help fuel anticipation for the new season at IMG.
I spent yesterday shuffling through herds of art junkies at Bushwick Open Studios. I’ve been to Bushwick a dozen times in the past year and still the terrain was almost unrecognizably different. It’s evolving and mutating like some crazy bird flu. Galleries everywhere. New high-end bars and restaurants everywhere else. All the old studio buildings like 56 Bogart and 17-17 Troutman have traditional galleries running out of what used to be raw studio space.
Despite the hoopla, for the most part the work at Bushwick Open Studios was boring. Not terrible, but mostly meh. Competent. Like stones polished by constant flow of water, shaped by the years, but less unique for all the wear. Still, what does one expect “pop-up” proprietors to do in the face of throngs of hungry collectors and ambitious curators, skyrocketing rents and huge expectations?
It’s hard to sell a make-shift beach or an installation comprised of contorted sex dolls and grainy videos.
Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.
Rents are cheap in Milwaukee, and are likely to stay cheap no matter how many Imagination Giants move into bohemian areas like Riverwest or Bay View. Hopefully this will keep the challenging, chewy, difficult and eccentric shows coming.
And hopefully I’ll encounter them as they do.
“They think they’re more pure”?
Let me get back to you about this…