Tag Archives: visual art

Riverwest FemFest 2017 – In their words

By Joey Grihalva

Wisconsin has some incredibly talented female artists. That is not an “alternative fact.” 

But you might not know it if you went to any random concert, art gallery or comedy club. In an effort to address this gender imbalance, multiple venues in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood played host to a parade of female and female-identifying creatives for five days last week — from teenage rockers to soprano singers, visual artists to spoken word poets.

What was originally intended simply to be a basement party thank you to the inspiring women in Olivia Doyle’s life three years ago, has blossomed into Riverwest FemFest, possibly the state’s largest female-focused arts festival.

The third installment of FemFest took place amid an international outpouring of support for women and disapproval of President Trump. It also served as a fundraiser for the Milwaukee Coalition for Justice and the Milwaukee Women’s Center.

Rather than recap the festival, I interviewed over a dozen organizers and performers, allowing them to describe the significance of FemFest in their voice.

[All photos by Jessi Paetzke.]

Olivia Doyle, founder

I started it because I was feeling empowered by the women around me, to the point where it really changed my life. I went back to school. I started wanting more of myself because they reminded me that I deserve it. It was a truly powerful experience for me to meet all these women in Riverwest, so the first fest was really just a thank you. It was never meant to be what it is now. 

Why is the diversity of arts at the festival important?

Because women and femmes are creative in other ways that aren’t just music. And we want to showcase as much of their creativity as we can.

Have there been any growing pains with the festival over the years?

This year especially has been a real learning process for us, with the expansion of everything that we’re including and also with how big we’re getting. We’re reaching a lot more people. So it’s really like a community event and there’s lots of different people in this community, so learning to be as inclusive as possible is a process. 

What are some of the things you’re most proud of in terms of the festival?

As a whole, watching all these people perform that I love and I’m inspired by. I’m very proud to have created this platform. In terms of a specific moment, Jenna Knapp did spoken word, she’s a childhood friend of mine. Being able to introduce her and tell the audience why she’s so inspiring to me and then have her read her poetry, which people loved, it made me feel like a proud mom. It’s really wonderful to see all these people that I love and care about do what they love and care about.

Jenna Knapp [Photo by Jessi Paetzke]

Ellie Jackson, organizer and musician (Scape)

I’ve been involved in music and radio from an early age. I joined a community radio station when I was in college. When I got involved with music I realized there was like a 20-to-1 ratio between the bands I was playing that were male and the bands that were female. Not because I wanted to, but those were the numbers. I asked the station manager if I could do an all-female focused show and they told me that that was sexist. I said, “It doesn’t feel sexist though. The music industry is sexist!”

So for me FemFest is an opportunity to celebrate those female artists that I wasn’t given permission to celebrate before. Now we’re taking the permission. Riverwest is also where I live so the community here is very important to me. But certainly supporting creatives everywhere is also very important to me.

Why is it important to have a diversity of arts at the festival?

I think that we as a culture underestimate other arts. Like a great example is that here we are in this venue (Company Brewing) where you can come and buy a beer and watch music almost any night of the week, which is a beautiful thing. But there isn’t really that culture around 2D art, there isn’t exactly that culture around the Milwaukee Art Museum and other performance arts. They’re not quite as celebrated as musical art. We have a culture with bar venues and theater venues that make it easier to celebrate musical art, but we’re really excited to have a variety night with comedians and other performance art. There was a burlesque performance, we have an art gallery and we have a Maker’s Fair upstairs, so we’re trying to sort of spread out all the creativity.

Were you a part of the festival last year?

No, I just came to it. I came to it on Saturday, one year ago today, and I remember walking into this space and just being so impressed with all the performances and I guess just feeling like, “Duh. Of course we should celebrate this, these people are amazing!” And the fact that the ratio is still not even.

It’s a no-brainer that this festival needs to happen and people need to come and experience the talent that these female performers have. And then to be in a room with people that are genuinely interested in celebrating femme creativity and supporting Milwaukee organizations, because it’s all a fundraiser. Also actively working on not being sexist and being allies for that cause. It felt great, so as soon as it happened last year I was like, “Who do I talk to? How do I get involved in this?”

Britney Freeman-Farr, musician (B~Free, Foreign Goods)

I got involved with FemFest last year when I was a part of another show with one of FemFest’s organizers, Johanna Rose. We were in Prince Uncovered together and we just connected musically.  She said, “You and Cree Myles have to be a part of FemFest!” So we called Jay Anderson, and I wasn’t even in Foreign Goods at the time, but we were all friends because my husband is in the band. They backed us and the experience was so incredibly invigorating. Not only performing, but also watching all of these women command the stage and the audiences.

There was one group in particular, Mary Allen and the Perculators, and I was just blown away. I couldn’t believe that we have this much power! And then when I saw that the festival was coming back around and I was more developed with my own solo stuff at this time, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to recreate the same magic that I experienced. I’m very happy to have the opportunity.

What does it mean for you to be a part of female focused gatherings?

It makes me feel like what I’m doing is purposeful. As we mentioned in the show this evening, ‘It’s really hard out here for a pimp.’ (laughs) It’s hard being a woman in this industry, let alone in this world. And to be able to be a thriving example of someone who not only has a craft but also makes a livelihood with it, that sets the tone for all the generations to come. I feel really good about letting the young ones know that no matter your background, or gender or creed, you can do whatever makes you happy. Forget everybody else’s standards that they place on you. I really feel like that’s the spirit behind FemFest. Celebrating that we’re not going to let you think of us as the lesser gender or anything, we’re equally as talented and important.

B~Free [Photo by Jessi Paetzke]

Gabriella Kartz, music organizer and performer (Faux Fiction)

It’s about supporting each other and celebrating people who add a lot to the Milwaukee scene in general through their various art forms. I think we’re really trying to make sure that we’re inclusive of all groups. People who are women or identify as women, we’re really trying to embrace all of that diversity. It’s what makes the fest a wonderful thing.

For me, last year was just a really positive experience. We got great feedback about our music and it was a really comfortable space to be able to express yourself. I think that’s what I really liked about it and why I wanted to be more involved this year.

Faux Fiction [Photo by Jessi Paetzke]

Kelsey Moses, comedian (Goodlanders)

This was the first time we’ve done anything outside of ComedySportz. , so it was a great opportunity to share what we do with people who might not come to ComedySportz.  How could you not enjoy a giant collaboration of beautiful, strong, powerful women being funny, being creative, being artistic, being musical? Women coming together to celebrate women, I love it.

Goodlanders [Photo by Jessi Paetzke]

Ashley Altadonna, filmmaker and musician (The Glacial Speed)

One of the great things about FemFest is that it is so inclusive. I know that they’ve had other transgender performers besides me at the festival and I think that’s great. I also had two films in the film showcase, plus all the workshops and community organizing they’re doing is fantastic. There’s just so much to see and do.

The Glacial Speed [Photo by Jessi Paetzke]

Jessi Paetzke, photographer

I attended last year because a friend invited me and it was really inspiring for me, so I wanted to get involved and photography is what I do. It’s really encouraging to see a bunch of diverse and talented women doing what they’re supposed to be doing and living out their passions. And also hearing about other people’s struggles, those of us who aren’t white men, what we face in society, how people might try to make us feel small or not welcome, and knowing that we’re not the only ones who feel that way.

Mary Joy, organizer and musician (Fox Face)

I didn’t have a strong female role model growing up and I had a lot of self-esteem issues. For me, music became that outlet of expression and that confidence builder. I’ve been playing in bands since I was 16 and that’s really where my female role models emerged. Music has been such an essential part of my identity and I realize that my story, my feminism, can relate and intersect with other people’s feminism. Our stories can come together and change a community. Our stories can help us find that self-esteem and whatever is missing in our lives.

It’s been a very empowering experience for me to have my own journey, but also to bring together other people’s journeys, wherever they’re at. And I hope they find something at FemFest, find something that they’re looking for, find a new relationship, find meaning somewhere.

Fox Face [Photo by Jessi Paetzke]

D Kirschling, volunteer (Ladies Rock)

This year the fest has really expanded and added all types of artists. I’ve known about women in the arts and music scenes for a long time and it’s great to see everybody getting together to spread the word and get to know each other and share. It’s a pretty awesome feeling. I’m hearing bands I’ve known and loved and I’m hearing new bands I haven’t been exposed to before.

Anskar Thorlac, performance artist (Maplewood Gardens – Chicago)

We’re really interested in intersectionality in our audiences. Our rituals are meant to be public and shared by large groups of people. It’s really exciting to find different communities and especially a femme identifying community, being femme identifying artists ourselves. It’s exciting to have an entry point into that community in a different city. It’s also sort of liberating doing a shared ritual for people you don’t know. Plus all of the femme organizers have been so generous and supportive and responsive.

Anskar Thorlac (Maplewood Gardens) [Photo by Jessi Paetzke]

Katie Lyne, musician (New Boyz Club, Ruth B8r Ginsburg, The Grasping at Straws)

It shows that if we have to put on a whole entire festival of female or female-fronted acts, there’s obviously something missing. We have to do this to put it at the forefront. It’s not a female-dominated scene, but it’s going to be one. The dynamic is changing. And it’s just such an awesome festival, having safe places for women like Company Brewing, places that include everyone and bring the power back to where it belongs.

I love hearing the poetry too. Hearing females tell their stories of sexual abuse or whatever it may be, especially friends of mine who I see everyday. Everyone has a struggle as a woman and to have that on stage alongside these awesome bands, it’s such a great place for women to collaborate and remember that we’re all in this together.

Rachel Clark, gallery team

FemFest is an opportunity to bring a lot of people together to talk about females and female-identifying folks. Like when we did the interviews for gallery artists, we had meetings at our houses just so people could meet and have conversations. So not only is the festival important to me because of what it stands for, but also it’s an opportunity for people to get to know each other and build community.

Groovy Dog Gallery [Photo by Jessi Paetzke]

Alexandre Maxine Hill, musician (LUXI)

FemFest means a lot to me. In the past it was harder for me to book shows as a female artist. I’m not sure people really took me seriously. So I think it’s really important that we have a place where we can have a voice and express ourselves in whatever way we want and just be the awesome women that we are.

Gabriela Riveros, gallery and Maker’s Fair artist

I think these kinds of fests are needed, especially for all the creatives that exist in Milwaukee. We need a space for other women creatives to come out of their own neighborhoods and communities and be a part of a larger project. I love the fest. There’s so much going on.

Jovan [Photo by Jessi Paetzke]

Casey O’Brien, festival-goer

I feel that women tend to have a somewhat secretive supportive role that isn’t always publicized. It sort of feels like the foundation that supports something else. And this festival puts a spotlight on people who don’t normally get a spotlight.

I think it’s easier for a woman or femme-identifying person to get up on this stage versus being on an everyday Milwaukee lineup, when too often girls are judged based on how they look or people say stuff like, “Oh she’s good for a girl.” Here no one is looking at the stage and saying, “Look they have a girl in that band!” It feels more comfortable.

Katie Lafond, musician (Siren)

I want female-focused gatherings to be unnecessary. We shouldn’t need to have an all-girl thing for people to start putting more girls on shows. I think it’s more important for the guys because it gives them something to look at and be like, “Oh, this has been in our city this whole time and I just never knew it.”

But it’s also good for younger girls to see there are women out there who are doing what they might want to do. So I think it’s good to educate men and to show kids there are better opportunities and that we’re able to do these things on stage. It’s kind of like a teaching moment where we’re saying, “You can do this too, you’re not alone.”

See more of Jessi Paetzke’s photos from Riverwest FemFest 2017 by clicking the links below.

Day 1 (Wednesday @ Art Bar)

Day 2 (Thursday @ Groovy Dog Gallery & Riverwest Public House Cooperative)

Day 3 (Friday @ Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts and Company Brewing)

Day 4 & 5 (Saturday & Sunday @ Company Brewing)

Devin Settle [Photo by Jessi Paetzke]

Photographs of Tropicalísimo reflect beauty and resiliency

John Sevigny, Two Transvestites with Dog
John Sevigny’s “Two Transvestites with Dog.”

“Heat, humidity, salty air, and frequently conditions of poverty, cause things and people to fall apart south of the Tropic of Cancer.” Such are the musings of photographer John Sevigny, whose new exhibit at Latino Arts comprises 40 digital photographs taken in Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador between 2012 and 2014. Titled Tropicalísimo, the photos “look at people and things as they corrode, and yet, remain bound by rust, wire, string and the sheer force of human will.

These 40 works are mostly color prints of moderate size, tacked directly to the wall. As simple as the curatorial presentation may be, the order of their placement creates a sense of rhythm and, at times, direct dialogue between the pictures. Many images suggest ripe short stories, where the narrative of daily life is filled with beauty and resiliency.

One of the strengths of Sevigny’s work is his manner of photographing people. Regardless of their surroundings, whether sprawled on a tattered couch on the pavement or secluded in a dark interior room, something has been chosen in that photographed moment. They are lifted out of the flotsam and jetsam of the everyday grind, calling out to the essential dignity of each person. The photographer’s talent in this is innate, but also seems to recall something of art historical predecessors.

One of the first pieces in the exhibition is labeled simply “Two Transvestites with Dog.” The heat is palpable. A woman is slouched in a chair, her short skirt exposing legs while an arm draped over her head pulls hair back from her damp brow. Her companion fusses with a small white dog who pants atop a table. The shadows conceal her face and it takes a moment to see the cigarette dangling from her lips. The realness of the picture, and the deep shadows that linger on the sides and behind the two main figures, employ the dynamics of Baroque painting — Caravaggio, in particular, comes to mind.

Perhaps this is not accidental. Sevigny has written about Caravaggio in the past, and the Italian artist was notorious for depicting his subjects in stark realism. Even in religious paintings, Caravaggio would use ordinary men and women from the street as models, a move that shocked viewers who deemed this as a transgression on propriety. Today, we hold no such strictures, but what Sevigny does is present the people of his photographs in a manner that conveys a similar sense of gravity.

Sevigny also references Caravaggio’s fellow 17th-century artist Diego Velázquez, who explored the picture plane as a deep, multi-dimensional world. Sevigny’s Juke Box and Pooh is similarly dense, although it doesn’t appear so at first. We look into a seemingly deserted bar, decorated with a poster for the football team Real Madrid and the eponymous jukebox with a large cut-out of Winnie-the-Pooh on top. But our eyes travel back, behind a half-curtained wall to the area beyond. A clothesline is strung with laundry, a note on the domestic necessitates that lie just out of reach of the public space.

John Sevigny, Mancar.
John Sevigny, Mancar.

Texture and color are rich notes in Sevigny’s photographs, offering a lush surface from which to contemplate the scenes and subjects he portrays. “Mancar,” with its tightly cropped focus on a man driving a rusted yellow automobile, feels like a claustrophobic traffic jam, no matter the time of day. To cite a more modern comparison, this seems a cousin to work by the Indian photographer Ragubir Singh, who also fixated on visual color and the vibrance of his native culture in pictures combining documentation and poetry.

There are some weighty stories in these works. Sevigny, in his exhibition introduction, notes that violence was part of many places he lived and worked. This is at times less obliquely referenced. In a poignant curatorial pairing, pieces called Crib and Coffin are placed side-by-side. The photographic prints are the same size, but they upend assumptions. Crib shows a man lying in a baby’s crib on the street, scrunched in a fetal position behind its blue painted bars. Coffin is a close-up view of the pleated fabric on the inside. It is not entirely clear which part of the coffin we see, nor the source for the discoloration and speckles of color on the pale surface.

Sevigny’s work is currently on view at Latino Arts, a center for education and arts in the Hispanic community. Sevigny grew up in Miami and his work has taken him far field as a news photographer for the Associated Press and other major organizations. While Latino Arts’ exhibition may seem modest in execution, the center for education and the arts in the Hispanic community is in fact presenting an artist whose work has been shown internationally. In this context, the show’s intimacy is an excuse to be more fully engaged in Sevigny’s Tropicalísimo.

Tropicalísimo by John Sevigny continues through June 3 at Latino Arts, 1028 S. 9th St., Milwaukee. Admission is a $1 donation. For more information about this and other Latino Arts programs, visit latinoartsinc.org.

Gregory Conniff goes digital, finds new exposures in nature

Landscape photographer Gregory Conniff’s artistic world once consisted solely of saw-toothed picket fences, tangled brush and deep, evocative shadows that appeared to lengthen the longer one looked at his black-and-white gelatin silver prints. It was imagery filled with nuanced and subtle emotion, void of human occupancy, yet alive with an untold vibrancy.

Gregory Conniff's Watermarks series features color images, a shift for the photographer.
Gregory Conniff’s ‘Watermarks’ series features color images, a shift for the photographer.

A challenge from the curators at the Museum of Wisconsin Art (MOWA), located in West Bend, recently changed Conniff’s way of looking at nature. Armed with a high-definition digital camera and tasked with taking color photos rather than black-and-white shots, the Madison attorney-turned-photographer took a closer look at images once seen only through a monochromatic lens. What he found has given his natural imagery even greater detail and dimension, and taken his work in new, expressive directions.

Watermarks, MOWA’s exhibit of 43 photographs by Conniff that opened April 9, displays his newly evolving and carefully articulated vision. It’s a vision, the photographer says, that holds as much promise for the viewers as for the artist himself.

What made you want to become a photographer?

I’ve had a darkroom since I was 13. I photographed for all the usual publications in schools and then never stopped. One appeal of photography for me is its speed of capture and its extended length for contemplation of results, the way a picture does — or doesn’t — age.

How did you find your way to Madison and what made you give up practicing law?

I grew up in New Jersey, and while I found myself in Wisconsin many decades ago, I am still from New Jersey. This allows me to appreciate both the order and beauty of the Wisconsin rural landscape and to feel familiar with the state’s exploration of the sort of political and economic geography I grew up with. In the late 19th century, painter George Innes studied the rural New Jersey landscape that gradually became Sopranos country (and the territory of my youth). Innes would have recognized the Wisconsin I saw upon my arrival here. Tony Soprano would be comfortable with how the state is changing.

During the 1970s I did a number of things, one of which was practicing law, another of which was making photographs. I found that I was a better self when I was making pictures and so restricted my professional life to photography around 1978 when I felt my images were at least as good as the worst of what I saw on exhibition.

Why landscape photography?

I like working outdoors and am not suited for sitting at a desk. The vernacular American landscape has been and still is my territory, but its evolution in my mind has been through an increased focus on the simple fact of beauty and our need for its nourishment. The essence of my thinking is that “it matters how things look.”

What caused you to take up MOWA’s challenge and change your style?

Apparently I’m a sucker for some thrown gauntlets. What I’ve learned over the past year and a half is how much more there is to see in my immediate world and how the character of my tools has enlarged the range and complexity of what I can learn to see.

How difficult was it for you to make the change after decades of black-and-white work?

I jumped into the challenge from the museum wild and blind, hoping that light would fall on the world in a way that was new to me. My biggest hurdles were learning to use new equipment of radically different character, learning new software to meet the demands of drastically increased output, and learning where my subject lay and how to trust it. I ended up with three bodies of work, one of which continues under the radar, another of which wasn’t news, and the third of which exploded and is hanging now in West Bend. I wish I lived closer to the show, because the pictures are so fresh that I’ve just begun to learn what they contain.

The Watermarks series is one of three that Conniff created after MOWA's challenge.
The ‘Watermarks’ series is one of three bodies of work that Conniff created after MOWA’s challenge.

Tell me about the current exhibition.

The pictures that make up Watermarks, while coherent and organized, are so new to me that I have no words to break them down into components. I count this as a mercy.

This show went up wet. I did a 180° turn and am traveling a road with no signage and indistinct margins. I’m not even sure I’m on a road. The show is also an installation — no labels, just one thing and meant for lingering immersion. It would be great if I could talk around Watermarks in such a way that a reader would want to dive in, but I can’t.

In general, what does an artist’s work say about him or her? What does your work say about you?

When an artist’s work feels inevitable — its ideas shaped into fact without obvious effort or ego — I trust that I’m in the presence of someone who cares about both the piece and its audience. I give over my initial attention with gratitude. I say “Of course,” and then I look and look.

I like work that lasts, that slowly releases new understandings as the viewer ages and changes alongside the work. I respect work that isn’t afraid to be both beautiful and confounding. The odd couple of Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Robert Irwin has enlarged my world with each artist’s quiet insistent immediacy and inherent joy. They happen to be on my mind right now for different reasons, but the company of visually generous artists is large, diverse, and extends back to the walls at Lascaux.

What would you like viewers to take away from your MOWA exhibition?

If a viewer leaves the show with the thought that daily life contains wonders that will reveal themselves to sufficient attention, then Watermarks will have done its job. If the viewer also feels a desire to experience the show again, then it’s possible to think that what I’ve made is art.

Landscape photographer Gregory Conniff’s Watermarks is on display through June 19 at The Museum of Wisconsin Art, 205 Veterans Ave., West Bend. For more information, call 262-334-9638 or visit wisconsinart.org.

Works by Jason Yi and local surrealists top Gallery Night picks

Gallery Night and Day comes around four times a year and it’s often like a changing of the Milwaukee artscape. New exhibitions often hold their openings, and there are many that sound particularly intriguing.

Jason S. Yi, "Terraform 01," 2013, from an installation at the Haggerty Museum of Art. Courtesy jasonyi.com.
Jason S. Yi, “Terraform 01,” 2013, from an installation at the Haggerty Museum of Art. Courtesy jasonyi.com.

For a full list of galleries exhibiting work during this season’s Gallery Night and Day, April 15 and 16, visit the Historic Third Ward’s website.

‘Jason S. Yi: Terraform’

Dean Jensen Gallery, 759 N. Water St., Milwaukee

Friday 6 to 9 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Through June 18

Jason Yi is a Milwaukee-based artist with an international scope to his career, and a talent for inventive uses of materials. In this installation, the main gallery will be completely transformed by his work. His stated goal is to present visitors with “conflicting contexts of place, setting, and their own sense of orientation.”

‘Agency, Industry, Infinity’ 

Robin Jebavy, Joy of Life, oil on canvas, 72×84″, 2013. Courtesy Portrait Society Gallery.
Robin Jebavy, Joy of Life, oil on canvas, 72×84″, 2013. Courtesy Portrait Society Gallery.

Portrait Society Gallery, 207 E. Buffalo St., 5th Floor, Milwaukee.

Friday, 5 to 9 p.m., Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Through May 28.

Viewing the work of artists Robin Jebavy and Rosemary Ollison may give one the feeling of peering into a kaleidoscope. Jebavy’s work is in paintings while Ollison’s is in textiles, but both artists’ compositions feature complex designs. They play off recognizable references of everyday things, spinning them into colorful multiplicities of image.

‘Surreal…So Real’

Tory Folliard Gallery, 233 N. Milwaukee St., Milwaukee

Friday, 5 to 9 p.m., Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

T. L. Solien, Black Bouquet. Courtesy toryfolliard.com
T. L. Solien, Black Bouquet. Courtesy toryfolliard.com

Through May 28

An artists’ reception on Friday will kick off this exhibition of fantastic images by a variety of artists working in a surrealist vein. Though the movement originated in the 1920s, there are many still practicing the art of drawing creativity from the unconscious mind. This exhibit will include works by Bill Reid, T. L. Solien, Fred Stonehouse and Betsy Youngquist.

Telling Vincent van Gogh’s story through his ‘Bedrooms’

No one in the history of art has created a series of self-portraits as riveting as Vincent van Gogh’s. Rembrandt came close. Frida Kahlo added inventive and fantastical drama. Warhol dipped into the vernacular of representation.

But van Gogh nailed it. He spun the very molecules of existence into the closest equivalent of what it feels like to be alive than any artist has ever reached.

With van Gogh’s self-portraits, there is no division between figure and ground. He asserts that human life comes from the same energy fields as air, water and land, a mere rearranging of atoms into ever-shifting and colliding eruptions of transient, uncontainable matter. And he then molds paint into the emotive equivalents of natural forces. His urgent and aggressive mark-making are literally like footprints in the wet mud of a farm field — imprints of existence rather than abstract equivalents of representation.

One could look at the current exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, Van Gogh’s Bedrooms (through May 10,2016), as a series of self-portraits, even when van Gogh’s face does not in fact appear. Everything depicted — a pair of shoes, a landscape, a chair — is so imbued with the easily identifiable hand of van Gogh that he looms as the subject of his work, no matter what the painting depicts. A tree is as alive and expressive as a face.

The 36-piece show is built around three sequential paintings of van Gogh’s bedroom in Arles, united for the first time. It might seem like a crowd-pleasing headline show built from narrow means. Instead it becomes a perfect fulcrum for expanding and exploring multiple themes in van Gogh’s work. Just when one would think there is no stone left unturned in this eminent artist’s oeuvre, the AIC tilts the perspective enough to get a different, more intimate glimpse of his brief life and career.

The exhibition beautifully ties these works into van Gogh’s biography in a way that offers much more than a timeline. Bits of the quotidian punctuate the show, and offer small but profound moments to underscore the delivery of the masterworks. These minor asides and peripheral objects act as knots in the trajectory of the work, giving us pause and also connecting the paintings to a life and a place and its dusty accoutrements. The exhibition manages to hold onto and even recreate the sense of van Gogh’s poverty, his quiet desperation to build an existence around the act of painting, and his ultimate failure to do so.

One of the first rooms of the chronologically arranged exhibition holds a re-creation of a small Chinese, red lacquer wooden box holding various samples of yarn. The authentic box, which held 16 balls of wool, is in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Apparently van Gogh used this collection of threads to experiment with color combinations, laying a string of orange near a string of red, or twisting colors together. It is thought that he may have established palettes for some specific paintings using this technique.

In this same room is the dynamic painting Still Life with White Grapes, Apples, Pears and Lemons (1887). It reveals that, although he had absorbed Impressionism in Paris and was influenced by Seurat, Van Gogh’s hyper-extenuated style was firmly in place from the very beginnings of his career. The still life appears almost as if composed with individual pieces of yarn. Finely tuned complementary colors vibrate line by line, mark by mark, putting the lie to the myth that van Gogh didn’t know color theory and his talent came from some automatic unconscious well of genius and/or madness.

One of the themes Van Gogh’s Bedrooms focuses on is the notion of “home,” and this first room emphasizes this by highlighting two paintings van Gogh did of bird nests. In 1885, van Gogh was living in the town of Nuenen, where his parents had moved. There, he collected bird nests, and created a series of paintings of them; adjacent to the two paintings featured at the AIC show are two actual nests in plexiglass boxes.

What makes this anchor not as silly as it sounds is what van Gogh writes about it in a letter dated to his brother Theo in 1885: “When winter comes (when I have more time for it) I shall make more drawings of this kind of thing. La nichée et les nids [the nestlings and the nests], I feel deeply for them — especially people’s nests, those huts on the heath and their inhabitants.”

A wall-size photo of the Yellow House brings us to the place, street and nearby park of the town of Arles in southern France, where so much happened in 15 months. By the time van Gogh arrived in Arles, he had already lived in nearly 20 cities and four countries. But here, where he rents rooms to await a visit from Paul Gauguin, van Gogh dreams of settling and building an artists’ community.

The three bedroom paintings provide entry into this compacted time and document the artist’s peripatetic longing for “home.” Just as he arranged and physically decorated his rooms in the Yellow House to create an oasis of comfort that might appeal to Gauguin, he applied paint to canvas with similar intent.

Both are inventions, arrangements, compositions that await human contact to set them afire. There was little boundary between van Gogh’s life and work. That is why the paintings of the bedroom resonate so fully. In a conceptual act, he styles a room, then reproduces it three times, bringing both the physicality and emotional content of desire into play. Like us all, he longed for stability, comfort, friendship.

Van Gogh created the first bedroom painting (owned by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam) in October 1888, as he awaited Gaugin’s arrival, but it was later damaged by water. He painted a second version (owned by the Art Institute of Chicago) in September 1889 while he was living in an asylum at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, recovering the violent episode in which he severed his own ear. A few weeks later, he painted the third and smallest version of the bedroom (owned by the Musee d’Orsay, Paris) as a gift for his mother and sister.

Although van Gogh tended to work in serial notations of subjects (sunflowers, shoes, self-portraits, etc), he painted three versions of his room because, as he wrote to his brother Theo, he considered it one of his most successful works. Success to van Gogh meant finding equilibrium between realism and symbolism.

Three wall-sized video screens align in the exhibition to compare every inch of the three paintings, showing us van Gogh’s changes and adjustments. Explanatory text and video also outline how colors shifted over time. The bedroom walls were originally a lilac purple but are now blue. While this information is an interesting aside, it is really the relationship of the bedroom paintings to van Gogh’s other works in the show, such as the two portraits of chairs (his and Gauguin’s) and two portraits of shoes, that underscore his ability to fuse human and inanimate content.

Crowds swirl around the three bedroom paintings, but many ignore a small display on a nearby wall containing van Gogh’s only surviving palette. Earthy colors (no piquant greens, oranges and blues) create a muddy landscape, a map of thought and process that brings us as close to van Gogh as we will ever get. One can see where he heavily loaded the brush, leaving a furrow of paint, and where he dabbed off the excess. The palette dates to 1890, the last year of his life.

Rarely does an exhibition calibrate the pace and mental duration of the viewer as well as this one. Throughout, it twists and turns from traditional presentation modes to video environments then back to small bays of ephemera. It concludes with a full room designed for a rest, and a selfie in front of a wall-sized reproduction of The Night Cafe (1888).

The exhibition’s paintings are haunting and beautiful, accented by these effective pyrotechnics. But the ultimate reward comes from those treasures in the darker corners: the box of yarn, a nest, the artist’s palette.

Tom Berenz and Shane McAdams complement and contrast at Watrous Gallery

Milwaukee-area artists Tom Berenz and Shane McAdams paint very different pictures — literally and figuratively — of landscapes both seen and felt. But the content and emotions behind the canvases are as complementary in their sentiments as they are contrasting in their visualization.

At a “side-by-side” pair of solo exhibits at the James Watrous Gallery, located on the third floor of Madison’s Overture Center, those two artists’ works are paired against each other to accentuate those complements and contrasts.

Towards the North, Berenz’s half of the dual show, mixes bits and pieces of ordinary life into jumbles of color and shape the artist refers to as “mounds,” a description that become more obvious with each piece. The Milwaukee artist, who also teaches at UW-Parkside, finds a tension between realism and abstraction in everyday objects’ decay, a vision that contributes to his landscapes of imagination.

Beat a Path, and Make It Fast, the title of McAdams’ contributions, takes a more literal landscape approach, but trades on darker emotions. The Cedarburg artist, who teaches at Marian University in Fond du Lac, blends natural elements with synthetic imagery created with the help of toxic compounds that further augment the toll that natural elements like wind and water take on the subjects of his works.

Berenz and McAdams recently described their individual visions to the Wisconsin Gazette, discussing the content, style and emotions behind their works.

Describe the nature of your art, both in terms of content and style.

Shane McAdams: My work examines landscape in terms of process, materiality, and the history of painting. I try to find processes that enrich impoverished materials by revealing structures and patterns in them. My practice has been a cumulative odyssey of material experimentation, and I arrived where I am artistically by staying curious and forgetting to look up.

Tom Berenz: My paintings are about my relationship to the world around me both cerebral and physical, intellectual and visceral. I use the disaster motif as a metaphor to discuss personal, sociopolitical, environmental and ideological issues, as well as to explore the existential self and examine personal narratives, with some being more literal and others more enigmatic.

The imagery is in constant flux, but always returns to a pile. A pile is everything and it is nothing. It is a mound that once was and now isn’t, a mass of information, both physical and metaphysical, organized and chaotic.

Your styles are quite different from each other. Are there complimentary elements, or is the divergence enough to make things interesting?

SM: Both, actually. Tom and I are both painters, so fundamentally we are similar, and at times complementary. But then we all follow our own nerdy blisses and find our own voices and languages. I am interested in the semiotics of landscape painting and breaking down the grammar of how we look at what is “natural” and “artificial,” “concrete” and “abstract,” “made” and “discovered.” Tom has his own voice that comes out very clearly in his work.

TB: There is a lot of cross-over between Shane’s work and mine. We both deal with landscape and both are interested in abstraction within the landscape. Both deal with psychological landscapes and we are both interested in contemporary issues in painting. The pairing is great. Shane is a great artist and person, and he’s also a great guy to have a beer with.

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Tom Berenz’s “Ghost Rider.” Photo: James Watrous Gallery.

Describe the thought that went to one of your paintings currently on display at the gallery.

TB: “Ghost Rider” is based on the idea of “ghost bikes,” memorials located at the site of fatal bike accidents. Someone will take the actual bike from the accident, paint it white and put it close to the accident site to act as a memorial.

I lived in Madison for three years and biking was my main transportation. From Madison I moved to Milwaukee and on the last day, as I was driving out of town on East Washington Avenue, I saw a cyclist get killed. Milwaukee isn’t a bike-friendly community and I haven’t used my bike as a commuter vehicle since I saw that accident. “Ghost Rider” is a painting about memorial sites, the fragility of life and my fear of biking in an urban setting.

SM: Years ago, after doing an experiment that involved pouring a gallon of Elmer’s Glue onto wet enamel paint, my understanding of landscapes shifted. I moved away from mining my creative depths to render surreal vistas, and learned that accident, nature and alternative materials could be every bit as interesting as painting inspired by a dreamscape. I became confortable creating works that used the processes shaping the actual landscape — wind, gravity, time, repetition — rather than hand-rendered brushstrokes.

“Decalcomania,” a piece in the show, is made with joint compound sandwiched between two panels which were pulled away, leaving the branching patterns familiar in mountain ranges, or lightning or cracks in mud. I hit it from the sides with a flash of spray paint that functions as directional light. It looks like a view of the Pyrenees from a plane at 30,000 feet.

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Shane McAdams’ “Rorschach Symmetry.” Photo: James Watrous Gallery.

Each piece of artwork exists in and of itself, but is there meaning behind the works you produce?

SM: “Meaning” is a tricky word, and “meaning behind” is even trickier. I think meaning implies that with enough work a viewer can crack a painting like the combination of a safe. And that’s not the case, at least in my work.

There’s nothing behind my work, and what’s on the surface is about the grammar of painting, namely landscape painting. I want the viewers to look at my paintings and inventory all the marks, relationships, materials, content and forms, and then spread them out on a table in their minds to get a more complicated picture of what an image is. Hopefully, they will reconsider the lazy conventions and oversimplified inferences we often make when we process the world in visual terms.

TB: I try to keep the works open enough so viewers can project into the paintings and come up with their own meanings, understandings, narratives and concepts. I don’t want my paintings to tell the viewers what to see, but to create a dialog between the painting and the viewer.

These paintings have deep personal meaning to me, but I don’t want to reveal all of that to the viewers. I want to provide enough information to send viewers in a certain direction, but allow the viewers to participate and fill in the gaps with their own ideas.

Tom Berenz’s Towards the North and Shane McAdams’ Beat a Path, and Make It Fast form the latest side-by-side solo exhibitions at the James Watrous Gallery, located on the third floor of Madison’s Overture Center, 201 State St. The exhibit, free and open to the public, runs through May 8. Visit wisconsinacademy.org for more details.

Sheboygan exhibition recreates the world of artist Mary Nohl

Milwaukee residents of a certain age remember it as a right of passage — and for many it may have been the most significant artistic display they would ever see.

The pattern was a familiar one. A knowledgeable friend, driving through Fox Point’s darkened residential streets late at night, would make a hard right on Beach Drive along the Lake Michigan shoreline and suddenly stop the car.

Looming in the high-beams were bizarre figures and otherworldly sculptures that defied definition populating the yard of what the driver described as the Witch’s House. Those who didn’t know any better had no reason to doubt the moniker.

Many of Nohl's work takes the form of strange statues made of reclaimed materials. "Diver" is made of wood as well as bits of polished glass. Photo: JMKAC.
Many of Nohl’s work takes the form of strange statues made of reclaimed materials. “Diver” is made of wood as well as bits of polished glass. Photo: JMKAC.

The site was, of course, the Mary Nohl House, the residence, studio and original gallery of one of Wisconsin’s most prolific and significant artists. Nohl was born in 1914, and, unlike many of her folk art contemporaries, was formally trained at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. When her parents died in the 1960s, Nohl inherited a sizable estate, including the lakefront cottage. She spent the next four decades transforming the former family home into what’s now described as an “art environment,” with more than 7,000 catalogued works inside and outside the house.

When Nohl died at age 87 in 2001, all of her art, as well as the home and environment she created, was bequeathed to the Kohler Foundation, based in Sheboygan, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving art environments. The foundation eventually passed the art and estate along to the (unaffiliated) John Michael Kohler Arts Center, where it is now one of two Wisconsin art environments they oversee.

JMKAC recently opened Of Heart and Home: Mary Nohl’s Art Environment, an exhibition that allows visitors a look at some of the works from within the famous lakeside home, which remains closed to the public.

The exhibition, which closes Aug. 21, showcases 20 different works of art, along with a “workshop wall” featuring more than 100 tools Nohl used to create her art. According to exhibit curator Karen Patterson, Of Heart and Home is the first of several upcoming exhibits dedicated to the late artist. Patterson recently shared with the Wisconsin Gazette her thoughts behind the exhibit.

How would you characterize Mary Nohl’s art? 

Mary Nohl was always in conversation with Lake Michigan. There are maritime motifs running through most of her work and she often used organic materials such as driftwood, pebbles and sand in her sculptures. I would say, however, that Mary Nohl refused to be confined by artistic characterization. She was a woodcarver, painter, sculptor, ceramicist, printmaker, potter, writer, illustrator and jeweler. Nohl was also an environment builder, altering her home and yard such that her creations permeated every room and between every tree.

How would you define an art environment?

This unique field of art making involves an individual significantly transforming their personal surroundings, such as their home or yard, into an exceptional, multifaceted work of art. The result of that creative impulse is known as an art environment. It embodies the maker’s life experience and expresses the locale in which they lived and worked.

Often these environments are created without formal plans and are made of readily available local supplies, such as concrete, wood, or found items. As such, every art environment is different in intent, meaning, scale, or material. Ultimately, preservation is about keeping the (artist’s) story alive.

How does the JMKAC exhibit enable visitors to experience the Mary Nohl house art environment?

In the case of this exhibition, I empathized with the viewer, who can’t get into the home. I thought it would be very important for people to see something of the home itself. Since we had to rebuild her workshop, I felt that including the south-facing wall of her workshop in the gallery would reinforce her interdisciplinary work. By the sheer number of tools that were on that wall, you can see that Mary Nohl worked feverishly in a variety of different media. So that became the focus of the exhibition.

The exhibition also begins a conversation about what it takes for an institution to preserve and present an art environment. It also shows some of the preservation decisions that need to be made and shows works in various states of restoration. Lastly, it demonstrates Mary Nohl as a multidisciplinary artist, and I used the workshop wall as inspiration in selecting works that respond to the tools on the wall.

The JMKAC exhibit features a recreation of one of Mary Nohl's tool walls, an unorthodox way to show the many mediums she utilized. Photo: JMKAC.
The JMKAC exhibit features a recreation of one of Mary Nohl’s workshop walls, packed with tools, an unorthodox way to show the many mediums she utilized. Photo: JMKAC.

How did you choose the artwork you put on display? Does it adequately reflect the overall art environment?

There are many ways to talk about Mary Nohl and the environment. I know that one thing people may be disappointed to know is that the Danny Diver graphic novel is not on display. I was thinking about more of a workshop setting and I didn’t think Danny Diver was fitting in a workshop scene, not that I presume to know where Mary did all of her work.

For Danny Diver fans, JMKAC will present more of the Mary Nohl environment during its 50th anniversary (in 2017), and I simply had to hold some things back for that exhibition.

At one point there was talk of dismantling the cottage and moving the whole environment to JMKAC. What changed those plans?

It is always best to keep an art environment where it was built. Keeping it in situ is pivotal to its reception. We do have relocated art environments in our collection and we also have select components of existing art environments in our collection — whatever we can do to keep the story alive is what we want to do. Ultimately, after many discussions and research, the decision for the Mary Nohl art environment was to keep it where it is.

Is it difficult to curate an environment outside of the gallery proper?

The vast majority of my job is to curate environments that I do not have access to, and I find that inspiring. It requires me to balance a variety of research methods with creative problem-solving. I do not want to create a Disney World experience. I want the public to understand that this is an art environment and it is a unique style of art making worthy of examination.

Nohl's work also includes small figures built of sticks, which were used as ornamentation inside and outside her home, and, especially in her later years, mesmerizing paintings depicting similar figures. Photo: JMKAC.
Nohl’s work also includes small figures built of sticks, which were used as ornamentation inside and outside her home, and, especially in her later years, mesmerizing paintings depicting similar figures. Photo: JMKAC.

Of Heart and Home: Mary Nohl’s Art Environment will be on display through Aug. 21 at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, 608 New York Ave., Sheboygan. For more information, call 920-458-6144 or visit jmkac.org.

Touring the old times at the Chudnow Museum of Yesteryear

What is a man with 1,000 bars of vintage antique soap to do with it all?

For Avrum “Abe” Chudnow (1913–2005), 1,000 bars of soap was just the tip of the iceberg. The voracious collector had thousands of everyday items from the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s — enough to fill a museum 20 times over. Today, that’s exactly where many of them are displayed: Milwaukee’s Chudnow Museum of Yesteryear.

The museum is located on 11th Street, just south of Kilbourn Avenue — due west from the Courthouse but across the freeway. There, says executive director Steve Daily, the Chudnow Museum becomes a vast representation of “American material culture.”

Even more than that, it is a walk-through record of Milwaukee in the early 20th century, with rooms designed to evoke experiences like visiting a soda shop, hardware store, and even a speakeasy. Fourteen rooms in this expansive house, built in 1869, are designed as settings that revive the past.

Chudnow never lived here, but purchased it in 1966 for his law practice, real estate business, and as a home for his ever-expanding collection. Daily recounts that Chudnow’s wife was delighted because his treasures had been taking over their own domicile. As the son of a peddler, Chudnow was fascinated from an early age in the stuff of everyday life, from machines and toys to packaging and signs. Each room is densely outfitted with pieces that tell the story of life in these decades.

The recreation of a hardware store features gas stoves and innovative electric appliances. During the nascent years of the 20th century, such stores offered an array of items that testified to the changes brought on by electricity in private residences. By the 1920s, 60 percent of households enjoyed this new convenience, and it spurred desire for gadgets that made domestic chores a bit easier. After all, just working in the kitchen was the equivalent of a full-time job for many a housewife.

The former dining room on the first floor has been transformed into the H. Grafman Grocery Store, originally located at 603 W. Vliet St. Chudnow had a close connection to the Grafmans, his wife’s family.

Packages of coffee, flour, cereal, spices and other dry goods are on display, many of which still contain their original product. An old-fashioned ice box with wood facing shows how food was kept chilled, and its furniture-like appearance calls to mind trends in current kitchen design. An ornately decorated scale and cash register, like others seen throughout the museum, are reminders of the elegant design and craft lavished on utilitarian devices.

The Chudnow Museum of Yesteryear brings back the past in their "Wonderland Park" display. Photo: Kat Minerath.
The Chudnow Museum of Yesteryear brings back the past in their “Wonderland Park” display. Photo: Kat Minerath.

For a real eye-opener, visit the Bay View Drug Store display. A variety of bottles and jars with labels advertising all manner of potions line the walls, as do advertisements touting various curative benefits. Many of these treatments were aided by the addition of substances like alcohol, cocaine, and heroin. Daily notes that in those days, “medicine was a wide open field — that’s why the FDA was created.”

A less narcotic example of an old-fashioned remedy was directed toward women in the form of skunk oil. It was an oily, greasy lotion used to prevent wrinkles, and though it came from the aromatic animal, it fortunately did not use the scent of the skunk in its recipe.

Upstairs, the office of one of the home’s former occupants is recreated. Dr. Joseph J. Eisenberg had his medical practice here, receiving patients in a room that brings together many of the doctor’s professional belongings. In the 1920s and ‘30s, he not only saw patients, but also performed operations and X-rays in a room that is now outfitted as a small movie theatre.

The doctor’s old recovery room is now home to a display of toys, a source of fascination for the young and old. Lincoln Logs, and the lesser-known Lincoln Bricks, were invented by Frank Lloyd Wright’s son, John. It could be said that he followed his architect father in a D.I.Y. fashion.

An Easy Money game by Milton Bradley was a competitor with Parker Brothers’ iconic Monopoly, shown in a 1940s version that used wooden game pieces because of metal shortages during World War II. Gambling acumen was to be gained through a horse racing game that offered instruction on proper techniques for being a bookie as well as placing bets.

Other exhibits feature matters of interest to men and women of the time, such as displays of women’s changing hairstyles and fashions, offering context for the rebellious appearance of the flapper. A barbershop with a red velvet chair was a male retreat, and in this installation, has a secret door that opens to a speakeasy for a cocktail after a shave and haircut.

Daily estimates that only about 5 percent of Chudnow’s total collection is on view, but the museum changes exhibitions periodically to explore different themes. Politics is one topic currently at the forefront. Displays include one on Wisconsin’s “Fighting Bob” La Follette, a formidable Progressive candidate for president, and a gallery of political memorabilia highlighting the career of Milwaukee’s longest serving Socialist mayor, Daniel Hoan.

Strolling through these rooms, with their extraordinarily presented pieces, is a rare glimpse back through time. It reflects how much can be learned through even the most ordinary items, and instills admiration for the devotion of Chudnow, whose ceaseless collecting of the past became a gift for the future.

The Chudnow Museum of Yesteryear is located at 839 N. 11th St. The museum will celebrate St. Patrick’s Day on March 12 and 13 by offering Green River Floats, made with Green River Soda, free with admission. Admission is $5, $4 for seniors and students; the museum is open Wed. to Sun. Visit chudnowmuseum.org for more details.