“Everyone has to do their own bit. Not sit back and wait for other people to do it. Get up off your ass and do it yourself, you’re an artist for f**k’s sake. Get creative.”
So says Clive Promhows, owner of Milwaukee’s Live Artists Studio, one of several galleries in the city’s artist community. It’s advice that illuminates the energy of that community, unified by tenacity and passion.
The Milwaukee art scene is rich with a diverse array of galleries and art venues, but there are distinct changes afoot. The closing of the DeLind Gallery of Fine Art after 46 years, and the forthcoming shuttering of Elaine Erickson Gallery this June will create voids in the wake of their long-established presences. Yet, there are new locations for exhibitions that suggest transformation in the way art intersects with a public audience, and other established galleries are changing too.
But regardless of change, one thing remains the same: Each gallery has its own distinct feel, an individual expression of its owners’ vision.
The Gallery Tradition
Most conventional, in Milwaukee, are the Tory Folliard Gallery and Dean Jensen Gallery. These two mainstays developed in the Third Ward in the late 1980s, growing as the neighborhood did.
Folliard’s interest in art was nurtured by her work as a docent, and she started to take her work home with her — her earliest shows, featuring the work of Guido Brink, took place in her own house. When things got to the point that she was moving furniture to make room for more art, it became clear that a dedicated space was in order.
After several successful exhibitions in Fox Point, Folliard moved to the Third Ward. She has remained there for the past 25 years.
She attributes her longevity to the deep sense of enrichment visual art gives her. “It makes life so enjoyable,” Folliard says. “It inspires you, it makes you happy, it changes everything. I can’t imagine a blank wall. It just makes your life full in a different way.”
Jensen came to gallery ownership from a different direction. Originally a newspaper reporter, his life took a sudden shift after a yearlong fellowship at the University of Michigan, studying Renaissance painting. Returning to his newspaper job, he had an awakening: “From the instant I got off the elevator the first day after that wonderful year in Ann Arbor, I made the decision that I didn’t want to do that anymore,” he says. “Before the year was out I had a gallery.”
Jensen’s career as a novelist also demands his attention, but the gallery remains important. “This has been wonderful coming in here each day, sort of like coming into my own little chapel. You get visual stimulation from the work. I spend time with the pictures and everyday see them anew.“
The longest-running gallery in the city is the David Barnett Gallery, now in its 48th year. Initiation into the art business came early for Barnett. When he was 16 years old, his family’s factory closed, derailing his assumed future with the business. His interest in art took over; three years later he opened his gallery.
Initially, Barnett’s focus was on local artists. But several years in, he took out a loan and flew to New York, where he purchased works by Pablo Picasso, Joan Mió, Salvador Dalí and more: an inventory to grow from in subsequent decades.
Barnett’s gallery is in a Victorian house on the East Side, and visitors will note the extraordinary diversity of works on view — from historical pieces to contemporary art.
He says these works serve as a reflection of his individuality, rather than diversity for its own sake. “It’s based on my own personal beliefs in collecting, philosophy, instinct and passion. … It’s perhaps not a very business-like model but it’s the honest one for me which is why I have such a big collection.”
In 2008, the Portrait Society Gallery filled a 300-square-foot office on the fifth floor of the Marshall Building in the Third Ward. Director Debra Brehmer helped it grow, pushing her exhibitions out of that room and sending them sprawling into the hallway. As they continually increased in scope, they eventually made the leap into adjacent areas as they became available for rental.
These spaces have coalesced into a flexible, multi-room venue, all dedicated to Brehmer’s expansive interpretation of portraiture. “I curate the shows out of my own interests and that’s the way it’s always been,” Brehmer says. “I think it’s the only thing you can really do to grow and get people used to the idea that there is a sort of a center and a vision. It gives the gallery an identity.”
Other art venues take a different approach. Green Gallery, now located on the East Side after a fire destroyed its primary space, has expanded considerably since its establishment in Riverwest in 2004. Director John Riepenhoff began the endeavor while still a student at UWM. “In essence, no one was doing the type of gallery I wanted to see so I just made it happen,” he says. “My brother started a recording studio in one room, the gallery was in another room and a music venue was in another room.”
One of the guiding principles of Green Gallery is to create a sense of community, and to form a place where ideas can be explored and developed.
“For the Green Gallery we don’t narrow what it can be, we open it up,” Riepenhoff says. “Sometimes we don’t know what the work looks like until we’re actually in the space. The opening is happening and there’s a certain kind of presence in the air and in the work. Sometimes it’s years later that I really learn about the depths of what a show was about. For us it’s about a nowness, being very current, being present, and very open to the possibilities of what art can be and not what our expectations have been.”
Clive Promhows’ Live Artists Studio is driven by a model of deliberate scarcity. Promhows embraces visual culture, drama, music and all manner of creative endeavors, but many of them are only held for a single day or a couple of nights. “The real good stuff, you gotta get in there quick,” he says.
These single-night and limited-run engagements, growing more common among other galleries and groups as well, have become important for showcasing his work and promoting many other artists in often monumental exhibitions. In the last five-and-a-half years, Promhow has hosted 45 to 50 shows in the studio, on the fourth floor of an old industrial building in Walker’s Point. It intrigued him from the start. “I thought, I have no idea what’s going to happen here, but I’m going to do my best,” he says.
Being outside of a formal gallery structure is also a point of liberation. Promhows says, “We’ve got nothing to lose, we’ve got no one to please. There’s so much hidden talent in this town. Huge. With art, with music, with acting, with film. It’s just a question of elevating people’s attitude.”
Making a physical location for things to happen also motivates some of the newer galleries on the scene, including Usable Space, initiated by Keith Nelson about two years ago in Bay View.
His background as an artist, as well as 10 years spent as a preparator at the Milwaukee Art Museum (where he still works freelance), gives Nelson a unique curatorial approach. He calls himself a “facilitator,” offering exhibition opportunities for others.
“I started Usable Space knowing that it’s not going to be a profitable business that can generate its own funding,” Nelson says. “Another thing that was important to me was to have artists curate, and bring in artists from outside of Milwaukee. I didn’t want it to just be a local scene thing. I’ve had artists from New York, Chicago and L.A. alongside artists from Milwaukee, so it shows that what is going on in Milwaukee is relevant to what is going on in all the big art centers, too.”
Six shows are held at Usable Space yearly, monthly from April to September. The location’s logistics (the gallery is a converted garage) preclude winter exhibitions.
Equally inventive is the new gallery space opened by Mike Brenner, a veteran of the local scene still known for his edgy Hotcakes Gallery, which was open from 2004 to 2008. Brenner’s recent ambitions offer another alternative for the promotion of art. He’s opened a new brewery in Walker’s Point, Brenner Brewing Company, that features and facilitates an adjoining art gallery and studio space: The Pitch Project.
Overseen by Jason Yi and Sonja Thomsen, The Pitch Project serves as a network of 22 artists’ studios, as well as exhibition space. It’s an effort by them and Brenner to integrate art spaces into the community. Brenner is also incorporating original, contemporary art into the packaging of his beer, with designs by artists including Sue Lawton, Erin Paisley-Steuber and James “Jimbot” Demski on new products.
Brenner says there are challenges to this joining of art and commerce, but he sees this as something more than product promotion. “You hope that eventually people do see the value in it and it pays off. And then we can continue to do it and grow it and make even more good for the community.”
It’s a mission that echoes the missions of so many other gallery operators throughout the city, even as each frames their galleries in their own individual way.
Current/Upcoming Gallery Exhibitions
Tory Folliard Gallery
233 N. Milwaukee St.
‘Mark Forth: Modern Ballads’
‘Harold Gregor: Midwestern Master’
May 29 to July 4
Dean Jensen Gallery
759 N. Water St.
‘Great Impressions IV: An Exhibition of Contemporary Prints’
‘Gérard Sendrey: Constantly Inconstant ‘
Through June 14.
David Barnett Gallery
1024 E. State St.
Through July 18.
Portrait Society Gallery
207 E. Buffalo St., Fifth Floor
‘Wis-Con-Sin’: Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, J. Shimon & J. Lindemann, Charles Van Schaick
June 12 to Aug. 30.
1500 N. Farwell Ave.
‘“Democrats, Republicans, Capitalists and Creeps” … and You’
Through June 13.
1950b S. Hilbert St.
‘Where Does It Go Now? New Paintings by Annie Hémond Hotte’
Exhibition opens May 22.
Live Artists Studio
228 S. First St., Suite 302
‘The Carol Show 2: Pastel Drawings by Carol Rode-Curley’
Exhibition opens May 22.
Brenner Brewing Company
The Pitch Project
706 S. 5th St.
‘Pyrite Suns, Miner’s Dollars’: An Installation by Aspen Mays
June 12 to Sept. 12
Lois Bielefeld has always been interested in portraits. Ever since she took up photography as a young Milwaukeean and moved to New York to pursue it as a career, her artistic works have been what she calls “conceptual portraits” — works assembled in a series, centered around the habits and traits all people share.
She moved back from New York in 2010, relocating for her day job as a Kohl’s photographer, and most of her subjects since have been in the Wisconsin area. For her latest project, she’s going much further afield: the tiny, landlocked Western European nation of Luxembourg.
The adventure comes as a fellowship sponsored by the Museum of Wisconsin Art, and Bielefeld is the program’s first artist-in-residence. The annual, 10-week residency includes travel fare, a monthly stipend and housing in Bourglinster, a converted castle 15 minutes north of Luxembourg City, where Bielefeld will have the opportunity to live and work surrounded by Luxembourg culture.
It’s an honor she says she never anticipated receiving, especially after having been able to watch the judging process for Milwaukee’s Mary L. Nohl Fellowship the year after she won that in 2012. “That was a huge reality check,” she says, reflecting on the 200-odd entries submitted to that prize’s jury. “I knew there were amazing artists here, but I didn’t know to what level. … I in no way thought I would ever get the fellowship.”
Bielefeld’s works, photographs blown up to a large scale, stand out as particularly striking and intimate examples of portraiture. And she’s recently expanded beyond photography with projects that investigate sexuality and gender roles. One, Ladies Out, is a documentary film that premiered in 2014, depicting a community of Milwaukee lesbians over 40 who get together on a monthly basis to go dancing and socialize.
Her latest show, Androgyny, at Portrait Society Gallery (which represents Bielefeld), follows that trend. The exhibit, which runs through March 14 is primarily composed of solo portraits, depicting adults and children who present androgynously to the world at large. But while taking their photos, Bielefeld also asked her subjects a series of questions about themselves and their life experiences, which she recorded and turned into a single, six-hour audio piece. When setting up her installation, Bielefeld built a non-functioning public bathroom with gendered entrances, acknowledging the space as one where non-gender-conforming individuals are most frequently challenged and forcing her audience to feel some of that tension.
“To me, interactive art has always been the most memorable,” she says. “It just engages you on a different level. If you can get somebody thinking beyond just looking at something … every aspect of the bathroom is very thought-out to have it hit you.”
But due to the limitations of being abroad, Bielefeld says, she anticipates her residency project will stick to photographic mediums, like her earlier work. Her first series, The Bedroom, presents its subjects in their own rooms, suggesting the contents are a reflection of their characters. “I’ve always loved seeing people’s bedrooms, even as a little kid,” she says. “It really says a lot about a person.”
Weeknight Dinners, an ongoing project she started as part of her Nohl Fellowship work, touches on similar themes. In each, Bielefeld captures a single family unit on an average day of the week, eating the food they normally would.
That series, she says, is how she plans to segue into Luxembourg society during her fellowship. Wisconsin is home to a number of small Luxembourg-American communities, most notably in Belgium, Wisconsin, and Bielefeld traveled there to take dinner portraits of Luxembourg-American families. She hopes to take an additional 12 while overseas, “both because I’m just curious how their eating habits are different than ours, but also to immerse myself in the culture and really get connected.”
Bielefeld says those families have also proven helpful in educating her about what Luxembourg culture is like. She’s already learned about the significance of St. Nicholas and his feast day over Santa Claus and Christmas, and about ethnic dishes like mustripen, a blood sausage native to the region. She even says she’s beginning to get a sense of a sort of Luxembourg character trait: a warm disposition inexplicably mixed with a distinctly private nature.
Details like that, and what she learns upon arrival, are what will help her figure out what to do after the first few weeks, once she’s become more acclimated to the region. Or so she hopes. It’s a nervous anticipation, she says, preparing for the fellowship, but she’s optimistic it’ll provide her with the nudge she needs to grow as an artist. “I’m really looking forward to how people do things differently elsewhere,” she says, “And hopefully making a compelling body of work out of it.”
Whatever Bielefeld creates is slated for exhibition at MOWA sometime next year, but that isn’t her concern at this point. She’s only thinking about the frames of photographs, and what snapshots of Luxembourg she’s going to put in them.
In these hyper-connected, over-shared times dwell two kinds of people: those preoccupied with taking and uploading photos of themselves and those who have never heard of the selfie.
The raunchy, goofy, poignant, sexy or drunken self-portrait has been a common sight since phone camera met social media. Now, nearly a decade since the arm-extended or in-the-mirror photos became a mainstay of MySpace – duck face or otherwise – selfies are a pastime across generations and cultures.
Justin Bieber puts up plenty with his shirt off and Rihanna poses for sultry snaps, but a beaming Hillary Clinton recently took a turn with daughter Chelsea, who tweeted their happy first attempt with the hashtag (hash)ProudDaughter.
Two other famous daughters, Sasha and Malia Obama, selfied at dad’s second inauguration, pulling faces in front of a smartphone. And Japanese astronaut Aki Hoshide earned a spot in the Selfie Hall of Fame with a striking, other-worldly shot, arms extended as reflected in his helmet outside the International Space Station last year.
“It just comes so naturally after a point,” said Elizabeth Zamora, a 24-year-old marketing account coordinator in Dallas who has taken hundreds of selfies since she got her first iPhone two years ago, with the front-facing camera that has become the selfie gold standard.
“You just take it and you don’t even realize it and then you’re sharing it with all your friends,” she said. “I try not to go crazy.”
If we’re not taking them, we’re certainly looking, regardless of whether we know what they’re called. We’re lurking on the selfies of our teens, enjoying the hijinx of co-workers and friends and mooning over celebrities, who have fast learned the marketing value – and scandalous dangers – of capturing their more intimate, unpolished selves.
The practice of freezing and sharing our thinnest slices of life has become so popular that the granddaddy of dictionaries, the Oxford, is monitoring the term selfie as a possible addition. Time magazine included the selfie in its Top 10 buzzwords of 2012 (at No. 9) and New York magazine’s The Cut blog declared in April: “Ugly Is the New Pretty: How Unattractive Selfies Took Over the Internet.”
On Instagram alone, there’s (hash)selfiesunday, along with related tags where millions of selfies land daily. More than 23 million photos have been uploaded to the app with the tag (hash)selfie and about 70 million photos clog Instagram’s (hash)me.
What are we to make of all this navel-gazing (sometimes literally)? Are selfies, by definition, culturally dangerous? Offensive? An indicator of moral decline?
Beverly Hills, Calif., psychiatrist Carole Lieberman sees narcissism with a capital N. “The rise of the selfie is a perfect metaphor for our increasingly narcissistic culture. We’re desperately crying out: Look at me!”
But Pamela Rutledge doesn’t see it that way. The director of the nonprofit Media Psychology Research Center, which explores how humans interact with technology, sees the selfie as democratizing the once-snooty practice of self-portraiture, a tradition that long predates Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Flickr.
She sees some key differences between selfies and self-portraits of yore. Unlike painted portraiture, selfies are easily deletable. And “bad or funny is good in a way that wasn’t the case when people had to pay for film to be developed,” or for a professional painter, she said.
“Albrecht Durer’s self-portraiture is these incredible self-reflections and explorations of technique, and then when Rihanna snaps her picture it’s just self-aggrandizement, or it’s promotion, so you have a fairly interesting double standard based upon who’s taking the self-portrait,” said Rutledge, in Boston.
In selfies, we can be famous and in control of our own images and storylines. As for the young, the more authority figures – parents, teachers – dislike them and “declare them a sign of a self-obsessed, narcissistic generation, the more desirable they become,” she said.
The word selfie in itself carries multiple connotations, Rutledge observes. “The `ie’ at the end makes selfie a diminutive, implying some affection and familiarity.” From a semantic’s perspective, the selfie is a “little’ self” – a small, friendly bit of the self, she said.
There’s a sense of immediacy and temporariness. “Granted, little is really temporary on the Internet, but it is more that by definition. Transient, soon to be upstaged by the next one,” Rutledge said.
Self-portraits tagged as `selfie’ first surfaced on Flickr, a photo-sharing site, and on MySpace in 2004, Rutledge said. The earliest reference in UrbanDictionary was to “selfy” in 2005.
In historical terms, elites in Ancient Egypt were fond of self-portraits, Rutledge said. And then there was the mirror, invented in the 15th century and allowing artists like the prolific Durer in Germany to have at it in more meaningful detail.
While the self-involved Narcissus stared at his reflection in a pond in Greek mythology, it was the mirror that “really was the first piece of technology where an artist could see his own image long enough to paint it, other than just painting self-impressions,” Rutledge said.
Fast forward to the 1860s and the advent of cameras, launching a new round of selfies, though they took considerable skill and expense.
Leap with us once again to 2010 and the launch of Instagram, and on to 2012, when 86 percent of the U.S. population had a cell phone, bringing on the cheaper selfie as social media and mobile Internet access spread.
“What’s most interesting to me is how we’re trying to grapple with what it means,” Rutledge said. “We know what it means when we see somebody’s picture of their kid holding a soccer ball. We’re OK with that. And we know what it means to have a portrait in a high school yearbook or of a real estate agent on a business card. We know how to think about all of those things, but we don’t know how to think about this mass production of self-reflection.”
Is it possible the selfie doesn’t mean anything at all?
“In the era of the Kardashians, everyone has become their own paparazzi,” mused Rachel Weingarten, a personal-brand consultant in New York.
Another New Yorker, 14-year-old Beatrice Landau, tends to agree. She regularly uploads selfies, from vacation shots on Instagram to fleeting images using Snapchat, a phone app that deletes them after 10 seconds.
“I know selfies are ridiculous, but it’s definitely part of our `teenage culture,'” Beatrice said. “You don’t have to have a person with you to take a picture of you, when you can take one yourself.”
“Gay In America” (Welcome Books, 2011, $45) by Scott Pasfield takes its rightful place beside such coffee-table classics as Tom Atwood’s “Kings In Their Castles” and Michael Goff and Out Magazine’s “Out In America.”
Pasfield spent three years and traveled 52,000 miles to prepare the book, which features 140 gay male subjects, all of whom responded to a call for photographic subjects. It includes both their pictures and their unique stories, creating a colorful portrait of 21st-century gay life in all 50 states.
I spoke with Pasfield in September 2011.
Gregg Shapiro: My partner and I have two dogs, so one of the first things that I noticed in the pictures was that there are more than a dozen pictures of men and dogs.
Scott Pasfield: And so many dogs got cut from the book (laughs).I think there was something like 30 or 35 dogs that I photographed over the course of the project. I was always excited to try and include pets when I could. I think they are such an important part of gay men’s lives. More often than not, if the dogs or pets were around and seemed intrigued by the whole process, I asked if we could try to get them in the shot and most pet owners are happy about that (laughs).The dogs by far were the most popular. I think there were five cats, some goats and lots of birds, too.
Who had the final say in the setting, what was worn and what would be included in the shots?
I guess I had the final say in terms of editing the pictures and narrowing it down to my favorites. The designer and I always were on the same page in terms of selecting the final image. During the actual photo shoots I always did my best in terms of trying to compose the most interesting photographs. The location in their home dictated where that picture and portrait setting should be. It always seemed like a natural choice. In terms of their clothing, usually I asked the guys beforehand to dress in their most comfortable clothes. In instances where I felt like it wasn’t the perfect choice for the photograph, we would revisit some of their clothes. I would say that 98 percent of the time what they wore ended up in the final shoot.
Reading Ken from Maryland’s story, it’s understandable why he got a few more pages to tell it. What came first in the process, the photos or the subjects’ stories?
I decided who to go photograph based on their story. Their story had to ring true to me and it became very clear right away who was right for the book and who wasn’t. It hit me like over the head like a ton of bricks. This person was being so honest and their story is so wonderful and I haven’t heard anything like it before, therefore I’m going to go photograph them.
Of the 140 men, five are from Alaska and seven from Georgia, but only one from Illinois How did that kind of geography come to pass?
The stories really dictated who I picked, so long as every state was represented at least once. When I felt so strongly about two different people or two different people in the same city, I would photograph them both thinking that in the end the editor might narrow that choice down. As often was the case, both subjects in the same city ended up making it in the book, and the editors really enjoyed the comparative stories in the same city. You would think that some places, like Chicago, would be a very easy place, but for some reason it wasn’t. People didn’t reach out to me in the same way.
How different do you think this book would have been if you’d done it 10 or 20 years ago?
The Internet played a big part in how I found people. It would have been much more difficult to find them. The thing that surprised me the most is the regularness of all these guys. I think most outspoken gay men and all facets of the LGBT community are those people who defined themselves very much by being gay and they have that issue that they really want to share with the world. They’re very outspoken. I think the type of men I was looking for aren’t as outspoken as a lot of those advocates are. That difficulty in finding them was made so much easier by the Internet. Ten, maybe 20 years ago I’m not quite sure how I would have found the same men because they’re not going to gay community centers, most of them. They’re not out at a lot of gay bars or clubs in urban areas.
Did you learn things about gay men that you didn’t know before?
Really a lot of the reason for the book was to search out that wisdom from gay men in determining how to live a happy, fulfilled life and not to let other people’s views of homosexuality affect your being. And I was able to learn from them just how not to let all of that get to you, how to be happy. I think the more we share our stories and we learn how other people overcome those same things, it can help us all understand what it does means to be gay in America a little better.