Thursday, April 28, 2011

CoPA and contemporary photography

What is “contemporary photography?” On the face of it “contemporary” includes whatever is happening today and excludes work done before some unspecified point in the past. When applied to art and photography the meaning of “contemporary” is imprecise, elusive, and by definition always changing. For some it connotes “cutting edge” – work that pushes the boundaries of established practice, be it style, subject matter, use of medium, or concept. (An ironic conundrum for museums of contemporary art is what to call aging work in their collections.)

Perry Heideman
However, contemporary art, to use its general denotative meaning, is not always “cutting edge.” Never was, never will be. And while historians and some collectors will always be on the watch for what is new and different, novelty can be overrated and its value overestimated. (Market valuation of “contemporary art” during the 1980’s was an egregious instance of this phenomenon.) Art doesn’t have to be “edgy” to be meaningful, good, or creative. What it should be, in my opinion, is personal and original rather than derivative or formulaic.

Enter CoPA – Milwaukee’s Coalition of Photographic Arts – an organization whose stated goal is to “cultivate awareness of contemporary photography” with an emphasis on fine art photography. The annual exhibit that showcases the work of its membership is currently on display at the Mayer Building, 342 N. Water St. in Milwaukee’s Third Ward. 

I sat down to write a review of the show, which is a sprawling testament to the vitality and diversity of photography in Milwaukee, and which contains a range of styles, subjects, methods of presentation, and conceptual approaches that defies categorization. The edgy intermingles with the traditional. It is tempting to describe a few favorites and be done with it.
Michael Nowotny

But as I wander amongst the beautiful and stimulating images in the show, my thoughts are sidetracked by nagging questions about CoPA and it’s evolving identity. CoPA was founded in 2004 by a small group of photographers who wanted to network and to elevate the conversation about fine art photography in Wisconsin. Since then CoPA has grown tremendously and has changed. Many founding members have moved on. For some it no longer meets their personal networking needs; some feel that it is becoming more like camera clubs, which serve different functions for their members. (For an excellent description of the difference between a camera club and a group devoted to photographic arts, read CoPA president Robb Quinn’s essay on the subject.)

The current board of directors has struggled with this issue. Any successful organization with an open, self-selected membership is likely to face such an identity crisis. Success invites broader participation; an influx of new members risks a dilution of the original mission. 

William Zuback
 Full disclosure: I am not a disinterested observer. As both a founding and current member, I care about the direction CoPA takes and desire to see it function as intended. I believe that CoPA can be a voice for contemporary fine art photography. I also know that the challenge is real. New board members will be elected in May. Their leadership will be needed to realize CoPA’s potential as a vital force in the arts community of Wisconsin. But their deliberations would benefit from engaging in an energetic dialogue with those with diverse opinions who have expressed concern about the group’s changing identity.

Meanwhile, I consider the membership show to be required viewing for anyone who thinks they know what CoPA is about – or who simply wants to see a lot of wonderful photography. Of course, any open, non-juried show that includes over a hundred photographers is going to have a few weak spots, but overall the quality is remarkably high. When you come, I believe you will find some delightful surprises.

The exhibit is open daily from 12 – 6 pm through May 21.

For more information go to the CoPA website.

Robb Quinn
If you’re still with me and you do want a few selected favorites, read on. These are in no particular order. There are many more I’d like to have included!

Perry Heideman’s exquisitely realized and enigmatic urban fairy tales.
Joseph Baranowski’s angst-ridden triptych self-portraits.
Jennifer Loberg’s emotionally charged portraits of pain and disfigurement.
Robb Quinn’s 87-inch-long panorama of protest from Capitol Square in Madison.
Marcia Getto’s remarkably fresh take on El Rancho de Taos, NM, one of photography’s great iconic motifs.
Mark Johnson’s monumental yet surprisingly intimate, sensual, and alluring impression of Barbie.
Angela Morgan’s tiny image of an LP record rising incongruously, monolithic, amidst autumn weeds.
Judith Pannozo’s perfectly composed decisive moment of a strikingly stiletto-heeled woman balancing on the back of a bicycle.
William Mueller’s startling distortions in which ordinary objects metamorphose into brightly colored insects.
Tim Holte’s nearly volcanic explosion of ice on the shore of Lake Michigan.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Three Photography Exhibits in Chicago

When everyone carries a camera and everything is ceaselessly photographed, who can claim to be a photographer? When cell phone images are instantly uploaded into the global cloud and available on demand anywhere on earth, what is the value of the photograph?

The Art Institute of Chicago has two current exhibitions that provide clues to the answers, if there are any, from two ends of a spectrum. At one end, “American Modern: Abbott, Evans, Bourke-White” provides examples of three prominent historical figures. At the other is more recent work by the duo Peter Fischli and David Weiss. Their conceptual approach to the medium is telegraphed by the title of the exhibit: “Peter Fischli David Weiss: Questions, the Sausage Photographs, and a Quiet Afternoon.”

Fischli and Weiss
I freely admit being unimpressed by the Fischli/Weiss show, which is described by the curator as “exploring the ‘poetics of banality’.” I get tired of banality. It is so … well, banal (“devoid of freshness or originality”.) Conceptual artists seem to take banality as a challenge, trying to inject freshness and originality into the ordinary, the boring, and the ugly by elevating it with their ideas. 

I have nothing against the conceptual in art and photography. Very little art survives without a basic underlying premise and even the most sensual or formal of art works exist within conceptual frameworks. However, I prefer concepts that I find meaningful or moving and images that are aesthetically pleasing or visually stimulating. I understand the work of Fischli/Weiss (after reading about it) but I still don’t feel a desire to spend much of my time looking at it.

Berenice Abbott
  By contrast, “American Modern” is full of photographs that are both meaningful and moving. Of course. It’s the kind of show that keeps a museum in business. You assemble the work of masters from a dramatic historical moment and you can’t lose, right? Right – except that the Art Institute has to satisfy two audiences, the general public that craves celebrity and the “aesthetes” who have “seen it all” before. Consequently, a show like this wisely includes some of the famous images that everyone expects to see and some less well-known and rarely seen ones. There were even a couple pages from a scrapbook by Berenice Abbott that provide clues to her manner of working. They show seemingly random, repetitive, and unremarkable shots that get set aside in the editing process; the kind of shots that now fill up digital hard drives and float in cyberspace. Maybe photography hasn’t really changed that much after all!
Margaret Bourke-White
While I liked “American Modern” very much, the show that really moved me was just down the block in Roosevelt University’s Gage Gallery (at 18 S. Michigan Ave.) “The Working Class Eye of Milton Rogovin” is a memorial tribute to Rogovin, who died in January. As the title indicates, this optometrist turned social documentarian trained his discerning eye on working people and in particular those “who make their livings under modest and difficult circumstances.” My favorites were double portraits of individuals showing each in their working environment alongside their home environment: powerful expressions of dignity and the human spirit. Exquisitely printed black and white images combined with engaging content – I was delighted to have stumbled across this exhibit. 

Milton Rogovin
For more information and exhibition dates:

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Gallery night rains supreme!

Ever more popular when the weather is nice, you know Milwaukee’s quarterly gallery night has reached critical mass when galleries are packed despite miserable weather, as happened last Friday. I made out a list of places not to miss and got so caught up at some of them, I had to miss a few anyway!

Tipped off by Sara Mulloy at Art City, I started my evening at Dean Jensen Gallery where a delightful and engaging little house inhabits the space. From a distance the exterior appears to be glowing fur. Moving closer one finds gently waving strands of shredded paper painstakingly attached to the surface, which is backlit. One enters as if into a tiny but brightly illuminated country chapel. Numerous small niches, like reliquaries, contain diverse images and remnants of trees. It manages to harmonize a spiritual connection to nature with intellectually stimulating scientific concepts – no mean feat!

Murmurs in the Trees by Joan Backes
I had to check out the annual Coalition of Photographic Arts membership show, which is that five-year-old organization’s largest ever. I couldn’t do it justice in a single visit, however, so I’ll be back with a more thorough review.
April is the cruelest month (as T.S. Eliot poetically opined – and he didn’t even live in Wisconsin!) It’s really true on gallery night though, because April is when the MIAD senior show is unveiled. Just try getting in and out of there in time to see a few other shows! I can only highlight a tiny fraction of the installations created by 135 eager seniors, whose energy I find infectious.    
I had my portrait taken by Carly Huibregtse and added to her clever Arnolfini Photo Booth wall.
E. “Marshie” Marshall’s installation is a witty amalgam of references to Johns, Warhol, Rauschenberg, and other pop iconography.
In a far corner of the fourth floor, a dark, but cozy room appointed with mundane family treasures evokes a nostalgic past. The simply framed images scattered randomly around the walls contradict the illusion, depicting only an immaterial fog. Identified as a photographer, Rose Tarman admitted that she wasn’t certain how to categorize her work – more art without borders!
My two personal favorites have one thing in common: larger than life portraiture.
KT Schramm draws us into a sobering expression of interior darkness. Her personal hell is expressed through enlargements of simple college ID portraits that have been violated, vandalized with intimate, diaristic ramblings about her struggle to remain whole in the face of a relationship stained by drug addiction.
Deb Leal’s enormous faces force viewers into an uncomfortable confrontation with calm but ambiguous expressions that suggest a conflation of sexuality and violence. The MIAD thesis shows (which include graphic design, illustration, interior design, and many other disciplines) will remain on view through May 15. You can go see them without the crowds.
I made it out of MIAD with barely enough time to make a quick trip to the Marshall Building, anxious to catch Kevin Miyazaki’s work at the Portrait Society Gallery. Like so many artists, Kevin spent a lot of time in Madison during the recent weeks of protest against Governor Walker’s budget proposal. He took along his discerning eye and his camera and returned with a compelling and occasionally wryly humorous series of portraits of the people he met there.
Finally, my anxiety peaked in the appropriately sepulchral installation at Merge Gallery dealing with … anxiety. Bookending my gallery night pilgrimage was another confined space reminiscent of a chapel, this time a more somber one rife with psychological pain. Typically, gallery owner Val Christell combines imagery and text with great facility. A participatory element encourages visitors to leave their own reflections among those of famous authors – and those spontaneous expressions are as powerful as the prepared ones. I will close with one of the quotes:
“We all wear masks, and the time comes when we cannot remove them without removing some of our own skin.” – Andre Berthiaume

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Sneak preview of Indiana Green exhibit

Abstract I by Pamela Anderson
If you're reading this blog you've probably met Frank Juarez. Actually, let me rephrase that: if you're an artist, art educator, or even remotely interested in the arts in Southeast Wisconsin, you've probably met Frank Juarez. He himself is a dynamo of an artist and art educator, as well as an indefatigable arts promoter. He does the latter through his website and multimedia publicity machinery known as EFFJAY Projekts. And, as if all that isn't enough, he runs a busy schedule of gallery exhibits on the side!

Indiana Green is a regional invitational art exhibit being held at Greenseed Studios and Z Spot Espresso & Coffee in Sheboygan. Frank and Melissa Dorn Richards co-curated the show.

There will be an artists’ reception this Saturday, April 16, from 5 to 8 pm - and Frank has authorized me to invite y'all. (If you can't make the opening, the show runs through April 30.)

Indiana Green includes both 2D and 3D works by artists from Appleton, Burlington, Chicago, Milwaukee, New Berlin, Sheboygan, Wauwatosa, and Waukesha. The artists are Pamela Anderson, Shirah Apple, Tony Conrad, Eddee Daniel (yours truly), Kristin Haas, Eriks Johnson, Frank Juarez (himself), Dale Knaak, Tiffany Knopow, Melissa Dorn Richards, Leah Schreiber, Christian Sis, Becky Tesch, Allison Wade, Charles Wickler, and William Zuback.

Greenseed Studios is located at 1011 Indiana Avenue and Z Spot Espresso & Coffee is located at 1024 Indiana Avenue in Sheboygan, WI.  For more information, go to EFFJAY Projekts

So, here is a sneak preview of a few of the pieces in the show:

Home Made - Wasps and Laundry by Tiffany Knopow 
Gestation Number 2 by William Zuback
Fog, from the Icon Series by Eddee Daniel
Untitled by Christian Sis

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Sidney Lumet will be remembered

I saw Dog Day Afternoon when it opened in 1975. There are a lot of things that I’ve forgotten since 1975 (along with a few that I wish I could forget!) There has to be a good reason why images from that movie remain fresh after all the intervening years. On the surface it’s a forgettable story of a petty thief who bungles a bank robbery. But life is complicated. Sidney Lumet, who directed, and Al Pacino, who played Sonny the would-be bank robber, managed to make of this misfit character a sympathetic hero who spoke volumes about the frustrations of a decade that simmered in the aftermath of the tumultuous 60’s.

Other images from the same year remain, the most searing being the scene of helicopters airlifting desperate U.S. military personnel and South Vietnamese allies from Saigon, marking the end of the Vietnam War. I guess my mind prefers to linger over the figure of Sonny striding out towards the police barricades, brashly making demands in the face of apparently insurmountable odds, and the cheers his persuasive eloquence elicit from the crowd that has gathered for the spectacle. Memory is complicated.

A year later, in 1976, an even more riveting character captured the national zeitgeist with his now iconic rant "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" The movie was Network, which won four academy awards and is considered by the American Film Institute to be one of the best movies of all time. The director was Sidney Lumet. Peter Finch played Howard Beale, an anchorman on a fictional news network. He was a flawed character in a voracious industry in an insatiable culture. Like Sonny, he is both triumphant and tragic. Culture is complicated.

I have a short list of favorite movies that I revisit from time to time, but neither of these is on it. That isn’t why I remember them. I haven’t seen either one again in over 30 years. I remember because they are unforgettable, because they spoke to something in my own life, and left a deep impression. Meaningful art has that power. Hippocrates wrote “life is short, art long.” I have no doubt that Sidney Lumet (1924-2011) will be remembered. He made films that expressed how complicated life can be.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Waste Land and two local exhibits of art with a social conscience

Another busy weekend on the art scene. Botanical blockbuster at the Milwaukee Art Museum, of course. (See previous post.) While that was fun – and a great way to attract a crowd to see great art – I also enjoyed a couple more modest exhibits of work with a social conscience.

Friday evening I started out at Walker’s Point Center for the Arts for the opening of “Carlos Cortez and Allied Artists.” Cortez, who died in 2005, was a prolific printmaker and indefatigable advocate for immigrants, the working class, and social justice. In addition to his personal activism, he influenced the work of many who followed, some of whom pay tribute in this exhibit. The exhibit organizers must be very pleased with the unexpected topicality of this show, given recent events in Madison. It runs through May 14.

Next I stopped at Gallery 2622 in Wauwatosa where Marianne Huebner, an art therapist at Children’s Hospital, is exhibiting her own work in a series of large mixed media paintings. Unlike most artists, whose efforts to express themselves in ever more novel ways often lead to self-indulgent excess, art therapists choose to use art as a tool for healing others. Art is created for the benefit of people in some kind of distress. The show runs through April 30 and the gallery will be open for the Westside Art Walk, a good time to check it out.

When I got home it was still early, so I popped in my Netflix DVD of the Oscar-nominated documentary Waste Land. It documents a project by Vik Muniz that takes art that can help others to a new scale, literally.

Zumbi is a picker. He lives in a favela (slum) near Jardim Gramacho, the world’s largest landfill, in Rio de Janeiro. Every day he joins an army of 2,500 who pick recyclable materials from the garbage. It is hard, smelly, dangerous work. Zumbi is also a philosopher. He rescues – and reads – books that have been discarded. He’s read Nietzsche and Machiavelli. He sees similarities between the medieval fiefdoms of Machiavelli’s princes and the turf wars, gangs, and drug lords of Rio’s favelas.  Zumbi dreams of creating a library for the community of pickers.

Waste Land tells the story of Zumbi and other pickers whose lives are transformed by an artist who grew up in a favela in Brazil and who wants to give back. Vik Muniz is now a very successful artist in New York with an international reputation. He has long made art from unconventional materials. Inspired by the landfill, he befriends the pickers and makes enormous portraits using them as subjects and their work – the recyclables gleaned from Gramacho – as his art materials. The results astonish everyone and transform Muniz as much as the people who become his collaborators as well as his subjects.

The inhuman scale of Gramacho is replaced by the individual lives of Isis, Tiao, Zumbi, and others who become monumental works of art. Along the way Muniz has to struggle with the impact he is having on them, whether it is ethical and sustainable.

To learn more, go to Waste Land. And put it on your Netflix queue.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Art in Bloom at Milwaukee Art Museum

Springtime comes early at the Milwaukee Art Museum, floral bouquets fill galleries throughout its various spaces, and mobs of people come to enjoy the combination of traditional and horticultural arts. The florists endeavor not only to create extraordinary arrangements but to reflect on a particular work of art in the collection. In my opinion, some tried too hard to mimic the work that inspired them, while the more successful ones achieved a congruent mood through color and gesture.

So, here are a few snapshots from the displays. Coincidentally, many of the flower arrangements that most appealed to me related to some of my favorite paintings, sculptures, and artists. See if you recognize the artists that inspired the selections below. (There will be a quiz at the end.)

This one was the People's Choice Award winner
This one was the First Place Award winner
For those trying to guess the artist, a fair warning:
this one is a "trick question"!
OK, So how many of the artists who were the inspiration for the floral designers do you know? Feel free to leave a comment with the answers cued to the identifying letters A - G.