Fantasy, fiction, or documentary? You might choose the genre of a film or novel based on your current taste or mood, and contemporary art offers just as much breadth in genres and themes explored. Two exhibitions illustrate the ways we can consider the realm of imagination, the issues of reality, and how we tune in through visual cues.
PEERING AT 'PEEP'
The Bearded Lady, acrobats, and wolfhounds are hanging out together in an exhibition of work by Jennifer Nuss. Part mystery, part science, and part surrealism, she creates large-scale prints and casts her characters in strangely enchanting videos.
Her exhibition at RedLine Milwaukee is titled PEEP — as in being nosy, not the marshmallowy Easter treat. There is indeed a voyeuristic sensation as we enter the gallery to view monumental etchings like "Miss Clotilda Conrad: Acrobat."
This piece shows a solitary figure with tall platforms attached to her feet. They seem to be held on by leafy vines, and her legs are stopped in mid-motion, caught somewhere between running and dancing. Her body is covered by finely hatched lines and her ruddy face is framed by an elaborately pointed white collar. She is human but there is something primal in her hairy figure and wild eyes. These biological complexities are echoed in collage elements, in which layers and bits of prints hold the composition together.
Nuss draws us further through the peeping portal to the past with works that include sideshow posters and advertisements announcing unique acts. "Clemtine Clatteaux: A Bearded Lady" exclaims that she is “the greatest curiosity of this age.” Her elegant profile portrait is decorated with a flowing red beard and collaged pearls. Through Nuss’s gestures, she embodies masculinity and femininity, a singular uniqueness and unflappable poise.
While perusing this exhibition, the visitor encounters all sorts of characters, all preparation for Nuss' stop-motion video work. It features a protagonist known as The Hermit, and we follow her through various adventures, including drawing figures that come to life from the pages of a sketchbook, and a perilous sea journey that becomes a metaphorical search for self and independence.
While PEEP is an exhibition that takes us into a realm of fantasy and metaphor, Variant at Greymatter Gallery presents work that deals with social issues and sad ironies. Nine photographs by artistic collaborators Barbara Ciurej and Lindsay Lochman are on view. The images are from their Watch Me Grow series, showing exterior views of various day care centers in Milwaukee. The cheery nature of the fragmentary business names and peeling, fading bright paint colors are a mark of struggling hope in the midst of visible decay.
Ciurej and Lochman have been involved in this project since 2009 as a way of documenting and drawing attention to economic disparity. The works point out how aspiration and necessity quickly oppose each other as contradictory positions in poorer neighborhoods.. They cite research on their blog (notebook-watchmegrow.blogspot.com) that notes the exorbitant costs of childcare, and how it has a greater impact on low-income households as it demands a proportionally higher percentage of income. The images in the series and titles of locations suggest values of love and education, but the stark demands of reality are apparent as the window of “Kids R” announces it is enrolling children as young as six weeks old.
While the photographers’ work is the main visual component in the exhibition, there are a number of choices and voices that played a role in the development of Variant. Curator Paul Druecke describes his interest in the relationships that are built by the pattern and arrangement of content. The organizing of Ciurej and Lochman’s photographs in a grid pattern binds them together as singular images that contribute to a larger meaning and purpose. Druecke also ponders notions of transparency, combined with the ubiquitous pattern of the grid, and offers these concepts to Sarah Sutterfield, who selected work by Nicole Naudi to further contribute to the exhibition.
Naudi’s poetry and writing appears as brief passages, accompanied by a few sketches, on transparency sheets which are placed on shelves lined by a grid pattern. Visitors are encouraged to rearrange the transparencies and alter the layers, and consequently the meaning, of the varied parts.
The concept of the grid as a structure, whether as a pattern or a plan of city blocks, has a sense of rigidity, whereas transparency is like a fluid way of seeing. What is visible to our eyes depends on where we turn our attention, and from what vantage point we look. Ciurej and Lochman suggest that seeing and considering the city anew can render the layers of social values, mores, and structures a little more transparent.
Jennifer Nuss: PEEP continues though July 2 at RedLine Milwaukee, 1422 N. Fourth St. Variant, featuring Barbara Ciurej & Lindsay Lochman and Nicole Naudi continues through June 3 at Greymatter Gallery, 207 E. Buffalo Street, Suite 222, Milwaukee.