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…
So this is it; the last entry of Thoughts from Across the Cultural Divide. It’s appropriate that I’m writing it on a plane from New York to Milwaukee – that’s where I wrote my first one and most of the ones in-between.
I boarded bent on finishing before landing in Milwaukee as a kind of ceremonial gesture, but I came down with a bit of writer’s block. More like writer’s diarrhea, really; I couldn’t seem to reduce the last 26 entries into a succinct bite-sized wafer of truth fit to reflect what I’ve gleaned.
Fidgety, I reached into my pocket and pulled out a small piece of foil-covered hard candy and struggled over whether or not I should eat it.
I actually started unwrapping it, almost placing it on my tongue before rewrapping it and carefully putting it back in my pocket. The guy next to me must have thought I had a disorder. As I sat with the candy in my lapel pocket, I dwelled on this strange apprehension. Why did eating it feel so, well, unholy?
The candy in question was taken from a Felix Gonzalez Torres art piece, “Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)”, from the Art Institute of Chicago, where I had taken a class on a field trip a few days prior. With my class in tow, I picked a couple pieces off the top of the pile, eliciting a hushed gasp from some onlookers. The security guard stood by stoically knowing very well the nature of the situation. Only after establishing that he was cool with the move did the rest of the visitors take their turn grabbing souvenirs. Did anyone get the wonderful metaphor? Did the sacredness of the context turn Torres’s point into an object to be fetishized?
I explained the nature of the work to my students, how the dwindling supply of candy represented the fragility of existence and, specifically the disease that tragically took Torres’s partner’s life. They seemed moved, if still content to have a bit of insider material.
Only a week earlier I had gone to the Lutheran church in Cedarburg. I attended in spite of the fact that I’m not religious. My wife and her family have belonged to the church for years, and the pastor is surprisingly ecumenical. That day, when it came time to take communion, I hesitated. Somehow, watching from the back pews, faking my way through the Lord’s Prayer and mouthing hymns I didn’t know, seemed ok, but consuming a wafer and some wine that represented, or, depending on your level of devotion, actually WAS the body and blood of Christ, pushed it. But, still, I headed toward the altar.
His body tasted surprisingly bland; his blood vintage Franzia, and, though I didn’t feel the prescribed transubstantiation, I did feel something more profound than indigestion.
This unexpected twinge reminded me of a piece by James Gleick that was in the “New York Time Magazine” a few years ago about the auction value of the Magna Carta. He describes a passage from Philip K. Dick’s novel, “The Man in the High Tower”, where two similar cigarette lighters are placed side-by-side, one owned by FDR and the other of no significance. One with ‘historicity’, the other without.
The narrator muses:
“Can you feel it? … You can’t. You can’t tell which is which. There’s no ‘mystical plasmic presence,’ no ‘aura’ around it.”
Or is there?
Though he doesn’t invoke it specifically, Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” seems to hover palpably over Gleick’s analysis. Are there plasmic presences? Are there auras? No and yes. As Benjamin noted in the essay we all choked down in art school, auras are born from artifacts that derive power from ritual. And rituals require gangs of believers to endure. And most of us, wherever we locate ourselves geographically or metaphysically, happen to believe in something strongly enough to wring a little plasma from it.
So, Religion? Culture? Not so different from 38,000 feet above the earth. Both are terms ascribed to all those things we can’t know for sure. And if you’re familiar with Descartes, Montesquieu, Wittgenstein, Barthes, Derrida or even CNN, there’s a LOT of things we don’t and indeed can’t know.
So what I’ve taken from 18 months of immersion in Wisconsin’s more parochial precincts is that one person’s “Light of Christ” might simply be another’s frisson of energy evoked by a Richard Tuttle wire piece or a Donald Judd “Specific Object”. Aren’t we all looking for a little transcendence, never mind where we get it or what we decide to call it?
There’s a lot of religion in a Tuttle and a lot of culture in a Lutheran pancake social.
It’s funny when you can feel the antagonism about your remarks as soon as you utter them. Now is one of those moments. My friends are generally from the tribe that would side with the transcendence brought on by a great work of art, rather than a passage from the “Book of Job”. Most of my acquaintances would probably claim that I’m making a false and probably dangerous distinction – the religious right influences politics, right? Indeed. They infringe on the civil rights of individuals because of a bunch of ghost stories in a book written millennia ago? Sure. They can’t compromise because their truth is not based in reason, but in the supernatural, right? Sometimes.
But then again, I felt something like sacrilege eating a piece of candy that was only ever meant to be a metaphor. And it occurred inside the hallowed temple walls of an institution that kind of chooses to keep those metaphors hidden, and in turn, keeps their congregations beguiled and charmed, perpetuating the aura of the object. That institution has priests who anoint objects with quasi-spiritual value. They have groups that help to canonize object makers. Not as metaphor-makers but as spirits. They have rituals, liturgies and taboos. They have saints and they have sinners. They all contribute to creating cultural relics that are sold at auction for prices that dwarf that of the most sought after religious relics on earth.
So if it walks like a duck…
Felix Gonzales Torres might be my favorite artist in the world. And God or god or Donald Judd rest his soul, I don’t think Mr. Torres ever wished for me to be spellbound by the aura of his art, only moved by the poetic truth it could impart by being an achingly wonderful metaphor for the sadness and confusion we all share in a world that overwhelms us.
So right now I will eat Felix Gonzalez Torres’s candy as a metaphorical gesture recognizing the power of art over the supernatural and all that mystical plasma that charms us into thinking we have an answer of a higher power.
28 episodes of The Cultural Divide reduced to one wafer of truth.
March 25, 2013 · Print This Article
Culture’s a funny thing; so many of us accept it as a ubiquitous and powerful force, yet we tend to undervalue the level to which it influences our choices. Cognitive dissonance of the highest magnitude.
I’ve seen this in high-relief over the last 18 months, commuting between Wisconsin and Brooklyn. From television to cuisine to high-art, culture seems bent on sanding us down even as we strut about thinking of ourselves as unique splinters in the side of society. And me too, flying back-and-forth, literally feeling above the fray in mind and distance. But with my family settled safely in Wisconsin, all that commuting ends soon. At which point I’ll be back on the ground, in the fray, trying to protect my nose and exposed fingers from the ever-normalizing orbital sander of prevailing culture.
April 8 will by my last Thoughts from the Cultural Divide from the trenches.
Speaking of rugged individuals and sandpaper, today I showed my class the famous photo of ‘The Irascibles’ along with segments of Hans Namuth’s videos of Jackson Pollock in East Hampton. The imagery seemed especially dated this time around. So musty and conservative. I had to work harder than usual to remind myself that the New York School once represented a viable avant-garde. One woman. All white and self-satisfied. All in suits and clean-shaven, though Theodoros Stamos has a mustache in the photograph that would humble the most pretentious Brooklyn bartender.
As mothballed as the New York School seemed this morning, the contemporary alternative as described in Randy Kennedy’s New York Times article about contemporary social practice didn’t seem any more promising when I read it tonight.
The piece, “Outside the Citadel, Social Practice Art Is Intended to Nurture” describes a movement of art centered on affecting social change rather than making objects for the marketplace. All fine; fighting for a good cause is hardly something to root against. But the quick rise of this approach to art feels somewhat overt to me. My suspicion is that social practices, like much art throughout history will end up sacrificing content on the altar of self-conscious form. Form that will become apparent only after the initial seduction of the movement has evaporated. Or to paraphrase Roland Barthes from Mythologies, “a little formalism turns one away from History, but a lot of it brings one back to it.”
Even more to the point, and to my skepticism, Michael Kimmelman from a piece called “DIY Culture”, in the New York Times a few years back:
“The myth of an avant-garde serves the same market forces avant-gardism pretends to overthrow. Art may challenge authority; and popular culture (this includes clownish demagogues like Glen Beck) sometimes makes trouble for those in charge, the way Thomas Nast’s cartoons did for Boss Tweed in Tammany Hall. But art doesn’t actually overthrow anything except itself, and never has, not in 19th-century France or 20th-century Russia or 21st-century China or Iran. Even when it manages to tilt popular thinking, it still ends up within the bounds of existing authority, and there has never been a true “outside” that really stayed outside: public consumption, by definition, adapts to the change, co-opts and normalizes all culture.”
The pop analogy I often use to explain this phenomenon is the life cycle of a fashionable name. Take, “Jennifer” over the last 50 years. Not biblical and of obscure origin, the name just kind of tipped over into the popular consciousness in the 20th century. It went from the 20th most popular name in 1965, to 10th in 1966. It was the single most popular baby name from 1970 through 1984, but by 2000 it had fallen out of the 25, usurped by all the Abigails, Brianas and Madisons. While one can’t determine which mothers were channeling popular consciousness and which were drawing from their own independent creative sources, the numbers suggest most are a case of the former.
Like Jennifers, art come in waves that build, crest and crash. This might all sound a bit cynical, but it shouldn’t. It’s not the name “Jennifer,” nor that my neighbor here has a Green Bay Packers flag mounted to his house, nor making art as social practice that pricks me, it’s that the numbers, the movements and the waves all suggest that culture is shaping us while we think we are in control. That we picked ‘Jennifer’, and the handlebar mustache, and the social practice, and the DIY collective gallery space in Ridgewood, when in fact, they probably picked us. And, who knows, maybe you were inspired, but we should have some humility because the numbers show that you and I aren’t as fiercely independent as we might think.
I’ve also gleaned via crude armchair sociology over the past year-and-a-half that, yes, it’s probably true that Brooklyn gets bartenders with handlebar mustaches a year or two earlier than Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, but being the first to start a wave of pretentious affection is a dubious distinction, and simply more proof of cultural homogenization, not individuality. And we should make doubly sure that our art doesn’t follow the same trend psychology that our facial hair does.
So I suggest we leave the handlebar mustaches to Theodoros Stamos and try to avoid being battered and worn down by the relentless waves of culture.
I received my second speeding ticket in six months last week in Wisconsin. He got me on a long, well traveled straight away and pulled me over right in front of the school where I teach. Several of my students gave me thumbs up as they walked by.
“Do you know how fast you were going, sir?”
“Probably about thirty-five.”
“Thirty-six. Do you know what the speed limit on National Avenue is?”
“Based on your head being in my window, I’m guessing less than that.”
I honestly assumed it was 35. Anywhere but Wisconsin it would be 45.
With a look of righteous contempt that should be reserved only for scumbags trafficking teenagers inside elephant tusks, he said, “Twen-tee Five.”
He left my window abruptly and came back 20 minutes later with a ticket and a sanctimonious lecture about traffic safety.
Indignant, I told him he was being petty and probably confusing a professional obligation with something more elevated. I asked if he was clocking on National Ave. because of a particular hazard or simply because people were flouting the rules. If no one was getting hurt, I told him, it might be speed limit issue rather than a public safety issue.
None of this pleased him very much, and he threatened to give me a ticket for not getting a Wisconsin license within four months of moving to the state. I barely wiggled out of it by convincing him that I maintained two legal residences.
Once again, the letter of the law prevailed over the spirit.
As you could glean from passages in my last 20-some posts, I’ve identified a certain abiding love of order, routine and uniformity in my Wisconsin community. Rules and laws such as speed limits often turn from tools to achieve positive ends into ends themselves. And the love of order and uniformity makes it hard to identify different cultural tribes as one can might in New York. Any Cedarburgian, from the pastor to the sculptor sports something like Kohls issue business casual, making it difficult to tell who’s who. Walk down Orchard Street in New York on a Saturday and easily separate the artists from NYU students, from bankers, from urchins, from tourists. Heck, separate the painters from the sculptors from the performers.
This is an overstatement for the sake of argument, of course, but to the degree that it sticks, the Balkanized culture is almost too diffuse to support an avant-garde in the truest sense of the term – the Avant in NYC can’t identify the derriere to push off. As a result, there are a thousand separate avant-gardes, each busy fighting private revolutions.
In Wisconsin it seems there’s still a normative culture for vanguard to push against: i.e. cops straight from central casting preaching about public safety. Armies of people hitting the town on Friday night for hot wings and pizza because Indian food is too strange. Many, many painters of elk.
With this in mind, I felt sort of Bohemian when I first landed in Cedarburg. I felt like Picasso working in my own private La Bateau-Lavoir in the backyard, the adjacent Lutheran church my Sacre Coeur. So it was surprising to me when my attempts to engage the local art scene in Milwaukee proved so difficult. After setting up my studio, I sent out a few casual emails to some curators and artists suggesting studio visit swaps, meetings for coffee, or whatever. All real casual. All stuff I do routinely in New York. People solicit me. I solicit others. Everyone solicits everyone, and it the end we drink lots of coffee and beer and share art and ideas about art.
I recently reread an article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel from last year, called “Making a Scene: Milwaukee’s Avant-Garde.” It describes a vibrant and energetic community where:
“Cheerfully unorganized, maverick artists found inspiration and an audience first in each other. A playful amateurism prevailed, as artists embraced their obscurity, understanding both the freedoms and limitations that are part of being set apart from the larger art world.”
That was the scene I sought when I sent out those casual emails. Thinking about the futility made me recall a moment years ago as a gallery director when I threw away a submission of images from Coral Gables, Florida. The gallery owner told me to pitch it, and it made me feel a little shallow and sad. We might have taken a look it was from Brooklyn, but the truth was, we rarely received good unsolicited packets, and never from Gables Florida. Our time was limited; we were just playing the numbers.
So now I’m Coral Gables. I’m a painter with a studio in Cedarburg, Wisconsin, home to caramel apple shops, hair salons, and people who crinkle their noses at falafel, far removed from that community of maverick artists who forged their own private avant-garde in Milwaukee. An avant-garde, which, like all avant-gardes, needs a milieu and a derriere to shove off. And it sucks to be the rear end, even if it’s only part-time.
Sometimes it makes me just want to hop into my car and drive 100 miles-an-hour all the way to back to Brooklyn…but I can’t now, because if I get three more points on my license they’ll take it away…and then I’d be forced to stay in New York for good.
February 25, 2013 · Print This Article
Last week I returned to New York for the first time in a month – my longest stint away since I moved there in 2002. If you’ve read any of these entries over the past year or so, you know that my part-time residence in Cedarburg, Wisconsin is a bit quainter than my neighborhood in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
Any quaintness Greenpoint offers is mitigated by the realization that it’s sitting on 30 million gallons of spilled oil, that comes out in occasional farts that engulf the neighborhood. It’s not a sharp scent, but one that hovers, a dull top note that occasionally drops in to interrupt one’s enjoyment of a hot dog or cup of coffee. It’s so subtle that you almost forget that it’s there. But a few weeks away from New York is the equivalent of eating a handful of oyster crackers before tasting a new wine. And my return offered a fresh sip.
In addition to the aerosol of volatile organics, I happened to be downwind from the Andreas Gursky-esque water treatment plant on Greenpoint Avenue, which added a tangy middle note to the urban perfume that gently spritzed the wrist of my day.
The bottom note of the multilayered fragrance came in the form of some especially earthy marijuana smoke seeping through my building’s ventilation system, which eventually melded with the others into a unique mélange that only Brooklyn could produce.
* Other sub-notes such as diesel fuel, boiling cabbage and wet garbage also contribute to this one-of-kind fragrance.
Ironically, I planned to meet a friend later that day to see, or rather, smell, a show called “The Art of Scent” at the Museum of Arts and Design dedicated to “olfactory art.”
It turned out to be a great change of pace from my traditional art safari. The content scents in the show emanate from a couple-dozen concavities in the wall, shooting fragrance when they detect the motion of a curious head. “Olfactory art” translates here to created scents, so there’s no “bacon” or “cotton candy,” just perfumes and colognes. That was a little disappointing, but I figured I could go breath the exhaust from a halal cart if I needed something more grounded than Jicky.
I went through the show three or four times, until the nerves in my nose surrendered. And until they did, it was a thoroughly orgiastic experience. Even the repulsive Drakkar Noir transported my back to a locker room in 1988. Given the vacuity of much of what’s passing for visual stimulation around the art world, one could do worse than to engage in an orgy of the nose. The only downside was that dinner afterwards, which I’m sure was loaded with flavor, tasted as bland as a handful of oyster crackers.
I left for the airport on Sunday morning, picked up by a car service whose dashboard was graced by a Lady of Guadalupe candle. Its smell blended curiously with Armor-All and residual cigarette smoke.
Northside No. 5.
I met my father-in-law at arrivals and we drove back to Cedarburg. When I got out at the homestead, I pulled in a long, deep drag of Wisconsin’s best air. And my sinuses froze immediately. It smelled like cold. Which smells like nothing. But, still, so inert and fresh.
I thought about all the air spritzers I’d purchased that claim to smell like water or cotton that actually smell like a Palmolive factory exploded. Not water, nor cotton. Not fresh. Olfactory metaphors. Is ‘freshness’ a scent, or lack of it? Pure Concept?
And, is a little sanitized nothing better or worse than a lot of pungent something? Or are scents part of a yin/yang cocktail of potent wine and oyster crackers, living symbiotically?
I walked inside the house where a pile of bratwursts awaited my arrival. Hot and glistening. Timed perfectly for my arrival.
They smelled, simply, delicious.