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.