Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Sneak preview: Distressed Structures – The Weathering of Ecology opens Friday at Jazz Gallery

The Riverwest Artists Association presents an exhibit called Distressed Structures - The Weathering of Ecology at its Jazz Gallery with an opening on Friday, January 23.

This group exhibit has been curated by C. Matthew Luther, MIAD instructor and newly appointed president of the Riverwest Artists Association. I have the honor of being among the five featured artists. My work includes this portrait of Milwaukee Riverkeeper, Cheryl Nenn, who will also be giving a presentation at the gallery (see below).

Here is his description of the show:

Distressed Structures is a transient glimpse at Milwaukee artists who use ecology as a literal or conceptual theme in their work. Artists around the world produce art that questions our consumer culture and ideas of the landscape. This exhibition takes a look at local artists that use nature as a form of dialogue about the human relationship to the physical, temporal, and ephemeral affects of ecology.
            On the one hand, there is certainly no shortage of picturesque landscape paintings and photographs to adorn the walls of country homes. On the other hand,  there is a continual evolution in our understanding of how we view the landscape through the lens of art and what pictures mean. We need to examine the history of nature and the history of the painted, photographed, and sculpted landscape, along with current ecological theory as one continuum. The two have become intertwined. The pictorial landscape must now position itself within not only the history of art and painting, but history itself, land use, the rise of environmentalism, sustainability, and the social value of nature.

Featured artists: Melanie Ariens, Eddee Daniel, Matthew Lee, Nathaniel Stern, Corbett Toomsen. Scroll down to see samples of each artist's work.

The exhibit runs January 23rd to Febrary 15th.

Opening Reception January 23rd, 6-9 pm.

Three community programs will be presented in conjunction with the exhibit:
Milwaukee Riverkeeper, Cheryl Nenn, Presentation Thursday January 29th at 6:30pm
Artist Panel Thursday February 5th at 6:30pm
Milwaukee Water Commons Presentation Thursday February 12th at 6:30pm

All are free and open to the public.

Untitled, Melanie Ariens
Diligent Truth, Matthew Warren Lee

Syncopated, Nathaniel Stern

Yosemite, Corbett Toomsen

Jazz Gallery is at 926 East Center Street in Milwaukee.
Gallery hours: Tue. 6 - 9 and Sat. 12 - 5.
More info at RAA.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Order and disorder: The arts go long in Boston

“Order and Disorder” is the title of a magnificent exhibit at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) featuring the peerless work of Goya. But it may as well have been a general theme for much of what we saw both there and at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA). I’ll return in a moment to Goya and the MFA.

Ito wa ito Naomi Kobayashi
From the perspective of hindsight, order seems to have ruled the day, for the most part, in the ICA’s big show called Fiber: Sculpture 1960present, the museum’s first major exhibition of fiber art in 40 years. That’s because 50+ years on we as audience have grown accustomed to fiber sculptures that don’t lay flat on the wall and because fiber artists generally hew to rigorous craftsmanship even when challenging prevailing norms. But, as this exhibit demonstrates, in 1960 that idea was a radical break from tradition. Before that time fiber art was generally known as weaving or tapestry, not sculpture.

Élément spatial (Spatial Element) Elsi Giauque
According to the show’s curators, “This radical shift in fiber from wall hanging to sculpture was played out against a backdrop of social and cultural tumult—the civil rights move­ment, the women’s movement, and antiwar activism—at a time when artists were rejecting prevailing orthodoxies.” Disorder indeed.

With over 40 artists from all around the globe, I was gratified to discover that Wisconsin was represented by Sheboygan artist Jean Stamsta (who died in 2013). Her piece, called “Orange Twist” (above), was lent by the Museum of Wisconsin Art, in West Bend. The museum’s information calls her work “folksy,” whimsical and distinct from other fiber sculptors.
Carpet Style Tilework on Canvases
Tensions between order and disorder lie much closer to the surface, literally in some cases, in the work of Brazilian artist Adriana Varejão. Considered one of Brazil’s foremost artists, much of Varejão’s work deals with race, class and ethnicity.

Polvo Portraits (three paintings) and Polvo Oil Colors deal directly with ethnic identity. Polvo is a reference to skin color. The tubes of paint in the vitrine are all shades of skin colors identified with names gleaned from individual responses to census survey questions of ethnic background. Examples include “Sapecada (flirting with freckles), Café com Leite (coffee with milk) and Queimada de Sol (sun-kissed).”

This piece, entitled Folds, is one of a series where the surface of the painting, rendered to look like tile erupts with highly realistic, three-dimensional protrusions of viscera. Again, order and disorder.

Solo Goya (Only Goya)
I couldn’t possibly do justice to the Museum of Fine Arts. Even a review of the Goya exhibit will have to be far too brief, a tease really. Like many museums, the MFA has adopted a lenient stance towards photography in most of its galleries. (We have social media and the free publicity it makes possible to thank, I’m told.) However, as expected, this doesn’t extend to special exhibits and works on loan.

Time and the Old Woman
Fortunately, much of Goya’s vast oeuvre is readily available online. These few selections were all in the exhibit, which did a good job illustrating its theme of “order and disorder.” I feel fortunate to have visited the Prado and so I was prepared to enjoy revisiting works with which I was familiar. There were plenty. But I was also pleasantly surprised to see quite a few unfamiliar works, paintings and prints.

The most unexpected treat was the side-by-side comparisons of Goya’s studies (known as “cartoons”) for tapestries and the tapestries themselves. The “cartoons” were polished paintings that invariably made the tapestries look flat and ironically cartoonish.

Order was represented primarily by the many prints and paintings that Goya did of the royal family and court, such as the famous, The Parasol.

I’ve always found Goya’s many treatments of disorder far more compelling. It is hard to imagine living through the experiences he depicts so graphically, particularly his horrific Disasters of War series. Harder still to comprehend the compulsion to not only observe the atrocities but to laboriously record them, whether through drawings, paintings or the various printmaking media he employed.

The exhibit opened with selections from Los Caprichos, including his most famous from that satirical series about human folly and foible, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (top) and, tellingly, a self-portrait. Inadvertently no doubt, the exhibit also closed with what I can’t help thinking Goya would have interpreted as a contemporary example of Los Caprichos: As always in today’s hyper-marketed world, we had to “exit through the giftshop.”

In a first-ever comprehensive retrospective the MFA demonstrates that Jamie Wyeth’s professional career followed a perhaps not so surprising trajectory from order to disorder, in my opinion if not the curator’s. While the evidence for my opinion seemed manifest in the works of art, I admit I am speculating about what I interpreted as increasingly disorderly psychological states. Perhaps I was simply over-sensitized by the Goya show. In any case, Jamie, third in a distinguished line of artists, began as a chronicler of the hip and famous, including J. F. Kennedy, Andy Warhol, and (here) Nureyev.

While never renouncing the realism that may have been genetically inherited, his late works display a far looser, more painterly approach. His cycle of paintings depicting the Seven Deadly Sins using seagulls as his allegorical subjects have emotional power that transcends realism. It was a thought-provoking show.

There were Sunday Mornings
It wasn’t a complete surprise but it was certainly intriguing how seamlessly Shinique Smith’s work translates considerations of order and disorder into her distinctive contemporary style. I’ve enjoyed seeing the variety of her output over time but many of the works in this show were newer or unfamiliar.

The Power to See
The show, called BRIGHT MATTER, “surveys 30 key works from the past decade while debuting more than a dozen new pieces, including painting, sculpture, full-room installation, video, and performance.”
Breath and Line
Maybe this is a stretch, but I couldn’t help thinking that if Goya were alive today his work might look something like Smith’s.

Finally, a few random artworks that not only caught my eye and interest, but also suggest a connection with the theme of order and disorder. At least for me.

Pedro Reyes crafted a musical instrument by soldering together steel parts of weapons confiscated and destroyed by Mexican authorities.

Jeremy Deller created a spectacular video installation for the 2013 Venice Biennale. It addresses British society—its people, icons, folklore and history—conflates events from the past, present and an imagined future. I wish I could share a link to the video but the two that a Google search found had been removed from their respective sites (one being Deller’s own website.)

Okay, I suppose if Goya were alive today his work is far more likely to resemble something Anselm Kiefer would make. As with Goya, disorder tends to win out in most of Kiefer’s work. This one, called Rising, Rising, Falling Down, is a curious mix, not only of characteristically unusual materials but of disorderly content neatly framed in a glass case like one might see in a natural history museum.

This is the second in a pair of reviews from my recent trip to Massachusetts. To read the first, about MASS MoCA, clickhere.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Art at MASS MoCA: Size matters.

I knew little about the place before we drove into the parking lot on a dreary, wet December day. I had read that it specialized in contemporary art and it was big. I had no idea how big.

The entrance was nowhere to be seen. After asking directions we made our way under a bridge connecting two massive brick buildings, then along a spacious paved yard bounded by more of the same. It all looked very much like what it once had been: a mill dating from the Revolutionary War period.

Turning a corner towards a courtyard surrounded by similar structures it suddenly became obvious that this was no longer a mill and in fact not any kind of ordinary place. A series of six contorted trees were growing from the bottoms of inverted stainless steel planters trussed up on telephone poles. Alice, the White Rabbit and the Red Queen might have felt at home amid what I later learned was an enormous work of art called “Tree Logic,” created by Natalie Jeremijenko. Even though defoliated by winter the trees clearly had been straining to correct the illogical orientation of their planting.

I soon learned that “enormous” could describe without hyperbole much of MASS MoCA. The former mill is a complex of many large, interconnected buildings that cover 13 acres in downtown North Adams, Massachusetts. As an electronics factory that served the military and space industries from 1942-1985 it employed over 4,000 people in a town of 18,000. The mill turned factory has again been repurposed as an interdisciplinary arts center.

Inside, the galleries sprawled from one enormous building to the next. I’ve never been convinced that size alone confers value on art, but moving throughout the MASS MoCA complex and seeing the variety of intriguing installations, the significance of the scale of the place was striking. Considering the history of the place, the scale and interactivity of the art it now contains was made more poignant. The mill, so long so central to the life of this community has once again come alive, this time through the arts. The power of the artworks is imbued with the power resonating within the place.

I can provide little more than a teaser, not only because of the scope of works on exhibit but because so many of them require immersion in the physicality of their presence.

The work of Brooklyn artist Teresita Fernández filled several galleries on an entire floor of the first building we entered.

This site specific installation called Sfumato (Epic) is made up of over 40,000 small chunks of graphite that flowed throughout the long, narrow space like an asteroid belt or a swarm of flying insects.

Black Sun fills a three-story tall space with “thousands of translucent tubes” that create cloud-like formations in colors ranging from amber to black.

An exhibit entitled The Dying of the Light: Film as Medium and Metaphor features the work of 6 artists — Rosa Barba, Matthew Buckingham, Tacita Dean, Rodney Graham, Lisa Oppenheim, and Simon Starling — all of whom favor traditional light-sensitive film over newer digital technologies. None of these can be rendered satisfactorily in a still image, as you can imagine. My favorite was a film projector similar to this one that was dangling from the ceiling by the looping film itself. The machine gently bounced and swayed as it projected a wavering rectangle of white light onto the adjacent wall.

An exhibit by Lee Boroson called Plastic Fantastic filled an entire building with a variety of forms all made of the ubiquitous material. One low-ceilinged room resembling a multi-chambered cavern was far too dark to photograph adequately.

This complex and whimsical installation, called Deep Current, rains ping pong balls from a hole in the ceiling, which then get noisily sucked back up before they fall again.

This piece, entitled Moisture Content, is colossal in scale as well as suggestive of planetary spheres, galaxies and other celestial phenomena.

It’s Only Human, by two British artists named Nick Veasey and Marilene Oliver, is in a gallery called “Kidspace,” although you certainly don’t have to be a kid to be impressed by the work.

I could have spent far more time than we had available in Mark Dion’s Octagon Room. Austere and bunker-like outside, on the inside it resembles a cross between a Victorian cabinet of curiosities and a peculiarly tidy basement. There are jars of pickled animals, carefully tagged sets of keys, shelves full of books and strange juxtapositions of objects. A wall of portraits depicts many famous scientists in odd frames.

Here we see framed compositions of randomly collected pottery fragments from riverside beaches as far apart as the Thames in London and the Seekonk in Providence, RI.

My favorite detail strikes me as a bit of personal catharsis. Jars full of ashes atop a cabinet are labeled “Burnt Archives” containing the likes of “correspondence,” “gallery announcements,” and “press releases.”

The most moving piece for me was quite impossible to photograph. A projected video depicted a leafless tree in graphic white on a stark black background two stories high. White shapes that at first appeared to be leaves accumulated until the tree was full to bursting and did in fact burst upwards as the leaves turned out to be birds that rose and flew en masse down a long, narrow ceiling. The space, called an atrium, must once have been a narrow alley between two buildings. The birds are passenger pigeons. The piece by the artist duo Susannah Sayler and Edward Morris and writer Elizabeth Kolbert is called Eclipse. It mourns the infamous extinction exactly 100 years ago of what is widely believed to have been the most abundant bird species on the planet. You can get a sense of it as well as a thorough description on the MASS MoCA website.

Last, but hardly least, all three floors of an entire building are devoted to a Wall Drawing Retrospective of Sol Lewitt.

The three floors proceed chronologically, beginning with the early linear, monochromatic works on the first floor.

North Adams, in the far northwest corner of Massachusetts, is a little off the beaten track. But if you’re a Lewitt fan you have plenty of time to plan a trip there to see this show. MASS MoCA literature proudly announces that it will remain on view for “an unprecedented” 25-year period.

Stay tuned. After visiting North Adams we travelled the entire length of Massachusetts to Boston (states are smaller in New England than they are out here in the Midwest) where we managed to catch more excellent art. 

Okay, I'm back and here's the link to Boston: Order and Disorder.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

In gratitude from the Menomonee Valley

Season’s Greetings from the Menomonee Valley!

As my 2014 Artist in Residency in the Menomonee Valley draws to a close I would like to thank the Menomonee Valley Partners and Zimmerman Architectural Studios for their sponsorship, support, and faith in this project.

I am also grateful for the many people I have met in the Valley during the year and in particular those who agreed to be the subjects of my photographs and stories.

It has been a privilege and honor to document the exciting developments in the Valley and to share the story of its revitalization. My images, essays and narratives now are available on a website dedicated specifically for the purpose of archiving them and sharing them with the public. My thanks also go out to Erin, my MIAD intern, who helped create this website.

I invite you to check it out: click here.

Although my term as resident is near closing I remain dedicated to the ongoing story of the Valley. Look for a at least a couple more posts to wrap up the year.

In closing, I’m happy to announce that I will be an Artist in Residence at the Lynden Sculpture Garden in 2015. More on that later!

Have a happy New Year!

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Birdman soars!

Went to see Birdman at the Oriental Theater last night. The house was packed. The word is out: Birdman is worth watching. And it was! Not only did I enjoy its mixture of real and surreal, psychological and emotional, but it was textured with such complexity that I felt like seeing it again right away.

The story revolves around an aging actor once famous for playing the eponymous comic book character in blockbuster movies but now trying to make a comeback in theater on broadway. Tortured by doubt, feelings of inadequacy, the desire to succeed and a dysfunctional personal history, he finds himself also besieged by the rigors of the theatrical production. He is surrounded by characters--other actors, stage manager, family members, theater critics and the general public--who can be supportive but often are volatile, sometimes abusive.

My favorite movie ratings site, Rottentomatoes.com, indicates that the critics like it somewhat more (94%) than audiences (87%), though still a respectable rating. The difference is understandable. If you went to it expecting more of the action hero comic character that lurks behind all that the real, fragile human actor does, then you might be disappointed.

The acting is superb. Keaton is outstanding in the lead role. Ed Norton deserves a nomination for best supporting actor, playing an overbearing, self-absorbed celebrity genius actor who drops into the cast at the last moment. The story is based on the literary work of Raymond Carver, whose influence goes beyond providing a vehicle for the theatrical production in the middle of the movie. The tensions and twists characteristic of Carver's short stories are present in the movie from beginning to end.

I don't think it will spoil anything to suggest that one gets the feeling that a Broadway theatrical production is a study in controlled chaos. This fine movie is about pushing the edge between the control and the chaos. I recommend it.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Fund for Lake Michigan: supporting environmental restoration and innovation


It didn’t take much persuasion. When Vicki Elkin suggested that we go to Three Bridges Park for our photo session I jumped at it eagerly. The park is one of several projects in the Menomonee Valley that have been made possible in part by grants from the Fund for Lake Michigan, which Elkin administers. As regular followers of this blog know, it is also one my favorite places in the Valley.

We stroll between the contoured slopes of park hills that rise from a formerly flat rail yard. Fresh green grasses and newly planted seedlings emerge from burlap staked down to prevent erosion during this fragile stage in the process of vegetating the park. A row of boxcars sits idle on one of the remaining tracks adjacent to the park. The human hand in creating what eventually will become natural-seeming habitat is everywhere apparent. It’s an example of what I like to think of as “intelligent design” and an appropriate setting to talk about Elkin’s role as Executive Director of the Fund for Lake Michigan as well as the variety of environmental, scientific and technological projects it has enabled. (A photo essay of 3 Bridges Park development follows.)

The Fund’s mission is to provide financial support for efforts to improve the health of our Great Lake, which includes both the shoreline and tributary watersheds. The Fund focuses primarily on projects in Southeastern Wisconsin and the Menomonee Valley has particular appeal. “So much is happening in the Valley that generates interest in projects here,” Elkin tells me. “There’s a lot of buzz and we have great partners like the Urban Ecology Center, the Water Council, MMSD and the Menomonee Valley Partners.”

Moreover, she says, “the Valley projects are a microcosm of the types of projects we like to fund where you’re making improvements to water quality and supporting demonstration projects, but also having an economic impact. The fact that we’ve been able to support both habitat restoration and innovative stormwater projects is perfect for us.”

In addition to Three Bridges Park the Fund has contributed to several other Valley projects and plans for more in the future. Elkin describes some of them for me.

The green roof at the Global Water Center “isn’t just any ordinary green roof,” she assures me, “it’s a research lab monitored by the UWM School of Freshwater Sciences to test what works best under what conditions.”

Two industrial-sized rain barrels have been installed under the 35th Street viaduct that will capture and filter 68,000 gallons of rainwater a year, reducing the amount of polluted runoff flowing into the Menomonee River.

At the Reed Street Yards a number of innovative stormwater initiatives are “pushing the envelope of systems for capturing rain and filtering stormwater.” One of the goals of the Reed Street Yards development, as in other parts of the Valley, is to capture all stormwater on site. (A photo essay of the Reed Street Yards development follows.)

Upstream on the Menomonee River Milwaukee Riverkeeper and MMSD are working to remove impediments to fish, such as concrete weirs and low dams. This will not only improve the river for fish habitat but also for the human visitors that already have made the Valley a popular destination for fishing.

Finally, the project that has me as excited as it does Elkin is the proposed Burnham Canal restoration. This disused canal is one of few remaining that once provided barges and other watercraft access to businesses throughout the Valley. Currently “it’s an eyesore and a liability,” as Elkin puts it. The project is intended to restore the concrete-lined, polluted canal to sustainable wetland wildlife habitat. “I think it has the potential to be transformative,” says Elkin, “and could be an example for other parts of the Great Lakes of how to do restoration in a highly urbanized, industrial area.”

The Burnham Canal project also exemplifies visionary leadership as well as the momentum of revitalization in the Menomonee Valley. “It’s a Superfund site now,” Elkin tells me. “The canal could just be capped and otherwise left as is, but there’s so much happening throughout the Valley that it seems right for this to be the next area for revitalization.  I really commend MMSD for putting forward a bold vision for restoration of the site.” Building upon the success of Three Bridges Park, “we can bring nature to the east end of the Valley, turn liability into an asset.”

I ask about the Global Water Center, which is where the Fund’s office is located at the downtown edge of the Menomonee Valley. “I love it!” is her enthusiastic reply. “Watching the Water Council and water cluster develop first hand is inspiring. There’s a lot of interaction and positive energy, creativity and people excited to work together. It’s refreshing for me to work in such a strong community.” She finds it exciting to work with the people who “are at the cutting edge of the types of projects and innovative water quality technologies we’re funding.”

As we wrap up our session at Three Bridges Park Elkin points across the Menomonee River. There, in contrast with the newly refurbished riverfront of the park, the north bank stands in wild abandon. Thickets of buckthorn and other invasive species create a dense snarl. Clearing the bank of invasives and extending the park trail along the north bank is a planned future project, she says, and the Fund for Lake Michigan is ready to make a contribution.

Elkin grew up in Chicago and identifies with Milwaukee and particularly the Menomonee Valley. Her father, an urban planner, worked on redevelopment of Chicago’s inner city neighborhoods. “I like Milwaukee’s mix of cultures, having industrial and residential neighborhoods near each other and seeing that what’s happening here really makes a difference in people’s lives. We’ve got it all here in the Valley.”

Two short photo essays of Fund for Lake Michigan projects:

Three Bridges Park

Reed Street Yards

View from Sixth Street 2006
March 2014


For more information go to the Fund for Lake Michigan website.

This post is one in a series that relates to my Menomonee Valley Artist in Residency. For more information about the residency and links to previous posts and photographs, go to MV AiR.