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MOWA presents the ads that made Milwaukee beer famous

Many still remember when Schlitz was “The Beer That Made Milwaukee Famous,” a longstanding tagline and a central part of the former Milwaukee brewer’s marketing boast.

In reality, however, it was the entire beer industry and the marketing and printing innovations it fostered in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that helped make Milwaukee famous as a brewing and industrial powerhouse. Beer aficionados — and even those who aren’t — can get a taste of vintage brewery advertising and study its impact on the way beer was and still is marketed at an upcoming exhibit at the Museum of Wisconsin Art in West Bend.

Art on Tap: Early Wisconsin Brewery Art and Advertising opens July 9 in MOWA’s Hyde Gallery and runs through September 25. The display, which contains “breweriana” (collectable items featuring a brewery’s name and logo) from the 1880s up to Prohibition, gives MOWA an opportunity to venture into new territory, according to curator Erika Petterson.

“This is the type of collection you don’t typically see in the fine art world,” Petterson says. “The pieces are beautifully done and beautifully put together in terms of the advertising and marketing of an important Wisconsin product.”

images - wigout - 063016 - MOWASchlitzMilwaukee’s biggest brewers — Blatz, Miller, Pabst and Schlitz — are central to the exhibit, which has been assembled thanks to the help of individual breweriana collectors around the state. Items also were selected from the former G. Heileman Brewing Company in La Crosse, Stevens Point Brewery, Leinenkugel’s Brewery in Chippewa Falls, and other smaller Wisconsin brewers, some of which are only memories.

Ad imagery runs long on buxom beer maidens pouring golden lagers, an approach still popular in modern beer advertising. But what makes the older ads unique, Petterson says, is how their time period dovetails with the latter part of the Industrial Revolution.

In the late 19th century, large Milwaukee brewers were finding new and more efficient ways to brew and bottle beer, meaning their output far exceeded local consumption demands. The growth of the railroad system meant distant markets with larger populations became more accessible.

But beer had always been a local commodity, and outsiders were suspect. The big brewers knew they had to generate interest in their products if they wanted to sell in other markets, so Milwaukee, as both a brewing community and a selection of brands, set out to change the way beer was marketed and sold, Petterson says.

“These are some of the earliest examples of product branding,” Petterson says. “They had to make their beers seem appealing and better than other beers, and I think they did a really good job of that.”

Pabst didn’t always have “Blue Ribbon” attached to its name, the curator explains. That was a marketing ploy to get the beer to stand out and above the local competition so that the brewery could charge more for its product. The same goes for Miller, which added “High Life” to its brand name and “The Champagne of Bottled Beer” as its tagline to appeal to society’s upper crust and imply that only the best people drank its beer.

Color lithographs were the primary means of this advertising, Petterson says, with an emphasis on beautiful illustration and rich colors to make the ads more attractive and, presumably, give them a longer display life. The increase in demand helped make Milwaukee a center of the lithography industry, which literally blossomed in the shadow of the breweries in a uniquely symbiotic relationship.

“Well-known lithographers Gugler, Beck & Pauli, Louis Kurz, and Henry Seifert’s Milwaukee Lithographing & Engraving Company produced a wide range of advertising materials from trade cards to labels to large-scale tavern pieces,” Peterson noted in MOWA’s recent newsletter. “These images were a beautiful, vibrant, and visually appealing foray into modern marketing.”

The brewery ads offered some of the first instances of celebrity endorsements, something we take for granted today. They also were among the first to develop themes that attempted to tie various beer brands to desirable traits.

One of the rarest pieces in the exhibit is a 9’ x 12’ billboard reproduced on linen depicting a racing yacht against a backdrop of the Pabst Brewery name stitched into a nautical flag. The tagline, “Blue Ribbon Winners on Land and Sea,” underscores the image’s message.

images - wigout - 063016 - MOWAMillerThe period produced some of brewing’s most enduring images, including the long-standing Miller “Girl on the Moon” which still remains as one of the brewery’s key visuals. The collection represented by MOWA’s Art on Tap offers not only a lesson in brewing and marketing, but also the chance for individuals who don’t normally visit art galleries to immerse themselves in an exhibit that will ring a lot of familiar bells for Wisconsin residents, Petterson says.

“Even if you don’t drink beer, and a surprising number of breweriana collectors don’t, you will still find the images appealing,” Petterson adds. “There really is something for everyone here.”

— MOWA Brews A Tall Draught of Summer Activities —

Lectures, music and even a series of beer tastings are on draft in support of Art on Tap: Early Wisconsin Brewery Art and Advertising. Mark your calendars for the following museum events:

LECTURES AND OPENING EVENTS

  • July 16 – “Roll Out the Barrel” and dance to the live polka music of The Squeezettes from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.  at the Art on Tap Opening Party.
  • July 21 – “Fermented Photography”, a 6:30 p.m. lecture by photographer Paul Bialis, who shares images and experiences he had in working in abandoned breweries.
  • August 11 – “Bottoms Up”, a lecture by Wisconsin Historical Society State Historic Preservation Officer and Director of Outreach Jim Draeger about the architecture and history of Wisconsin’s saloons.
  • August 25 – “Pabst Brewery and the Artistry of Advertising”, a 6:30 p.m. lecture by Pabst Mansion Executive Director John C. Eastberg will discuss how the brewery used advertising to shape its iconic brand.
  • September 8 – “A Sudsy Heritage: Milwaukee’s Rise as Beer Capital of the World”, a 6:30 p.m. lecture featuring historian John Gurda’s take on Milwaukee’s rise to brewing prominence.

BEER TASTINGS/LECTURES

  • June 30 – Pre-tasting talk from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. by Randy Mosher, author of The Brewer’s Companion and other books; tasting from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. with beers from Door County Brewing Co., Potosi Brewing Co., Karben4, Madison, and others. Music by Frogwater.
  • August 6 – Pre-tasting talk by MillerCoors pilot brewer Megan Mares discussing proper beer-tasting techniques; beer samples from 3 Sheeps, Sheboygan; Lakefront Brewery, Milwaukee; Lithia Brewing Co., West Bend; and more. Music by Evan Christian.
  • September 10 – “Weird and Wild Flavors: A Craft Brewer Panel Discussion” looks at unusual blends in today’s beers; samples from Ale Asylum, Madison; Milwaukee Brewing Co.; Sweet Mullets Brewery, Oconomowoc; and others. Special tasting by Milwaukee-based BitterCube and music by The Latchkeys.

Tastings are $18 each for MOWA members, $30 for non-members and includes a level-one MOWA membership; $55 VIP packages contain all three beer tastings and a level-one membership. Pre-order tickets at wisconsinart.org/artontaptastings.

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.

MOWA puts photographer duo in the viewfinder

There is a familiar, strange and dark beauty in the lives drawn out by photographer duo J. Shimon & J. Lindemann. You know these people, you know these places. They are particular and peculiar, brought together at the Museum of Wisconsin Art for the pair’s largest museum show yet: a retrospective of their 30-year career. It is an eloquently important exhibition.

What is perhaps most fascinating about John Shimon and Julie Lindemann’s work is their ability to reveal parts of the individual self that are always there but often unseen. Artifice and stereotypes vanish. Their subjects candidly say what they want to say, offering authentic statements about who they are, recorded by the photographers’ lens.

Much is made, and rightly so, of Shimon and Lindemann’s identity as Wisconsin artists. They have long been based in the Manitowoc area, away from the clamoring crush and fashion parade of a glossy contemporary art world where much can be made of trends.

Shimon and Lindemann’s depth is sourced from their astute aesthetic, technical rigor and profound connection to a culture. It could not be replicated by an outsider and, in the transient nature of contemporary life, this gleams like a rare jewel. In this place, they have found freedom in the absence of the external.

The exhibition opens with the monumental photograph, “Angela with Kit (Blue Velvet Prom Dress), Reedsville, WI” (1997). Angela’s biography is deeply rooted in rural concerns as a student of dairy science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, participation in groups such as 4-H and Future Farmers of America and the award of the titles such as County Farm Bureau Queen. The juxtaposition of her formal attire and bovine companion may sound improbable or even ironic, but it speaks deeply to the complex aspects of life that exist simultaneously. Shimon and Lindemann compress these into a single moment. In the clarity of the image and its impressive scale, the detail of the hair raised on Angela’s arm is not lost. It is as though there is a chill in the air but she is resolute and unconcerned. There is a toughness and acceptance of conditions, whatever they may be.

“Debra at Home Revealing Tiger Tattoo, Sturgeon Bay, WI” (1999) is another dismantling of what may seem ordinary. In a field, with a farm silo in the distance, the subject opens her shirt dress to show a naked thigh with an inked cat crawling up her hip. In ways overt and discreet, Shimon and Lindemann reveal that there is much in the world either assumed or hidden. The photographers document from within, capturing a realness and beauty as though digging through topsoil to reveal rich earth beneath. 

The exhibition covers a variety of subjects, also illustrated in the exhibition catalog which is available in print and as a free download from the Museum of Wisconsin Art’s website. Categories include Rebellion, Machines, Farms, Landscape, and Sages, and the catalog (and exhibition) closes with the exquisite series “Decay Utopia Decay.”

In this last series, the camera is turned, transforming the creators into protagonists. Lindemann is an extraordinary subject as well as artist, pictured in the kitchen chopping vegetables or drying dishes. She is poised, cool and statuesque and turns the tables on domestic cliches. She is outfitted in black vinyl shorts and a lacy bustier with a demure apron printed with flowers. Sweeping the floor, Lindemann is nonchalant in a sheer negligée and heels. The camera angle is low, and she is in control.

A most stirring image comes in the form of “Self-Portrait in the Garden at Dusk, Whitelaw, WI” (1998). The title aptly uses the singular form for the collaborative pair. 

Shimon holds a heavy box camera while Lindemann stands stoically and sculpturally in a gauzy black dress. The location appears wild, barely tamed as the tall grasses and prairie flowers flourish under an overcast sky. The scene is activated by the artists’ presence and their practice. Photography gear has been hauled out, and the cords of an illuminated lamp trail off to some source of electricity. 

This is the place. Connected to the rest of the world like that black cord bringing light to this patch of the country, they inhabit it freely and easily, documenting and illuminating it and themselves, framed proudly against the horizon. 

“There’s a Place: Photographs by J. Shimon & J. Lindemann” continues through June 7 at the Museum of Wisconsin Art, 205 Veterans Avenue, West Bend. Visit wisconsinart.org for more details.

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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‘Polka Heartland’

Polka is as Wisconsin as beer or cheese, but it’s not a trademark that always gets the respect it deserves. Under the lens of photographer Dick Blau, that changes. His series of 30 photographs depicting present-day performers and dancers are anything but dated, embodying the live, vibrant energy of the polka culture they depict. Saturday’s opening will additionally feature a polka party right at the Museum of Wisconsin Art itself, with live polka music by the Squeezettes from 2 to 5 p.m.

At 205 Veterans Ave., West Bend. Free with museum membership, $12 a year. Visit wisconsinart.org for more information.

Jan. 31 to March 29


Ruth Grotenrath and Schomer Lichtner | Inextricably linked yet independent

Ruth Grotenrath and Schomer Lichtner are two artists who are inextricably linked. Closely associated with art in Milwaukee from the ’30s through the last decades of the 20th century, they lived in the city as well as on a farmstead by Holy Hill. Although married to each other, they were decidedly independent as artists.

This is an opportune time for a crash course in their work. Current exhibitions at the Racine Art Museum and the Museum of Wisconsin Art (West Bend) as well as a show at Elaine Erickson Gallery in Milwaukee’s Third Ward all feature the pair’s work. The Haggerty Museum of Art gets into the Grotenrath-Lichtner celebration with a show opening in late June.

A recent distribution of hundreds of pieces to a number of Wisconsin arts organizations has helped spread their vision. A nod for the most in-depth current exploration of their life must go to Susan J. Montgomery and her newly authored monographs on the couple. Admirably, the books are published as separate volumes, each independent from the other, rather than a combined study that would have only added to the sense of Lichtner and Grotenrath as artistic Siamese twins.

Lichtner was born in Peoria, Ill., in 1905; Grotenrath in Milwaukee in 1912. They met in a drawing class in the early 1930s, “with Schomer declaring that it was love at first sight,” according to the Museum of Wisconsin Art. Their exhibition includes early images that connect with the earthy regionalist impulse of the 1930s, which rejected European avant-garde abstraction in favor of pictures lauding the values of rural Americana, such as Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.” Lichtner’s “Blackbird in the Corn” (1939) has robust baroque ripples similar to those of Oklahoma regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton. But Lichtner does Benton one better with saturated colors, a veritable glow in the brilliant and billowing cornstalk in the moonlight.

It was the decade of the Great Depression, and both artists were involved with the WPA (Works Progress Administration), which employed artists in beautification programs. The MWA shows Grotenrath’s studies for a post office project in Huron, but most interestingly and poignantly the exhibit shows her social awareness. Her painting “Modern Madonna” (1935) confronts the growing political horror in Europe, showing a blindfolded woman, seated with two young children whom she holds protectively while symbols of Fascism loom ominously.

Lichtner and Grotenrath became considerably lighter and brighter in the postwar period, and infused a good dose of artistic ingredients from such sources as Matisse and Japanese art. Lichtner’s hallmark motifs, such as cows and ballet dancers, spring to life in various forms.

Grotenrath is a littler harder to pin down in terms of subject, but her penchant for pattern and color is consistent and engaging. Shapes and spaces overlap with confidence and verve. In the patchwork of colors that plays over the painting surface, shades of Cezanne may be seen. To make an even stronger comparison, one could look to the Intimiste paintings of Edouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard in late 19th century France. Grotenrath follows in a similar suit, with comfortable interior spaces and still lifes that take on a rich beauty in their dense decoration.

All three venues showing their work provide a chronological overview of the artists’ careers, though with variations. The Racine Art Museum presents a cavernous room with the feel of a large museum exhibition, while the Museum of Wisconsin Art shows a more compact collection, augmented by drawings and unique three-dimensional work. Elaine Erickson Gallery offers the most intimate setting, as the art seems to live and breathe in a space that shares the warm characteristics of a living room.

The similarity in the organization of all three shows is understandable. But one wonders about the continual joining of the two artists, relentlessly showing them in tandem rather than standing both on their own. Other artistic marriages – such as Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock, or Robert Motherwell and Helen Frankenthaler – are rarely if ever underscored with exhibitions that revolve around their personal relationship rather than fruits of their labor. Though in life Grotenrath and Lichtner were a great romance, it may be nice after this rediscovery to pull the two apart, to see each without the shadow of the other.

Ballet dancers are a favorite motif of Schomer Lichtner.

Artwatch

It’s that season for road trips, even short ones. The Museum of Wisconsin Art in West Bend, 300 S. Sixth Ave., has a new show opening on Sunday, June 6, with a reception from 1:30 to 4 p.m. “To See Ourselves As Others See Us: Contemporary Wisconsin Portraits” will run through Aug. 29. It features project-oriented takes on the portrait with a variety of artists, including: Madison photographer Tom Jones; Milwaukee’s favorite photo-realist David Lenz; the ever-odd sculptor Demitra Copoulos; a photo series of portraits of older women done as Roman busts by the team of Lindsay Lochman and Barbara Ciurej; Milwaukee painter Mark Mulhern; self-portrait tzar Fred Bell, as well as Sarah Detweiler, Melissa Cooke, Gary S. Kampe and Milwaukee’s premiere portrait goddess Katie Musolff. 262-334-1151, wisconsinart.org.

In Brookfield, The Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts, 19805 W. Capitol Drive, is hosting a COPA exhibit featuring landscape photography. COPA, the Coalition of Photographic Arts, is Milwaukee’s giant organization of photo enthusiasts that organizes huge group shows and gives both aspiring and established photographers a sense of belonging and support. The show opens Friday, June 4, and runs through July 30. (262-781-9470, Wilson-center.com)

We’ve been hearing great things about the bug show at the Racine Art Museum. Director Bruce Pepich recently hired Lena Vigna, formerly of the Kohler Arts Center, as curator, which is a very good thing indeed.

The current show features three artists who work with either real insects or depictions of them: Catherine Chambers explores the “American Cockroach,” Jennifer Angus (Madison) creates stunning wallpaper patterns from real bugs, and JoAnna Poehlmann (Milwaukee) has long done ever-so-delicate drawings of eggs, feathers and, yes, insects. Friday, June 4, is “First Friday” at RAM, when admission is free and the museum is open until 9 p.m. Two of the artists will be there to discuss their work. RAM is located at 441 Main Street, Racine, 262-638-8300, ramart.org.

Each year, the Museum of Wisconsin Art presents lifetime achievement awards to artists and administrators who’ve had a large impact. The awards took place May 23 at the museum, and perhaps most significant to Wisconsin Gazette readers is the award that went to Miriam Frink (1892-1977) and her partner Charlotte Patridge (1882-1975). These two women were the founders and directors of the Layton School of Art, Milwaukee’s first art school, established in 1920. The school eventually morphed into the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, but Frink and Patridge ran it for a good 30 years. It’s amazing that they are not household names in the art community, but that sneaky hand of history tends to diminish accomplishments by women, especially lesbians. Bravo Museum of Wisconsin Art for granting recognition.

Lines and Language | Current art shows worth road trips

April is the cruelest month, tempting us with promises of warm sun, soft breezes and thoughts of leisure and vacation. But alas, although the full-blown joys of summer are still weeks away, there are plenty of options for a quick out-of-town excursion to take in some current exhibitions.

The Museum of Wisconsin Art, West Bend

Located about an hour from downtown Milwaukee, the Museum of Wisconsin Art in West Bend is home to a permanent collection of Wisconsin art and changing exhibitions usually featuring contemporary artists. On view through May 30 is “Truman Lowe: Limn.”

To “limn” can have multiple discreet meanings; on one hand, it is to draw or paint on the surface of something, but it is also to delineate by means of outlining clearly.

The artist, Truman Lowe, is curator of contemporary art at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian and a professor of art at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He was born in Wisconsin and is of Winnebago heritage. About his work, he says, “If I do anything, I simplify things. Maybe too much.”

This simplification is readily apparent in the set of nine pieces called “Limn Series.” Clear lines and marks on small papers become like meditative morsels on form. His diminutive works are haiku-like in their charm. If you’re in a rush, these may not seep in strongly, but a gentle and patient viewing reveals these small drawings to be like topographies of landscape, and as varied as fingerprints.

The notions of drawing expressed in the exhibition title are most fully realized in “Canoe,” which quite literally is a drawing in willow wood. The structure develops in supple wood lines that exist between two-dimensional description and three-dimensional volume in the play of light and shadow on the wall. It’s a subject that unifies Lowe’s cultural heritage with his contemporary interest in form, infused with a simple physical beauty.

Museum of Wisconsin Art, 300 S. 6th Ave., West Bend, 262-334-9638, http://www.wisconsinart.org/

The John Michael Kohler Art Center, Sheboygan

Words are complicated. The John Michael Kohler Art Center in Sheboygan takes on the unruliness of language in “Beyond Words: A Series of Exhibitions” that runs through May 30.

Three shows roll together in the gallery space, and altogether about 25 contemporary artists are showcased, with media ranging from painting to video to room-sized installations.

The written word is all around us more than at any other time during human history. We’re bombarded by texts and e-mails and tweets, the latter of which the Library of Congress has just announced plans to archive. The subjects of these communications are often spontaneous responses to what we’re doing and thinking, both important and inane – but the personal perspective unifies them both.

This perspective is the central focus to a number of pieces, such as Jennifer Dalton’s “The Reappraisal” from 2009. Dalton systematically cataloged all of her possessions, wrote her own appraisals in terms of monetary value, and then had a professional do the same. One can envy the organizational tenacity of this project, but it is also esoteric and exhausting. It seems to echo the current voyeuristic fascination of objects, possessions and lifestyles.

Art and self-reflexive experience are writ large in Heather Willems’ “Writing the Making.” The installation consists of two massive scrolls unfurled from the ceiling, each about 40 feet by 9 feet. Willems spent up to 16 hours a day during eight weeks writing stream-of-consciousness style on these scrolls, creating a physical manifestation of that voice we usually only hear in our head.

And this is what that voice looks like. It’s overwhelming in scale and scope, and is like drowning in a torrent of words. The volume of thoughts pouring forth – both important and inane-seems something like a handwritten account of Twitter traffic. Language becomes art, and art becomes artifact.

One of the most interesting pieces on view is Mary Kelly and Ray Barrie’s “Love Songs: Multi-Story House” (2007). It’s a small house built in the gallery space, and, yes, walk on in. From inside and out, carved statements reveal fragments of conversation on the feminist movement of the 1960s-1970s. It’s a powerful reflection on identity, a fight for justice and equality, and, interestingly, cultural diversity as the speakers’ heritages are rooted in various places, such as Germany, Saudi Arabia, and Spain. It’s an installation that envelopes the viewer in this conversation and broadens the union of art and language in a powerful way that goes beyond the experience of the individual.

John Michael Kohler Art Center, 608 New York Av,e., Sheboygan, 920-458-6144, http://www.jmkac.org/