Thursday, June 16, 2011

Cardinal Stritch shows The Face of War

Summer in Milwaukee is brief and fickle. It is a time to forget about the long, cold slog of what passes for spring, to get outdoors, attend the festivals on the lakefront. Paradoxically, we rush to relax, to enjoy the warmth before it vanishes. When it is warm it is glorious!

Summer in Milwaukee; who wants to be reminded of war? Even before the change in the weather, the mood of the country has shifted. Never fully engaged at home, after ten years the nation has become tired of war. But the fighting continues. The news from Afghanistan, like the uncertain weather here, is ambiguous: There has been progress; but it may not last. The Taliban seem to have been weakened, but there is fear of resurgence once the U.S. draws down its troop strength as planned this summer. And life for the troops themselves, as well as the Afghan people remains fraught with tension. Although the daily effort to survive has become easier, the unpredictability of violence is ever present.

In the midst of these divergent summer realities CardinalStritch University has brought us an exhibition of photographs from the Vietnam War. Do photographs from that war have any relevance to our current lives or provide a context for understanding the on-going predicament in Afghanistan and Iraq? I think they do.

The show is called “The Face of War: Vietnam Combat Photographers.” Unlike many of the now iconic – and to most of those of us who lived through it, searing and unforgettable – images from that tragic and divisive period in our collective history, most of these were taken by largely unknown military photographers. Half of the exhibit is award winning work by the late Robert J. Ellison, who has ties to Milwaukee and who died at the age of 23 in combat in Khe Sanh. The rest were done by members of the Department of the Army Special Photographic Office. The emphasis, as indicated by the title, is on the people involved. Most of the subjects are individuals. They are soldiers and civilians, American and Vietnamese.

If it weren’t for some of the captions, the photographs would reveal nothing of politics or military strategies. There is no reason for fighting in the faces that stare out of these frames. There is no anger, no patriotic zeal. Mostly we see numbing fatigue.

“The Face of War” is an exhibition, but there is little impulse to view the photographs as aesthetic objects. This in no way implies that they are inferior as pictures, poorly composed, or visually uninteresting. The quality of printing varies. Some of the images have been enlarged to a point that exaggerates the graininess of film; others are lush and beautifully toned. Some are in color, some black and white. But that is not the point.

The wall text makes a point of honoring the extraordinary talents and efforts of the photographers, and rightly so. But I don’t feel it diminishes their achievements to say that it is the subjects that are most affecting, not the varying styles or techniques of the photographers. What unifies this show is the consistent attention that is paid to the common humanity of the people being portrayed.

A shirtless American casually carries his weapon, his tanned skin contrasting starkly against a background of billowing bright purple smoke. A soldier is caught in the simple act of shaving, framed by sandbags. A platoon crouches in a trench as the earth above explodes and showers around them. A Catholic priest leads troops in prayer on bended knees.

In one photo, a line of people – helmeted U.S. soldiers carrying rifles, Vietnamese women in white shirts – wade through chest-deep water. We cannot see where they have come from or where they are headed. We do not know why they are there.

Wars are fought by ordinary people. The victims who suffer and die are ordinary people. We who live at a distance from our current war must go to some lengths to avoid thinking of this truth, for we too are ordinary people and it is likely to disturb our comfortable lives. Maybe we find it possible to wage war because we can go on about our daily lives and we can enjoy our summer activities. I found it revealing to take a short break from my own reality to gaze with compassion into the ordinary “faces of war.”

The exhibit runs through July 31. A closing reception will coincide with Gallery Night, July 29, and will feature a talk by the curator of the Wisconsin Veterans Museum as well as live music by Guitars for Vets. For gallery hours, directions, and more information about the exhibit, go to the Cardinal Stritch website.

The images that accompany this post are courtesy Cardinal Stritch University.

Monday, June 13, 2011

INVERSE opens at the Lynden Sculpture Garden

The latest installment of INSIDE/OUTSIDE, the series of invitational collaborations sponsored by the Lynden Sculpture Garden, is called INVERSE and is by Amy Cropper and Stuart Morris. The opening was yesterday – and they lucked out with a gorgeous day (finally!) They deserved it because the show is wonderful! As billed, they took the theme more literally than previous participants (which – full disclosure – included Phil Krejcarek and me last fall.) On the inside they filled the gallery with a boulder and natural branches. The boulder sits enthroned in the center of the room and the branches arch overhead. The effect is quite magical, like a fairytale ballroom. I imagined a hookah-smoking caterpillar perched atop the boulder.

To complete the INVERSE concept, natural objects (trees and rocks) on the outside were dispersed around the landscape, but painted brightly. The colors of these altered forms were chosen to resonate with some of the painted sculptures in the permanent collection. The bright red, orange, and yellow trees and rocks also contrasted with the “real” trees and rocks around them. These reminded me a little of some of the glass installations that Chihuly has done in landscape settings, but being made from nature and then repurposed as sculptures adds conceptual complexity that I found intriguing. The pictures hardly do them justice, especially the gallery installation. It really must be seen in situ to be appreciated.

INVERSE continues through August 10. To read more about it, go to the Lynden Garden website.


Friday, June 10, 2011

Milwaukee Art Museum hosts "Summer of China"

There's been a lot of press already about the Milwaukee Art Museum's latest exhibit, called Summer of China. Some of the publicity is due to the controversy that I've written about previously concerning the incarceration of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. I'm sensitive to the issue and won't attempt to repeat it right now, except to direct you to Art City where you can read about a solidarity "sing-in" that's planned for 4 pm today. I hope to make it down there.

This post is not about that. I'll be brief. I went to the members' opening last night. Whatever else the museum does or doesn't do, Summer of China is a magnificent exhibit. Subtitled "The Emperor's Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City," the collection is stunningly beautiful and the installation impeccable. I've seen many permanent collections of Chinese art, in Chicago, Washington, and New York, among others, and this truly stands out. Kudos to the Art Museum for bringing it to Milwaukee. I expect to go back more than once.

That this extraordinary collection even exists seems something of a miracle and I can't help wondering how it survived untouched in the heart of Beijing throughout the so-called Cultural Revolution and other upheavals of the last century. I looked in vain for an explanation among the wall panels.

Let's protest the current politics of China. I'm into that. But let's applaud the art. May it continue to survive.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Inside/Outside is taken literally at the Lynden Sculpture Garden

Ever since the Lynden Sculpture Garden opened to the public a year ago, one of the many innovative programming features has been the ongoing series of artist collaborations called Inside/Outside. The series invites pairs of artists to create collaborative installations both inside the gallery and outside among the permanent collection and around the grounds. The fifth installment in the series, by Amy Cropper and Stuart Morris, is due to open this Sunday, June 12 from 3:00 to 5:00 pm. I happened to catch the two of them yesterday as they dragged a 1,400 lb. boulder into the building for the gallery installation.

Their installation is called Inverse and they plan to take the Inside/Outside theme much more literally than any of the previous teams. They were only just getting started so I can't show any pictures of the completed work, but the idea is to bring nature indoors and to make art out of natural objects outdoors that will "bring them into conversation with the sculptures" of the permanent collection. It's an idea that appeals to me, as those who know me can well imagine. Nature. Art. Nature and art together? What great idea!

They're doing something dramatic with all those branches, too. I can't wait to see the finished installations. 

Of course, I rarely need an excuse to visit the Lynden, but it will also provide one more opportunity to peruse the excellent permanent collection up close. (Here is a detail of one of my favorites, by Clement Meadmore.)

The sculptures look different every time I go there because of their elegant marriage with the beautiful landscape. But I also like to get off the groomed lawns and enjoy the garden's natural features, like these tiny flowers I discovered in the birch grove. 

For more information about Inverse, the opening, and the two artists, go to the Lynden website. Maybe I'll see you there on Sunday.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

UPAF’s Ride for the Arts goes over the Hoan

What does it take to get an estimated 7,000 people to ride bicycles and raise money for the arts in Milwaukee?

How about a glorious day and an unprecedented opportunity to ride over the Hoan Bridge? 

Maybe throw in a dash of anger over recent cuts to the arts in the on going Wisconsin State budget battles.

I made the 25-mile route down to Grant Park and back. Going over the bridge was the highlight, but the entire ride was marvelous. Not only was it a perfect day, with sunny skies and a cool breeze off the lake, but the ride went off without a hitch (as far as our group was concerned: according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel account, there were minor glitches at the beginning of the longer legs. Some people rode up to 75 miles! Nice.)

It was especially rewarding to be part of such a huge outpouring of support for the arts. The group I was with agreed that we all needed to feel good about that!

And afterwards we went back to Summerfest and enjoyed a sampling of the fruits of UPAF’s efforts, such as this young troupe of drummers with the Ko-Thi Dance Company.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Why did Mike Brenner shave his head for Ai Weiwei?

And what does art have to do with democracy?

And who is Ai Weiwei anyway?

If you’re a regular follower of Arts Without Borders, chances are you know who Mike Brenner is. He keeps a fairly high profile in art circles around Milwaukee. He’s known as the owner of the now-closed Hotcakes Gallery, a founder of Milwaukee Artists Resource Network, and disputatious commentator regarding the Bronze Fonz, among other things. When he was asked today – as he stood at the lip of the Calatrava bridge with his newly shaved head – if he is an artist he humbly demurred, admitting only to being an “arts agitator.” 

Mike showed up promptly at 10:00 am, when the Milwaukee Art Museum opens, literally and figuratively, and began shaving the center line of his head as the wings of the Calatrava building began to rise. He did this in solidarity with Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who is being “detained” by the authorities in China. Charges have not been made public, but Ai Weiwei has long been an activist and outspoken critic of the Chinese government. 

Chances are also good that you have heard of Ai Weiwei before, but if not, you can learn much more about him readily. He is easily the most famous living Chinese artist. There is even a page about him on Wikipedia. One of his more famous works of art was an installation of 9,000 children’s backpacks in Munich, Germany to commemorate the children killed in the collapse of a school during the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, China. Controversy erupted when the collapse was attributed to faulty construction and oversight. Read more about this piece (above) in the Christian Science Monitor.

Steve Somers, another artist who came to bear witness
Before Mike shaved his head he was met by two burly men in dark suits bearing the insignia of the Milwaukee Art Museum – giving new meaning to “art muscle” (who knew?) They told him politely but firmly that he would have to stay off the bridge. Not only did he stay off the bridge, but he comported himself throughout with a quiet dignity that perfectly suited the solemnity of the event.
To learn more about why Mike chose the Milwaukee Art Museum I’ll direct you to today’s post in Art City, which covers it much more accurately and thoroughly than I have room for. The short answer is, the museum is about to open an important exhibit of Chinese art.
As for democracy, Mike broached the subject with humility, claiming no great status or power for himself, but citing the example of Ai Weiwei, who has put his own life on the line. Speaking into the microphones of interviewers from Channel 12 TV and Wisconsin Public Radio as well as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Mike said that his gesture was a small thing but hopes that it will stimulate a dialogue about ethics and the role of the arts and museums in the still contentious democracy movement in China.
China is far from alone in this struggle. As I drove home I heard news from the BBC about Hamza el-Khatib, a 13 year old boy who had been tortured and killed in Syria and whose name has subsequently become a rallying cry for a resurgent democratic opposition to the Assad regime.
Recent events right here in Wisconsin that need no reminders have led many to reconsider the importance of democracy. Today Mike Brenner decided to shave his head to look like Ai Weiwei. It is a small thing, perhaps. But I was happy to bear witness and I too hope a broader dialogue will ensue. Thanks Mike!