The Poor Farm

The Poor Farm


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.

Poor Farm Wall

Poor Farm Wall


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.


Lucio Pozzi at the Poor Farm

Lucio Pozzi at the Poor Farm


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.


Hap Tivey, "Sodium Exchange"

Hap Tivey, “Sodium Exchange”


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.