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A hushed presence at the Charles Allis Museum

Kat Minerath, Contributing writer

The exhibition Forward: A Survey of Wisconsin Art Now, currently on view at the Charles Allis Art Museum, does not charge ahead on a wild rampage or issue impassioned proclamations.

Instead, as a curated collection, it extols introspection and seems to encourage quiet breathing.

Forward is the museum’s biennial survey of Wisconsin artists, most coming from the surrounding region.

Walking through the historic mansion, you will notice a variety of mediums, although traditional painting is strongly represented. Though the works veer from naturalistic to abstract, a self-possessed quality pervades the gallery spaces.

You may begin your tour of the exhibition anywhere — in the Great Hall and its foyer or upstairs in the former home of the Allis family.

The catalogue notes that there is no singular theme binding the 58 pieces on view, but rather the collection attempts a representation of current Wisconsin art.

The works were chosen by jurors Susan Barnett and Brent Budsberg, known their artistic and curatorial endeavors. From 350 entries, the pieces in Forward were selected and arranged so the aesthetics of the groupings complement each other.

Largely silent about politics

If there is one generalization to be made, it is there are many artists whose work is geared toward nature or picturing particular environments. Landscapes or organic abstractions frequently appear and perhaps this is what gives the exhibition its character.

The world outside the museum’s doors is one of tumult and change, uncertainty and struggle. One might expect a showcase that reflects these feelings, but here the art is largely silent about politics or protest.

There are some exceptions, such as Arthur Vannoy’s ceramic stoneware, “Bagger’s Brand WMD.” A tall, lidded vase with handles is turned out with a creamy glaze and dark blue decorations that speak to weapons of mass destruction and the proliferation of fossil fuels. The lid cheekily claims “oil’s well that ends well.” The decorous form shines an ironic light on the violence and gravity of the vessel’s voice. This is a small note in an exhibition that otherwise draws mainly from less heated topics.

Grand prize winner is comforting, relatable

This non-confrontational nature is captured by the piece awarded the show’s grand prize, James Pederson’s “The Miracle in Mike’s Apartment.” Painted this year, the work shows a large television atop a bookcase in a living room. Pederson is a meticulous artist, representing in detail the wall hangings and image on the TV screen from a Packers game played in Chicago’s Soldier Field. The crowd is created through a wonderful splatter of color, while on the titled field some of the players run as though captured in Egyptian poses. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has just hurled the football — its trajectory indicated by a yellow three-dimensional line — into the end zone where it is caught for a touchdown despite the mass of Bears mobbing the receiver.

This is the miracle and, one suspects, there was a lot of celebratory cheering and jumping. There is no question the piece is skillfully done and represents the timbre of the exhibition as comforting and relatable. A plaque on the wall in the painting includes a quote from Vince Lombardi: “Defeat must be admitted for it to become a reality.” It is innocuous art, which is why the tone of the exhibition leans toward escape from the issues outside the museum door.

Award of excellence winners

Charles Allis Museum
Rafael Salas’ “Two Cats (World Without End #2).“

One of the most striking pieces is a photograph by Lois Bielefeld that captured an Award of Excellence. “Mary and Jillian — Riverwest. 2015” is stark and darkly compelling. The young women emerge from twilight shadows on the street and behind them, an RV and Port-A-John are parked on a driveway. Their poses and expressions are familiar — curious but slightly guarded. They are like people you know and have seen, but as with skilled portraiture, they suggest something of a life story under the surface.

Kevin Giese was also a recipient of this award for his tall ash wood sculpture, “Murmur.” Three figures, like totems with oval suggestions of heads and slits for eyes, are sentinels in the middle of a gallery space. Carving marks are rawly visible, and they stand like woodland creatures who have stopped short from being shorn into building planks. It brings us to a midpoint, where nature is evident and the process of transformation still connects us to an origin point.

Rafael Salas is the recipient of the Margaret Rahill Memorial Award and his oil painting “Two Cats (World Without End #2)” is like a conversation in brushwork. It is, in part, a painting within a painting. White wildcats in a snowy landscape are the subject of a picture hung on a wood-paneled wall at the center of the composition. The details of other things, such as the neon Coors sign and mounted deer heads on the wall, suggest a barroom setting for the surrealistically polar cat picture. Some elements are sketched out, alluding to the setting without drawing away from the glowingly articulated focal point.

The setting of the exhibition, the Charles Allis Art Museum, is decked out for the holidays with ornamented trees and garlands adorning the many fireplaces. Not every room is part of the Forward exhibition, but the sensory experience exudes a similar mindset. It is a place that steps back into a timeless atmosphere, absent of discord. Forward is like that too, whether by chance or plan. It may not seem like the most progressive work, but it is an alternate sample of now.

On exhibit

Forward: A Survey of Wisconsin Art Now continues through Feb. 19 at the Charles Allis Art Museum, 1801 N. Prospect Avenue, Milwaukee. For more, go online to

Art for the holidays

Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design Holiday Sale


273 E. Erie St.

Dec. 1–3

Students and alumni offer gifts for the holidays — from prints and paintings to jewelry, cards and furniture. The sale supports the artists, as well as MIAD scholarships.

Voyageur Book Shop

2212 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.

Dec. 2

5–10 p.m.

Wordsmiths Anja Notanja Sieger and Andrea Becker team up, dressed as the sun and moon, to create on-the-spot commissioned poetry and prose, plus tea, to shine some light on the season.

Mini: tiny art @ tiny prices

Art Bar

722 E. Burleigh St.

Exhibition continues through Dec. 31

More than 200 artists offer works that range in price from $5 to $100 and range also in style and medium, including drawings, paintings, sculpture, jewelry and more. New works continue to come in so you never know what you might find, except to be certain of the creative and warm atmosphere that is always part of Art Bar.