Given the post-holiday lull and the unusually inhospitable weather – see: ‘polar vortex’ – I’ve been pessimistic about going art foraging lately. Fortunately, during a recent day of hibernation I loaded up Werner Herzog’s “Happy People” about residents of Siberia living in Neolithic conditions, and my post-holiday disenchantment melted away.
“If these people can make snowshoes from fallen fir trees and catch mink with snare traps, I can’t complain about how long it takes the interior of my car to heat up.” So vortex be damned I drove to Milwaukee to attend the opening of Gavin Brown’s exhibition at the Green Gallery.
Normally I wouldn’t frontload a review with biographical information offering details of the artist’s day job, but in some cases, ignoring such information is an even greater distraction than the alternative. Like when Jay Z went on his performance art jag. If you reviewed “Picasso Baby” without recognizing Him, the all-out genuflection of the art world in those ridiculous videos would seem especially absurd. Or when Dylan had his show at Gagosian, they had to begin the publicity release with an acknowledgement of his cultural significance outside the painting world if only to pacify the elephant in the room.
This is the case, if to a slightly lesser degree, with impresario, gallerist, taste-maker, and now artist, Gavin Brown, whose show, (which seems eponymously titled, though might not actually have a proper name??) runs through March 2. For someone crossing over, Brown appears to have a genuine sensitivity to the psychological possibilities of video. Though his installation is demonstrative and dramatic, it is deftly paced and masterfully controlled. “Gavin Brown,” or whatever the show is called, is a subtle journey that leaves a far less subtle psychic residue.
But to get this resounding impact, one needs to bathe in his work without distraction. This happened to be an impossibility at the opening of the show, when the gallery teemed with revelers, forced inside by extreme cold. The installation features two independent projections: one on the shortest wall of the triangular interior, and another that 360’s the gallery like a lighthouse beacon at about eye-level. This, along with its shrill soundtrack of screaming and pulsating alarms, made it impossible to totally escape the presence of the work at the opening, though visitors using the show as a social engagement tried anyway.
The Green Gallery’s John Riepenhoff speculated that the clumsy Beckett-esque interaction with the audience might have been intentional, symbolic of the artist’s own relationship between viewers and makers. To what degree this is purposeful, it happens to be an incredibly generous metaphor.
A review by Michael Horne in Milwaukee’s, Third Coast Daily corroborates the tenor of the evening.
“At one point the projection was accompanied by many, many minutes of fire alarms or smoke detector signals, a bit hard on the ears in the whitebox gallery. People of a certain height (4’-7’’) might also find the harsh glare of the rotating projector’s lens a bit hard on the eyes as well…But this mattered not to the mostly young and enthusiastic audience. Plus, for escape, the back room of the gallery offered a sparse gathering space for networking, conversation and carbonated beverages.”
More impressive than any statement about the awkward relationship between opening receptions and ideal art viewing, is the full, unadulterated experience of Brown’s work, an opportunity I had several days later when I returned to the empty gallery.
One is prone, even if a veteran of non-narrative video art, to search for continuity. Even moreso in Brown’s piece, as each of the videos is comprised of panning shots of a single domestic interior. A somewhat distressed woman’s voice initiates the disquieting experience to come. One naturally assumes the perspective of this invisible presence and inhabits her throughout.
If the opening was a real model Panopticon, the projector chasing imprisoned spectators around an actual enclosure, the piece without an audience is a virtual prison, the viewer trapped and becoming ever more paranoid with each revolution of the swiveling projector.
One might call it suspense, but there’s nothing building or changing. Besides a book whose cover reads “Keep Calm and Good Luck,” and some devotional statues that might be on lookout, there’s no sign of anything but comfort and safety. But the point of view and the scanning motion, that is, the form of the piece, does what one might normally expect from content. What one expects is some kind of a problem. Some kind of disruption. We grow fearful of what’s outside. When an occasional car rolls up the streets outside the house, it feels sinister and phobic.
What is the relationship between the two shots? They’re of the same prosaic interior, so one can’t help but toggle nervously between the two searching for a sign of incongruity, which, in this context, would be problematic. This creation of this context is Brown’s achievement. Why not expect a welcome guest? Why not a surprise birthday party or children coming from playing outside?
Because we assume the camera’s point-of-view, which is scanning, not looking. And it feels defensive, so we feel paranoid.
Ten minutes in, the persistent continuity is finally broken on the main wall by a series of close-ups: a locked window; a staircase; an airvent; a leaking hot water faucet. Each is accompanied by its own irritating alarm sound. With the broken silence, anxiety redlines to the point that one locks up and comes to, finally resetting and reorienting with the real interior. The one that’s been built out to hide any trace of natural light or hint of the outside world. The one that feels like a bunker that is closing in. And one wants out. At least I wanted out.
Out where it was 4 degrees and nearly as oppressive.
I don’t know how many strata of meta Gavin Brown intentionally planned on laying down, but they worked to great effect, getting me just a few steps short of cabin fever.
Not a bad first effort for someone best known for showing other peoples’ art.
I’m still in the process of attending all those shows I recommended in my Wisconsin fall preview a few months ago. It’s difficult for even the most dedicated art nerd to cover a state as large as Wisconsin. Because of this I’ve picked up the habit of turning my art excursions into comprehensive road trip experiences with an ever-evolving set of rituals: check the weather; load the podcasts; fill the travel mug with coffee; plug address into the GPS; pick up the jalapeno flavored beef jerky and two bottles of Dr. Pepper from the Speedway convenience store.
My most recent performance came en route to the Wisconsin Triennial at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA.), when I listened to a podcast on medieval history from iTunes U and scorched my mouth on jerky – I think I forged a permanent association between a swollen, stingy tongue and Pepin the Short. I pulled into Madison on the one-year anniversary of seeing Leo Villareal’s sensational show there last year and I hoped to match the pleasure again on that afternoon.
I immediately recognized the work of Madison local Derrick Buisch in the first floor gallery of the Overture Center, where MMoCA is housed. His wall grid of small paintings quickly goes from quirky illustration to chewy examination of the relationships between painting, graphics, gesture and text. The piece, called “77 Monsters”, forces one to consider the subtle differences between seeing, looking, and reading. Adjacent to this, an eccentric construction by artist Paul Sacaridiz’s complements Buisch’s 2-D work nicely. It has the same formal sensibility as Buisch’s, only in three-dimensions and with a touch of Vladimir Tatlin.
On the third floor, home to the majority of the show, I was especially moved by a video installation by Madison artist Chele Isaac, titled “The End of Angels”. The surreal, dreamy work is reminiscent of Janet Cardiff’s and George Bures Miller’s moodiest dioramas. Around the corner, Justin Bitner’s sculptural installation aroused my suspicion of sculpture made of tube televisions, though he sidestepped the oft-overdetermined application of the tube as a nostalgic bauble, or a naked symbol of media overload, by using its hissing analog snow as the soundtrack for a video of crashing waves. A rare and interesting use of television as a sonic rather than visual medium.
Nearby three photographs of hunting shelters by artist Jason Vaughn cheekily bring together the dissonant languages high-modernism and Wisconsin hunting culture. His photographic treatment of the structures gives them a personal, even sentimental feel, but his compositional framing of the them suggests something more monumental. The location of the work struck me as a superb curatorial counterpoint to Vaughn’s growling TV sets which could be faintly heard on the other side of an enclosure.
I was asked to leave at closing by an attendant while I stared transfixed into a light box photograph of a cinder cone volcano (?) by Stephen Hilyard, wondering if and to what degree the image was digitally altered. I still don’t know for sure.
I think one could do worse that to be prodded out of a museum satisfied but still looking for answers.
Two weeks later, I was checking the weather for Milwaukee on my iPhone. “Two degrees,” said Siri in her tinny voice. I laughed smugly as I read the gauge on my rented Dodge Caliber. 82 degrees. Schadenfreude. I was heading to Miami Beach, and the yearly spectacle of the art fairs.
Art fairs in Miami have proliferated like Tribbles over the past decade. There are too many now to see over the entire week. One could spend days at the main Basel fair alone. I spent three hours there and can’t tell you now if the images in my head are from this year’s fair or last’s …or from a visit to a museum prior to that. I spent hours at five other fairs as well, but I lost steam as each booth and tent passed. There’s not enough space here to describe the full scope of the Miami circus, and plenty of others are taking on that task for me anyway. It’s enough to say though that one couldn’t have a great art experience under the conditions in Miami anymore than one could have a deep philosophical conversation at their own wedding reception: it’s too fast, too disjunctive. The mind turns into a dispatcher of information rather than a feeler or processor of it.
Eventually, the absurd undertakings in plastic surgery take over and you start planning your trip the beach.
Which is where I lived out the final hours of my short trip.
When I was a kid, I lived in with my family in a pine forest in Window Rock, Arizona for a while. It was isolated and deprived of modern commercial pleasures. On the weekend we’d drive to Albuquerque and I would ritually indulge in the travel luxury of a bag of pine nuts sold to us from the side of the road. Albuquerque was a two hour drive, and if I extricated 11 nuts from their shell with my teeth during that time, I was lucky.
Now I can get a grocery sack-full of shelled pine nuts at Costco for 6 bucks. And I hate them. I don’t even like them on salads.
I don’t care what all the idealist critics say about the autonomy of art. Bullshit. Context and ritual matters.
It was a schizo week of art viewing for me that started with a trip to New York last Friday. I had been excited to hit the Lower East Side with the taste still in my mouth of Jerry Saltz’s assault in New York Mag on the Neo-Mannerist painting that has taken over the Lower East Side and Bushwick (though I don’t think he pins the tendency to a specific area). Reading it on the plane it struck me as a bit ironic that the fate of the LES art scene, whose life expectancy is often a subject of speculation even as galleries continue to mushroom there, should be so fastened to the the success of painting, an art form with five centuries on it, and which has risen from the dead more times than the number of years most of the LES artists have walked the planet.
But alas I didn’t have the chance, so I traveled to the artistic opposite of the LES where, I targeted the Met’s newly overhauled European wing. The giant Tiepolo remains on the left at the top of the main staircase, but inside, the galleries are completely restructured, and the shuffled deck of masterpieces forced me into a complete reevaluation of the story of the Italian Renaissance:
Pardon me for a moment while I digress toward the conspiratorial.
Our current notion of the renaissance wasn’t codified until Jacob Burckhardt did so in the middle of the 19th century. And the treasures of art that signify that rebirth weren’t substantiated until the wheelings-and-dealing of mercenaries like Bernard Berenson and Joseph Duveen canonized them only more recently. The subsequent narrative about the primacy of Italy has been reinforced by a century of lectures from auditoriums dimly lit by the pale glow from Kodak slide projectors loaded with Fra Angelicos and Mantegnas.
Despite the gospel to which we’ve willingly subscribed, rolling Pico Della Mirandola, Boccaccio, Machiavelli, Cimabue, Giotto, Raphael, Titian, etc. etc., into a tidy narrative that spread Northward, I had to wonder at the Met whether, if we could press ‘reset’ on the Game Cube of Western Civilization, we would end up listening to adjunct professors recite an alternative story of the North, of Erasmus, of the Hussites, of the Hanseatic League, and Martin Luther and Gutenberg…and of course in art, of van Eyck and van der Weyden, with Da Vinci, Tintoretto and Titian relegated to supporting roles?
If History is a story of overcoming tradition and inventing change, the North seems to have a good case for preeminence.
Art Historians, address your letters to me not to the Bad at Sports’ offices.
That was the ferment in my head as I flew home the same evening to Milwaukee. The very next day I inadvertently got the antidote to the Met in Bayview, that I missed on the LES.
In a semi-improvised gallery called Usable Space at a studio building at 1950 S. Hilbert Street, on what might be the very same narrow footprint of any gallery on Ludlow in NYC, stands a modest painting show that will remind naysayers of the enduring thrill that comes from pushing pigment and binder around a canvas with a brush. The show, “Information Processors” curated by Shane Walsh serves up meat-and-potatoes painters that celebrate the gooey joys of the tradition, with more than a few eccentric, non-traditional moments to keep us on our toes. Notable are Michelle Bollinger’s naked and luscious abstractions, which recall everyone from Franz Kline to John Lasker to Thomas Scheibitz, to the deliciously strange sprayerbrusher, Trudy Benson, without losing their singularity.
Janet Bruhn’s “Melting Jello Cake” is too representational a title for a painting that first smacks as an abstraction with gorgeous marbled painting inside an unexpected perimeter of languid brushwork that I only eventually realized was a container. Without the title telling us, we would have naturally inferred the sense of a confectionary orgy, even if we didn’t identify the subject matter directly.
There are other high points in the show, so go see it for yourself, but I’ll fittingly conclude with Bradley Biancardi’s “Crystal from Berwyn (after Titian)” which seems less Titian than Matisse…with a Dash of Alice Neel and David Hockney, but inspiration is inspiration.
Still, c’mon, Titian? No Van Eyck. Maybe Biancardi’s influence reaffirms the triumph of the Italian Renaissance. Thinking of Titian made me doubt my musings about alternative histories. But whatever the real foundations of the last half-millennium of Western painting, it’s great to see that there are still plenty of practitioners willing to carry on the legacy, willing to approach canvases without guile or cynicism, and do their best to keep the gravediggers at the art cemetery leaning on their shovels. This experience will make it easier to stomach the ailing Neo-Mannerists at the Orchard Street hospice next week.
“If you build it, they will come,” lows a voice to Ray Kinsella in the film “Field of Dreams.” Incredulous but faithful, Ray, played by Kevin Costner, obeys, carving a baseball diamond out of his Iowa cornfield and,after some plot twists and life lessons, they do in fact come.
In Fond du Lac last week the Thelma Sadoff Center for the Arts opened to the public. A hybrid of contemporary architecture and a Masonic temple that had previously housed the Windhover Art Center, the Sadoff Center is an impressive specimen: granite topped bars; a spacious terrace for live music; two large and gloriously lit art galleries, classrooms, workshops and a hall for lectures and performances. It’s a cultural diamond in the heart of a pragmatic industrial town – an only slightly less quixotic enterprise than trying to lure the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson out of a cornfield.
Its opening was marked by two moving and exceedingly complementary exhibitions.
The title of sculptor/ceramicist Novie Trump’s show “the Weight of Air” perfectly captures the dreamy intimacy evoked by the delicate objects comprising it. Her work is somewhat insistent at first, but ultimately lets us find our own way through the mysterious and meditative imagery.
A row of gentle white bird nests cast crisp shadows on the floor; a series of white branches dangle lightly from filament; a wall of black ceramic butterflies elevates toward the skylights. All incredibly suggestive, literally and visually, but, in the end, just out of reach. As intangible as air itself. The most exquisite and suggestive of these airy sculptural vignettes are two small white reliquaries filled with fragile artifacts. Her work recalls Christian Boltanski, but where he chooses to reveal the painful truth, Trump conceals, and lets us sift through our own memories and associations.
Trump’s quiet theater is enhanced by the ample light that pours into the third floor gallery. Cast shadows in the show become as much a part of the works as the ceramic objects themselves.
Equally dependent on light and shadow but to entirely different effect is the work of Hap Tivey. The impact of his work is most profound when descending the stairs directly from Trump’s show upstairs. Her blue-tinged natural light scheme is interrupted by the sour yellow haze of his work “Sodium Exchange.” It’s a relatively abrupt transition, but still Tivey’s work is light and quiet.
At the opening I overheard several viewers questioning what “to do” with the “Sodium Exchange”. At one point Hap came in and told them to “not to do anything” and to “let go.” Indeed they did, and the environment overcame them.
“Sodium Exchange” essentially creates two experiences on either side of a fabric membrane. The south side offers a trip through a spectrum of diffuse atmospheric light. Soft, tonal shadows cast by the viewer dance almost imperceptibly on the scrim bisecting the room. The north side bathed in harsh sodium light, reveals a more distinct cast shadow of the viewers on the opposite side, setting up an anxious, jarring and voyeuristic experience.
Tivey is a veteran light-and-space artist whose aim, as he mentioned in a lecture Wednesday night, is to “create experiences that an individual can’t not have anywhere else.” It’s a simple but profound conceit that his work lives up to, especially when the viewer yields control.
Though experience is primary for Tivey, the interactivity in “Sodium Exchange” happens to be a living metaphor for how human nerve cells transmit information, and by extension, how one perceives the very light that is functioning as the metaphor in the work itself.
The relationship between the works and the new space is exceptional. A literally brilliant way to inaugurate the Thelma Sadoff Center for the Arts.
Today at the Center they’re having a screening of Baz Luhrmann’s “Great Gatsby” down the hall from Trump’s and Tivey’s wonderful environments. It seems an almost perfectly cheeky choice by comparison. I can’t imagine anything less slow and subtle than Luhrmann’s movies. Maybe an actual car crash. I hope everyone who attends the screening goes from the green light beyond Gatsby’s dock, toward the sodium and sunlight in the galleries. Their minds just might get blown.
Blown minds or not, my guess would be that such outrageous variety will be a necessary recipe for the Thelma Sadoff Center for the Arts in Fond du Lac. So far it’s an ambitious and well-executed endeavor, especially the delicately curated art work. With a smashing public opening on Thursday, it seems the public is on board so far.
If you build it, they just might come.
Unless you’re one of the lucky ones who can swing the Venice Biennale package excursion, or go off on a museums-of-the-world grand tour, late summer is a drag in the art world. In New York, after the kitchen-sink group shows conclude in July, the economic drivers of the art world flit off to the Hamptons, Fire Island…or Venice, and the apparatus effectively shuts down until they return after Labor Day. Thankfully September is bananas and more than makes up for the brief hibernation.
I wasn’t sure when I arrived in Wisconsin if the same would be true, but by late July it was clear that haute culture takes a back seat here as well, only in favor of jet skis, pontoon boats, and prime rib Saturdays. Even for the philanthropist/board member set, which is part of the charm of the place. I’m told Door County is Wisconsin’s version of the Hamptons, though I don’t think there are any go-karts in the Hamptons.
So in terms of spectatorship, it was a fairly dry late summer. With one significant exception.
I finally found the time to drive two-and-a-half hours north to the tiny town of Little Wolf to see, indeed, experience, The Poor Farm, the experimental exhibition project imagined by Michelle Grabner and Brad Killam.
On the way there my GPS went out of range somewhere outside of Manawa, so I stabbed forward like a pioneer searching for a pass through the mountains. I eventually hit County Road B by blind luck, took a right turn and happened by a large building with a David Smith-y looking sculpture out front. I was right in assuming I was where I was supposed to be.
The Farm might pass as your typical two-story rustic house in the country, only contemporary art occupies the spaces that might otherwise be used to store mason jars full of rhubarb preserves. The dozen-or-so galleries spread over two floors and basement are home to installations that run an entire year. That year officially kicked-off last week with an annual extravaganza called the “Great Poor Farm Experiment”, complete with video screenings, performances, and a little wholesome socializing. Ahem.
It’s difficult to appraise the individual exhibitions at the Poor Farm independently from the raw charm of the space itself. Though there is a clear demarcation between exhibitions, the Farm’s ambient personality unifies the experience. One of my favorite pieces on view is a painting by John Riepenhoff in gallery 5 on the second floor; another is a nearby wall in gallery 3 whose stratified paint layers happen to be artfully flaking away.
Also captivating is an installation of large abstract paintings by the Italian artist Lucio Pozzi, occupying the largest gallery on the main floor. Pozzi’s suite of paintings, like the gallery and building encasing them it, are a healthy mix of sophistication and eccentricity. The paintings seem to be clean and hermetic at first but their composure degrades and their informal, slightly skewed character is comes to the fore.
The installations in the basement join forces to create somewhat of a Freddy Krueger-esque experience. That I was alone and the rural silence was split only by an eerie sound piece under the stairwell by C. Spencer Yeh, contributed significantly to the impression.
I left satisfied and compensated for August’s otherwise paltry offerings. The Poor Farm is a recommended trip even given the Chicago-to-Manawa road time. Perhaps on the way back home can hit some other Wisconsin art offerings I recommend for fall.
First, I’ll nerd-out with a show that might not get every art lover salivating, but as an art history professor, I’m looking forward to a survey of painter-of-presidents and theatrically-derived genre scenes, Thomas Sully, at the Milwaukee Art Museum.
As for local, contemporary interests, two Wisconsin surveys are happening concurrently: the Wisconsin Triennial at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Madison (MMoCA) and the third installment of the Haggerty Museum of Art’s Current Tendencies. I’m looking forward to seeing Kristy Deetz’s paintings in Madison, which draw equally from craft, folk art, Fra Angelico, and imagination. Current Tendencies boasts work by photographer Jon Horvath, mixed media artist Jason S. Yi, and other favorites from the Milwaukee area.
For the bananas portion of the season, I’ll save my wilder enthusiasms for the fourth annual Ghost Show, a collaboration during Halloween among a number of independent art spaces in Milwaukee that will merge the occult, the esthetic and the potable to what I’ve heard are thrilling, if not supernatural results. Stay tuned for more details about that.
Coinciding with the grand opening of the Thelma Sadoff Center for the Arts in Fond du Lac, New York-based light/space and all-around phenomenological pirate, Hap Tivey, will reconfigure an extraordinary installation called “Sodium Exchange”. The piece invites viewers to interact with each other on either side of an illuminated scrim. Think: Robert Irwin, Doug Wheeler, but with a ladle-full of relational gravy and a sprig of playfulness on top.
I’ll conclude my short list of things to see in Wisconsin this fall with a plug for a show a thousand miles away on 20th Street in New York City. Mike Womack, an artist I’ve championed in the past will have his third show at ZieherSmith. It opens on September 5 if you’re in the area. This time around for the protean artist: concrete encased works on paper. The sketchbooks of Frida Kahlo colliding with Brutalist architecture? Paul Klee’s drawings in a death match with Donald Judd’s Chinati cubes? I can only hope, but I’ll have to be surprised.
So no one thinks I’m taking thematic liberties, I’d like it noted that one-half of ZieherSmith, Scott Zieher, is, beyond being an exceptional poet and collage artist, a native son of the great state of Wisconsin. So there.
Happy viewing and Gooo bee-ad-yers.