As career inspirations go, artist and Milwaukee native Fred Stonehouse’s “aha” moment came at an early age and in a most unexpected place — a convergence that would send Stonehouse on a lifelong journey to becoming one of the country’s leading neo-surrealists.
According to Stonehouse, the magic moment came in a Spartan-Atlantic Discount Store, one of several proto-big-box stores that littered the Midwest in the 1960s and 1970s.
“I was shopping with my mother when we walked past a bin of tiny plastic dinosaurs in the store’s toy section,” Stonehouse remembers. “There was a multicolored stegosaurus that spoke to me, becoming a weird treasure that I had to possess.”
Even at 19 cents, the dinosaur was denied the little boy. Still, the 4-year-old boy had to have it and, with no pockets in his short pants, Stonehouse stuck the little creature in his mouth and calmly walked past the checkout as his mother paid for her other purchases and left the store.
The theft was discovered in the family car and Stonehouse was forced to return the dinosaur, but the image’s impact never left him.
“I knew stealing was wrong, but this was beyond morality,” says Stonehouse, who now teaches painting and drawing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “This was the first time I knew that the way things looked would be a powerful force for me.”
That force has since blossomed into a unique style, examples of which will be on display in Fred Stonehouse: The Promise of Distant Things, which opened Sept. 26 at the Museum of Wisconsin Art in West Bend. A concurrent MOWA exhibition, Out of Madison, features the work of seven of Stonehouse’s former students. Both exhibits run through Jan. 17, 2016.
Stonehouse’s art is almost instantly recognizable, and it’s the rare viewer who isn’t taken aback by the surreal juxtaposition of fact and fancy. Human heads — many with horns — sit atop animal bodies, while other humanoid figures dangle tentacles, vomit blood or spew rainbows. Skulls abound in landscapes Stonehouse says is the stuff of dreams.
“It comes from a pretty concrete place,” Stonehouse says. “I use the logic of dreams in my work, but it seems weird in the waking world.”
Stonehouse compares his imagery to anyone who has tried to explain a particularly vivid dream, only to discover he or she could not really describe it at all in waking terms. He also cites influences from his youth that made an impact on his image-driven psyche.
Stonehouse was raised as a strict Catholic, so much of his first imagery was of the saints in surreal settings that helped illustrate Christianity’s supernatural side. His Sicilian household also entertained a lot of talk about ghosts and spirits as authentic entities. Other images also filled his young eyes.
“I grew up in a working class neighborhood around 35th Street and Fond du Lac Avenue with a lot of tattooed guys who worked with my father at A.O. Smith,” says Stonehouse, who himself sports some impressive ink. “This was the ‘60s, when we had a lot of weird comic book art and were just becoming aware of Mexican folk art.”
Stonehouse says the varied, diverse and often fantastic visuals made distinct impressions.
“I was a consumer of all these images that seemed to have these magical powers and I am always adding these images to visual vocabulary,” he says. “I run them through a filter to make them personally mine, but they come from all these different sources.”
Many of the images and their settings are a form of self-portraiture or refer to members of the artist’s family, he says. Skulls denote a “trickster” who crosses the barrier between the living and the dead, while animal-headed figures tend to represent innocence and stand in for women and children in Stonehouse’s life, he says.
There are four recurring and ongoing character types in Stonehouse’s narratives: the animals, the skull, the devil and the “doofus,” as he calls him. In most cases, Stonehouse sees himself as the doofus.
“I don’t expect anyone else to understand them in this way, but it’s like having an ensemble or cast of characters and I’m the director of this cast,” Stonehouse says. “Sometimes, new characters show up or their parts get mixed around, but it’s almost like they’re just changing costumes.”
The MOWA show is a retrospective going back to 1993 — the cut-off point of a similar exhibit at what is now the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art back in 1992, Stonehouse says.
The MOWA exhibit is unique in that it has a tattoo booth in which visitors can get temporary Stonehouse tattoos, and carnival-style cutouts through which visitors can push their heads, literally becoming part of a Stonehouse creation. Carnival sideshow art, not surprisingly, was another influence on the artist, Stonehouse says.
The extra attractions provide visitors with greater access to Stonehouse’s unique style of art. If there is one thing that annoys the artist, it’s those who think his work may be too esoteric for the common viewer.
“I am not an artist who thinks he is too good for a lay audience,” Stonehouse said. “I am still a working-class kid raised in Milwaukee with a wife who just retired from 37 years on the Harley-Davidson assembly line. I am not a snob.”
Stonehouse recently gave a talk to a group of editors at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and described one audience member who had a big smile on his face. The smiling editor described Stonehouse as “one disturbed individual,” which caused the artist to smile.
“Don’t judge me and pay more attention to what’s going on in your own head,” Stonehouse offered by way of explanation.
Stonehouse is a little more gentle and generous of spirit toward most of his audiences.
“I think of my work as half-joke and half-prayer and if viewers find something half-humorous and half-touching, then that’s enough,” Stonehouse said. “What I really want them to have is that stegosaurus moment where they say, ‘Wow! I’ve got to have that.’”
Fred Stonehouse: The Promise of Distant Things runs through Jan. 17, 2016, at the Museum of Wisconsin Art, 205 Veterans Ave., West Bend. For more information, call 262-334-9638 or visit wisconsinart.org.