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Milwaukee, Portland artists unite at Inova

There’s a museum inside UW-Milwaukee’s Inova museum, temporarily. The “Milwaukee, Milwaukie Museum” celebrates both the largest city in Wisconsin and a suburb of Portland, Oregon, which share similar names. The space, organized by the photographic collective Milwaukee Comma, achieved mini-fame even before the main exhibition opened, with Mayor Tom Barrett issuing a proclamation marking June 26 as “Milwaukee, Milwaukie Museum Day.”

The exhibition it’s a part of should receive similar attention. Pacific Midwest 2.0 is a collaboration between photographers in Milwaukee and Portland who crossed paths out west at an earlier 2013 exhibition at Portland’s Newspace Center for Photography.

For this second iteration, the curating artists have scoured holdings from the Milwaukee County Historical Society and Portland’s Milwaukie Museum, threading them in with original works to make a space that exists between history, fiction and critique.

Milwaukee’s Kevin J. Miyazaki often operates in these areas in his photographs, frequently addressing his heritage as a Japanese-American. In “Three Important, Unknown Men,” two small portraits from the Milwaukee County Historical Society are placed alongside a portrait of his maternal grandfather, Albert K. Kimura. 

Miyazaki notes how Kimura finished a law degree from Northwestern University in the early 1900s, but when returning home to Hawaii, was unfairly prevented from passing the bar exam. These small portraits from the past show men of dignified appearance, formal and confident, whose near-anonymity shows how, with any life story, the fog of history grows thicker over time. 

Tender wrappings preserve personal history in Tara Bogart’s “1980’s Club Girl, MKE.” A table holds a variety of packages covered in slate gray paper. They are alluring, like presents to be unwrapped, but the real intention is protection. 

Familiar shapes and labels reveal what the wrappings hide: “Vogue Fashion Magazine, 1983”; “Clairol ‘Nice & Easy’ Hair Dye, Natural Mahogany Black, 1985”; “Depeche Mode-Black Celebration Album, 1986”; and “Ma Fisher’s Restaurant Menu, 1985.” Adding the artifacts together, it paints a vivid picture. Living memory still makes the touch of all of those things familiar even as they sink further away year by year. 

More to see

The museum portion of the exhibition is one enclosed area, but in the wider gallery space, these themes are further drawn out. 

Jon Horvath’s “Passages” is one of the largest and most elegant installations. It is composed of 26 photographs and Horvath’s corresponding documentation from a series of trips along rural Wisconsin highways — 2,786 miles over 71.5 hours. 

Small maps in white lines on stark black, recorded via GPS, show his routes. The maps have a quixotic charm, like old-fashioned Etch-A-Sketch drawings. Accompanying text notes things such as trip duration or average miles per hour, and are titled with a scrap of text from a passage in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. At the nucleus of each cluster are pairs of small photographs, placed flat on the table like documentary evidence. Their clarity speaks of Horvath’s strong technical and compositional acumen, as well as the gentle nuances of juxtaposition. 

The landscape gets stranger and far more disquieting in photographs by Barbara Ciurej and Lindsay Lochman. “Processed Views” takes its inspiration from Carleton Watkins’ (1829–1916) expansive western landscapes.

In Ciurej and Lochman’s contemporary interpretations, rugged terrain is recreated by artificial foodstuffs. Crumbled, colorful bits of cereal are formed into fanciful hills and rocks. The wholly unnatural blue of food dye is planted within a field of melting green Popsicles. Like a good sugar buzz, it is fun at first but the destructive truth of what passes for an edible landscape soon hurts the teeth and stings the brain.

Subjects take a darker turn in the side gallery. The straightforward narrative of Holly Andres’ “Summer of the Hornets” recounts the catastrophic discovery of a hornet’s nest by two young girls. Based on a true story from her childhood, Andres’ large-scale images feel like memories still fresh. 

Pacific Midwest 2.0 is undoubtedly a significant exhibition, not only for presenting work by some of Milwaukee’s most noted contemporary artists, but for the dialogue between our locale and the art community of Portland. While there is much happening in our own time and place, it is enhanced by the additional layers of artistic exchange with history and fellow contemporaries. 

ON DISPLAY

Pacific Midwest 2.0 continues through Aug. 8 at Inova, 2155 N. Prospect Ave., Milwaukee. Admission is free. Visit uwm.edu/inova for more information.

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