Tag Archives: MOWA

Gregory Conniff goes digital, finds new exposures in nature

Landscape photographer Gregory Conniff’s artistic world once consisted solely of saw-toothed picket fences, tangled brush and deep, evocative shadows that appeared to lengthen the longer one looked at his black-and-white gelatin silver prints. It was imagery filled with nuanced and subtle emotion, void of human occupancy, yet alive with an untold vibrancy.

Gregory Conniff's Watermarks series features color images, a shift for the photographer.
Gregory Conniff’s ‘Watermarks’ series features color images, a shift for the photographer.

A challenge from the curators at the Museum of Wisconsin Art (MOWA), located in West Bend, recently changed Conniff’s way of looking at nature. Armed with a high-definition digital camera and tasked with taking color photos rather than black-and-white shots, the Madison attorney-turned-photographer took a closer look at images once seen only through a monochromatic lens. What he found has given his natural imagery even greater detail and dimension, and taken his work in new, expressive directions.

Watermarks, MOWA’s exhibit of 43 photographs by Conniff that opened April 9, displays his newly evolving and carefully articulated vision. It’s a vision, the photographer says, that holds as much promise for the viewers as for the artist himself.

What made you want to become a photographer?

I’ve had a darkroom since I was 13. I photographed for all the usual publications in schools and then never stopped. One appeal of photography for me is its speed of capture and its extended length for contemplation of results, the way a picture does — or doesn’t — age.

How did you find your way to Madison and what made you give up practicing law?

I grew up in New Jersey, and while I found myself in Wisconsin many decades ago, I am still from New Jersey. This allows me to appreciate both the order and beauty of the Wisconsin rural landscape and to feel familiar with the state’s exploration of the sort of political and economic geography I grew up with. In the late 19th century, painter George Innes studied the rural New Jersey landscape that gradually became Sopranos country (and the territory of my youth). Innes would have recognized the Wisconsin I saw upon my arrival here. Tony Soprano would be comfortable with how the state is changing.

During the 1970s I did a number of things, one of which was practicing law, another of which was making photographs. I found that I was a better self when I was making pictures and so restricted my professional life to photography around 1978 when I felt my images were at least as good as the worst of what I saw on exhibition.

Why landscape photography?

I like working outdoors and am not suited for sitting at a desk. The vernacular American landscape has been and still is my territory, but its evolution in my mind has been through an increased focus on the simple fact of beauty and our need for its nourishment. The essence of my thinking is that “it matters how things look.”

What caused you to take up MOWA’s challenge and change your style?

Apparently I’m a sucker for some thrown gauntlets. What I’ve learned over the past year and a half is how much more there is to see in my immediate world and how the character of my tools has enlarged the range and complexity of what I can learn to see.

How difficult was it for you to make the change after decades of black-and-white work?

I jumped into the challenge from the museum wild and blind, hoping that light would fall on the world in a way that was new to me. My biggest hurdles were learning to use new equipment of radically different character, learning new software to meet the demands of drastically increased output, and learning where my subject lay and how to trust it. I ended up with three bodies of work, one of which continues under the radar, another of which wasn’t news, and the third of which exploded and is hanging now in West Bend. I wish I lived closer to the show, because the pictures are so fresh that I’ve just begun to learn what they contain.

The Watermarks series is one of three that Conniff created after MOWA's challenge.
The ‘Watermarks’ series is one of three bodies of work that Conniff created after MOWA’s challenge.

Tell me about the current exhibition.

The pictures that make up Watermarks, while coherent and organized, are so new to me that I have no words to break them down into components. I count this as a mercy.

This show went up wet. I did a 180° turn and am traveling a road with no signage and indistinct margins. I’m not even sure I’m on a road. The show is also an installation — no labels, just one thing and meant for lingering immersion. It would be great if I could talk around Watermarks in such a way that a reader would want to dive in, but I can’t.

In general, what does an artist’s work say about him or her? What does your work say about you?

When an artist’s work feels inevitable — its ideas shaped into fact without obvious effort or ego — I trust that I’m in the presence of someone who cares about both the piece and its audience. I give over my initial attention with gratitude. I say “Of course,” and then I look and look.

I like work that lasts, that slowly releases new understandings as the viewer ages and changes alongside the work. I respect work that isn’t afraid to be both beautiful and confounding. The odd couple of Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Robert Irwin has enlarged my world with each artist’s quiet insistent immediacy and inherent joy. They happen to be on my mind right now for different reasons, but the company of visually generous artists is large, diverse, and extends back to the walls at Lascaux.

What would you like viewers to take away from your MOWA exhibition?

If a viewer leaves the show with the thought that daily life contains wonders that will reveal themselves to sufficient attention, then Watermarks will have done its job. If the viewer also feels a desire to experience the show again, then it’s possible to think that what I’ve made is art.

Landscape photographer Gregory Conniff’s Watermarks is on display through June 19 at The Museum of Wisconsin Art, 205 Veterans Ave., West Bend. For more information, call 262-334-9638 or visit wisconsinart.org.

With Stonehouse’s imagery, expect a ‘stegosaurus moment’

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.

MOWA captures a state’s love for the polka

Photographs of accordions, tubas and Pabst Blue Ribbon signs may not be the norm for an $11.2 million art museum that features nationally recognized sculptors, painters and other media artists.

They fit right in at the Museum of Wisconsin Art, located along the Milwaukee River and just east of West Bend’s quaint downtown.

Since late January, the museum’s second-floor Hyde Gallery has been home to Polka Heartland: Photographs by Dick Blau.

In 2013 and 2014, Blau, a professor of film at UW-Milwaukee, traversed Wisconsin with Rick March, an author, musician and musicologist from Madison. Blau and March, whose book, Polka Heartland, is scheduled to be released in October, set out to capture the styles of the state’s diverse polka scene.

More importantly for Blau was documenting the feeling and emotion of the official state dance.

“It’s really about the way people make a kind of social happiness with one another,” Blau said by phone from his home in downtown Milwaukee. “It produces a feeling of warmth, euphoria and happiness.”

Wisconsin has its own Polka Hall of Fame with such notables as “Tuba Dan” Jerabek, Vern Meisner, Don Peachey and Louie Bashell. Polka festivals can be found around the state in Ellsworth, Wisconsin Dells and Pulaski. The tiny village of Willard, east of Eau Claire, celebrated its 40th annual event last year while the Wisconsin State Polka Festival at Olympia Resort in Oconomowoc is set for May.

In June, there’s the Roger Bright Polka Festival in New Glarus, Polish Fest in Milwaukee and in Madison, the Essen Haus, a year-round pit stop for polka bands from around the country.

Blau’s exhibit features 27 photos, some more than 3 feet high and nearly 6 feet long, but there is no musical accompaniment. Instead, visitors take in the images in relative quiet, much like they would with other exhibits in the 32,000-square-foot museum.

That’s not to say polka music is absent from the colorful exhibit.

When the photo gallery debuted, more than 650 people filled the museum, many of them dancing to The Squeezettes, a Milwaukee band named polka artist of the year in 2012 and 2013 by the Wisconsin Area Music Industry and featured in Blau’s photos. On March 14, the Brewhaus Polka Kings performed at the museum for what was dubbed “Polka Saturday.”

“It’s going to be a flat-out polka dance,” Graeme Reid, the museum’s director of collections and exhibitions, told the Wisconsin State Journal. “It is very much a part of Wisconsin’s intrinsic culture.”

The Museum of Wisconsin Art was founded in 1961 when it was known as the West Bend Gallery of Fine Art. The museum was established by the Pick family to collect and exhibit the work of a relative, Carl von Marr, who was born in Milwaukee in 1858 but was trained in Munich, Germany.

For much of the museum’s history, it was located in a 20,000-square-foot space in what had been the corporate headquarters for West Bend Insurance. In 2007, the museum changed its name to the Museum of Wisconsin Art and announced plans to build a new facility. Fundraising began in 2008 as the economy began to tank but in 2012, ground was broken on property that had been home to an outlet mall. The museum opened in April 2013 and last year had 35,000 visitors compared to 2,900 the last full year in the previous museum building.

“It’s had phenomenal growth,” says Laurie Winters, MOWA CEO and executive director. “It’s a platform for Wisconsin artists.”

When I visited last week, I not only took in the work of von Marr but of painter John Steuart Curry, who in 1936 was appointed as the first artist in residence at the Agricultural College at UW-Madison. Curry traveled the state where he promoted art and painted rural scenes from the era. There also was work from the Cedarburg Artists Guild and in the atrium, sculptures of canoes by Truman Lowe, a Ho-Chunk from Black River Falls.

Blau’s polka photos are in contrast to the rest of the museum’s artwork but just as vital.

Blau’s and March’s travels took them to Turner Hall in Monroe, Martin’s Tap in New Berlin and Amerahn’s Ballroom in Kewaskum. There were stops at Pulaski Polka Days, the Laak Ballroom in Johnsonville and to the now-defunct Las Vegas Latin Club in Oregon, south of Madison.

That’s where the band, the Mazizo Allstarz, came decked out in sharkskin suits and used electronics and a brass section but had no accordion. A mirrored ball, fog machine, laser lights and well-dressed dancers added to the ambiance of the club, located in a former indoor athletic facility.

Blau’s photos captured it all, even though his shots were taken while seated at a table because he didn’t want to intrude.

“It was quite an exotic experience,” Blau says. “It’s different stylistically and represents something most people haven’t seen. I think people in Wisconsin aren’t really aware of how large and vital the Latino population has become.”

When Blau created his first book on polka, Polka Happiness, he shot in Buffalo, New York, and it primarily consisted of Polish polka bands. It also was 1992 and he was limited to a film camera with flash to make small black-and-white images.

Polka Heartland is shot in color, using natural light and with a digital camera that allowed for much larger images.

“It actually changes the relation of the viewers to the images because it allows them entrance into them, and that’s not possible when you have smaller pictures,” Blau says. “It makes them want to dance.”

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Gallery Night & Day

It’s time for the last Gallery Night of 2014, and Milwaukee’s artists are coming out en masse to celebrate before winter’s chill sets in. Among this season’s more significant participants: Independent Phrases and Subordinate Clauses, a Dean Jensen Gallery, 759 N. Water St., show that features three photographers seeking moments of poetry; a series of large-scale prints depicting a living coral reef, by Nathaniel Stern at Tory Folliard Gallery, 233 N. Milwaukee St.; Lit Up, an installation at The Pitch Project, 706 S. Fifth St., that examines camp culture and “sincere performative drinking” through photos, video and sculpture; and MOWA at St. John’s on the Lake’s (1800 N. Prospect Ave.) presents Cuentame un Cuento, a series of storytelling paintings by Francisco X. Mora that are playfully whimsical with a hint of melancholy.

For a full list of participating galleries, visit historicthirdward.org. All Gallery Night and Day events are free to enter.

Oct. 17–18


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