Sunday, December 30, 2012

The year in art and architecture

If you read with interest, as I did, the article by Mary Louise Schumacher in today's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, it's worth double checking online as that version is longer and even more interesting! Here, for example, is what I consider one of the more trenchant questions she poses:
"Is Milwaukee investing in the aura of art rather than actual art"

Read the article: The year in art and architecture

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Paraguay's "Landfillharmonic" Orchestra

According to a story in the Los Angeles Times, the village of Cateura is a section of the Paraguayan capital of Asuncion that is built "practically on top of the city's main landfill." That misfortune has been turned into opportunity by Favio Chavez, who is "a local ecologist and musician."

Using instruments created from recycled trash Cateura now has a "Landfillharmonic" orchestra. What a fantastic idea!

Photo by Jorge Saenz, Associated Press
I first read about this story in an article in today's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, however a search of their website turned up only a photo essay, not the article. The story originated in the Associated Press, though, and I found it on NBC World News.

A documentary film is being produced about Favio Chavez and the Landfillharmonic. I recommend checking out the 3-minute trailer for it on You-Tube. Reading the articles was fascinating, but actually listening to even this brief sample of the music itself, was quite moving.

Someone was quoted in the trailer saying that a violin is worth more than the typical house in Cateura, Paraguay. It says volumes about what the society values, doesn't it? And here in the most privileged society on earth all we can think about is cutting taxes by (among other things) cutting the arts from our public schools!

(Having said that, there is at least a smidgeon of good news--unrelated to the arts but related to taxes and funding--about MPS in today's Journal Sentinel: "Residents blame parents, students for MPS failures.")

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Fiction vs. nonfiction: a false dichotomy

“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.”

So declared Holden Caulfield, one of the most memorable in a long cast of characters that has taken up residence in my own personality, consciously or not.

When I was young I was an insatiable reader of novels, short stories, poetry – anything except nonfiction. Many a tortured soul lingers in the catacombs of my neural networks, like Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov (Crime and Punishment). A fair number are villains, just plain creepy, or both. In my mind, Dicken’s immortal Uriah Heep rises to the top of these unforgettable characters like foetid cream, a testament not only to that incomparable author’s ability to sculpt believability from his imagination and love of language, but also to the fact that the most compelling characters aren’t always the protagonists.

They don’t have to be human, either. In what was my favorite book during my middle school years – I reread it 18 times – Cruella de Vil, that eponymously evil antagonist, played one hundred and second fiddle to 101 delightful Dalmatians. And of course, we mustn’t forget that ever-humble hobbit, Frodo, reluctant hero of Middle Earth.

Tragedy also looms large in my remembrances: Are George and Lennie mice or men? Heroism and transformation in the face of tragedy has special power: think Scarlett O’Hara. Or my favorite character of all, Yossarian, the haunted, tragicomic survivor of Catch 22.

The one thing all these characters have in common, aside from lingering in my otherwise spotty memory, is that they are fictional. The stuff of literature.

My riff on memorable fictive characters was inspired by Alan Borsuk’s editorial in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel entitled “Shift to nonfiction in schools becoming reality.” Borsuk’s regular beat is education. In today’s article he observes, “A broad shift is under way from fiction to nonfiction, propelled by the Common Core English and language arts standards that are being implemented in 46 states and the District of Columbia. It almost certainly will mean fewer classics, more historical documents, fewer personal essays, more analytical writing.”

Yet another assault on creativity and imagination. As an artist and art educator I long ago got used to having to defend the value of my discipline. Art, music, dance – all the creative and expressive arts – are defensible on many grounds but I never thought it would come to this. Not literature. It’s axiomatic that every student takes English every year, while “the Arts” suffer second-class status as elective, or worse, are dispensable. But now literature, too?

The importance of English has always been unassailable, or so I believed.

“Why?” asks Borsuk rhetorically. “In general, advocates say, nonfiction gives students better preparation for college and careers by developing such things as analytical skills.”


I learned how to write an expository essay in freshman English under the profound tutelage of Mrs. Wiggenhorn, one of few high school teachers whose name remains in my mental catacombs along with a library full of imaginary ones. She delivered without sacrificing Romeo and Juliet, as the new Common Core Standards do.

Today I read and write far more nonfiction than fiction. I have no ambition to be a novelist despite my admiration for those who do. But I wonder how I would feel about writing today if I’d been forced in high school to read “FedViews,” written by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, or “Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences” instead of Hamlet or The Little Prince. (I didn’t make those nonfiction titles up; they are on the official Common Core Standards list.)

Great literature, like great art, is more than an educational tool. Reading fiction does far more than provide lessons in vocabulary, grammar, style, and content. To paraphrase author Lloyd Alexander, fiction is not an escape from reality but a way of understanding it. Fictional characters and stories are memorable because they insinuate themselves into our psyches. They express emotions, debate moral dilemmas, suffer consequences. They live in us. They help us figure out how to be human.

Borsuk assures us that there is still room in the English curriculum for fiction; however, the balance will be shifted. As much as 70% of all reading in the 12th grade is destined to be nonfiction.

James Piatt, principal of Brown Deer High School, is quoted as saying "I believe it's a strong disservice to kids to spend too much time on fiction when they don't have good nonfiction skills." Borsuk continues, “Nonfiction prepares kids better for the real world, he said.”


I believe in a more nuanced reality, one expressed well by author Yann Martel, who famously imagined a riveting and philosophical narrative of a boy trapped on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger in Life of Pi. He wrote, “Fiction and nonfiction are not so easily divided. Fiction may not be real, but it's true; it goes beyond the garland of facts to get to emotional and psychological truths. As for nonfiction, for history, it may be real, but its truth is slippery, hard to access, with no fixed meaning bolted to it. If history doesn't become story, it dies to everyone except the historian.”

The value of fiction is not confined to writers themselves, however. The arts have been recognized for their unquantifiable but demonstrable role in increasing the bottom line in the corporate world, too. Annette Byrd of GlaxoSmithKline says “We need people who think with the creative side of their brains—people who have played in a band, who have painted…it enhances symbiotic thinking capabilities, not always thinking in the same paradigm, learning how to kick-start a new idea, or how to get a job done better, less expensively.”

My world would be so much poorer without all those characters in my head. I know it would. I possess analytical skills but they have not helped me weather the news these past few days. It is a comfort, however, to have Atticus Finch ruminating up there – and Scout, too.

And even Boo Radley. Maybe especially Boo Radley.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

CoPA at Walker's Point Center for the Arts

Milwaukee's Coalition of Photographic Arts (CoPA) organizes an annual juried show that is open to photographers from throughout Wisconsin and several surrounding states. The current show is at Walker's Point Center for the Arts. Juror's Graeme Reid and Annemarie Sawkins picked a diverse selection of 40 images from 266 submitted. The work ranged in style from photojournalistic to abstract.

Onrush by Bernard Newman
At the reception last night Graeme Reid, saying he spoke for both jurors, extolled the overall quality of the work as well as the quality of presentation. I agree. While many of the photographers and some of the images represented in the show were familiar, it also was good to discover a few who were not.

Although I enjoyed many of the works in the exhibit, my personal favorites were a pair of prints from a series called "Duplex" by Madisonian Ken Oppriecht. I am attracted to them on several levels. Technically masterful and conceptually intriguing, they take their mundane subjects into creative and metaphorical directions that suggest a critique of contemporary culture.

from Duplex by Ken Oppriecht
(Full disclosure: I am both a founding member and a current member of CoPA. However, I am not included in the exhibit.)

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Seeing Peru: New book available

It took me over a year to get around to it, but I've just completed a book based on my solo exhibit at Mount Mary College in 2011. It is entitled Seeing Peru: Layered Realities. At 11" x 13" it is my first large scale book project to date. The entire book can be previewed (and purchased) at

The following is adapted from the introduction:

"In popular imagination Peru conjures up images of an ancient Incan civilization that lingers in jungles and atop mountains in noble defiance of the colonial conquest that led to its ruin. Despite a period of relative peace, contemporary Peru, like many of its South American neighbors, also suggests political unrest born of extreme social and economic stratifications. Most Peruvians, however, live simple lives from day to day, eking out a subsistence in one of the harshest landscapes on earth.

Seeing Peru: Layered Realities emphasizes the contrasts I’ve witnessed in a land both mythical and humble. The terrain rises almost vertically from the vast Pacific, reaching heights over 20,000 feet before falling just as precipitously into one of the most remote jungles in the world. Where it isn’t jungle, it is mostly desert. Amidst a largely barren landscape, irrigation in fertile volcanic soil makes possible the cultivation of a rich diversity of crops. Most tourists visit Cusco and the Sacred Valley of the Urubamba River, where the individual human is dwarfed by the colossal stonework of the Inca. But as impressive as these fabulous structures can be, they are themselves dwarfed by the sheer scale of the mountainous landscape."

"I was in Peru in conjunction with a Mount Mary College cross-cultural art therapy program. The program included a pilgrimage to Cusco, Machu Picchu, and other sites in the Sacred Valley, as well as an excursion to the Colca Canyon. But the primary focus was on service learning, working with the poor, and cultural understanding.

The goal of this book is to convey a sense of the “layered realities” I experienced. Along with the realities of geography, climate, and culture, I was particularly struck by the contrast between the typical views a traveler might bring back from Peru and the lives of ordinary Peruvians. The book is divided into two sections. The first provides a glimpse of the expected: the monuments and the colorful characters who appeal to tourists. The larger second section focuses on the conditions in a community that is hidden from the view of a typical tourist (as well as many urban Peruvians): the lives of the people who live in Alto Cayma."

Friday, November 23, 2012

In Memoriam: Carol Rowan

When our bodies return to the earth the flowers that grow there signify eternity. Carol Rowan was a lover of flowers. She painted them endlessly, perhaps in anticipation of that eternity. The lives of her many students as well as her paintings testify to her impact on the world, which was great.

Everywhere she looked she saw beauty and in her art she captured beauty and shared it. While there are other reasons to paint, there are none better.

I feel privileged and honored to be able to have called Carol a colleague.

To read her obituary in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, click here.

photo by Angela Peterson

Friday, November 2, 2012

Food vs. Art?

I learned to cook during my college years when I lived in a house off campus with a group of friends. We shopped at the local natural foods coop and we took turns making healthy dinners. It was the mid-70’s and we didn’t call ourselves hippies or foodies. We just liked to cook and eat good food.

I was studying art at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. I would never have confused my studies of painting, ceramics, or printmaking with what I made for supper. I certainly wouldn’t have called it art.

I have been cooking – and making art – ever since. Never once have I considered either activity as being a substitute for the other.

When my wife is at work I like to read the newspaper while I’m eating my lunch. Yesterday, I settled down to a large tossed salad of spinach, red leaf lettuce, chopped kale, grated carrots, cherry tomatoes, sliced avocado lightly sprinkled with cumin, and crisped free-range turkey bacon, garnished with slivered roasted almonds, diced scallions, and crumbled Gorgonzola, drizzled with fresh lime, and dressed with balsamic vinaigrette. I opened the NY Times to an opinion piece called “A Matter of Taste?

In the article the author, William Deresiewicz, asserts that Americans have been on a foodie fad for a couple decades now that has led them to abandon other aesthetic pleasures, specifically art:

“Foodism has taken on the sociological characteristics of what used to be known…as culture. It is costly. It requires knowledge and connoisseurship, which are themselves costly to develop. It is a badge of membership in the higher classes, an ideal example of…conspicuous consumption. It is a vehicle of status aspiration and competition, an ever-present occasion for snobbery, one-upmanship and social aggression.”

As I continued to read my curiosity turned to dismay. Had my 30-year career teaching art been for naught? Could my former students even now be finding in food as much satisfaction as in art? One that I know of is currently owner of a fine, upscale restaurant in a hip part of town.

The parallels continue: “Like art, food is also a genuine passion that people like to share with their friends. Many try their hands at it as amateurs — the weekend chef is what the Sunday painter used to be — while avowing their respect for the professionals and their veneration for the geniuses. It has developed, of late, an elaborate cultural apparatus that parallels the one that exists for art, a whole literature of criticism, journalism, appreciation, memoir and theoretical debate. It has its awards, its maestros, its televised performances.”

I found myself so absorbed, if appalled, by the author’s thesis that I didn’t notice the blood dripping down my fork. Finally alerted by a widening dark red stain on the newspaper, I applied a Band-Aid to the cut on my finger that was producing this gusher. I must have sliced it while dicing my scallions.

Only then did I notice the pain. The obvious metaphor loomed: here was an unconscious expression of my distress at the ideas I was reading.

Bandaged and thus fortified, I turned back to the Times to discover that Deresiewicz feels the same way I do about the situation. “Food is not art,” I read with relief. “A good risotto is a fine thing, but it isn’t going to give you insight into other people, allow you to see the world in a new way, or force you to take an inventory of your soul.” (There’s more: check it out.)

All the while I was absorbed in this personal, almost existential drama, my one-year-old granddaughter, whom I babysit, had been in her highchair, absorbed in her own distinctly aesthetic food experience. I had given up the spoon to her for the first time and she was busily figuring out which end held the Gerber lasagna. She alternated fiddling with the increasingly sloppy spoon and gumming the slice of real, farm fresh apple in her other hand. Some of both even ended up in her mouth.

She was proof, although it wasn’t needed, that food is not only an aesthetic experience but also a visceral, tactile one. As she gets older I hope she will learn to discriminate between the real food and the processed kind. Oh, and the very real and important difference between food and art.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Announcing: new website and book

I invite you to visit my newly designed, sleeker website ("powered by Livebooks") at The new design is intended to emphasize my Fine Art Photography.

My old website remains as I've kept it because it contains much more detailed information not only about my ongoing Urban Wilderness Project activities and portfolios, but also about Nicaragua and other projects.

I also want to announce my newest book, Synecdoche: the fragment that represents the whole, which is available from

The title, Synecdoche, is a literary device in which the part represents the whole. The photographs in the book are meant to be visual examples of synecdoche. My subjects are the complex, often paradoxical, relationships I see between nature and human civilization. My approach symbolizes the fragmentation we experience all around us.

I am interested in how we perceive nature and its relationship with human impacts upon the land. I focus on how we use natural features in manufactured landscapes to compensate for cultural alienation from nature. Alienation from the natural world creates psychological tension, whether conscious or not. We cope with this tension through symbols of nature: parks, lawns, trees, etc. In my view, these fragments do not simply represent nature; they are the parts that embody the whole.

Synecdoche: the fragment that represents the whole is a second volume from the Synecdoche Series. Both have the same conceptual basis. The images in this newer volume tend to be more refined and abstract than in the earlier volume. Both can be previewed in their entirety online.

And if you're interested, Magcloud is even having a fall sale, going on right now. What a deal!

The Commons III, from Synecdoche

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The High Line: Good and Bad

It was a glorious fall day, warm with buttery sunlight, as I made my way slowly along the narrow, tree-lined pathway. I was moving slowly for multiple reasons. First, I was enjoying the sunshine as well as my first experience of the High Line. Second, I frequently paused to inspect intriguing details of the park, which include wildflowers and public art, as well as marvelous panoramic views of mid-town Manhattan. Third, I was in a crush of like-minded revelers, an enormous, snaking parade of humanity out to visit one of New York’s newest, most innovative parks.

And fourth, of course, I was stopping periodically to take pictures. Like just about everyone around me. Spirits were high and the mood festive. A polyglot cacophony of human voices surrounded me, ebbing and swirling as people passed in both directions.

Amidst the many languages and inflected exclamations as I was, I might have passed by without noticing the one installation of public art that had no physical presence. But when I stopped to frame a photograph atop the steel grated “flyover” section of the park I heard a calm, measured voice speaking slowly and deliberately. It was oddly out of sync with the clamor. When I started to pay closer attention I heard the names of animals.

“Cheetah, …goose, …elephant, …hen, …lion, …mongoose,” intoned an invisible voice. The narrator paused and pronounced, “Bad animals: …spider, …bat, …shark, …head lice, …cockroaches….” The speaker must have been hidden under the walkway. Upon nearing it an expression of curiosity would appear on people’s faces and they would slow to figure it out, as I did.

I waited for it to cycle to the beginning: “Good animals: …penguin, …turtle, …swan, …house cat….”

A distinctive circular sign on the railing informed us that it was one of the many public art projects along the High Line, a sound installation by Uri Aran called Untitled (Good and Bad). I wondered how Aran decided which animals were to be considered good or bad. In my own opinion, a couple of the “bad” ones—bats and sharks—have gotten bad reputations for various reasons, but prove beneficial upon objective observation. And at least a couple of the “good” animals—geese and raccoons, for example—often are considered pests.

Then there’s the ambiguity of “goodness” itself. Listed among the “good” animals, the qualities of a rhinoceros look very different to a safari hunter, a naturalist, and a poacher intent on cashing in on the horn.

On another level, every kind of animal has its appropriate niche in the interconnected web of life—even head lice, I guess! The artist, according to the description on the High Line website, is trying to “spark dialogue about the arbitrary nature of classification in language.” It certainly spurred an internal dialogue for me, one that continued beyond classifications and even linguistics. 

The context of the piece, situated as it is at the center of the High Line, led to a larger question in my mind: Can nature be considered “good” and “bad?” Or, more fundamentally, what is nature? The High Line is one of the most unnatural places ever to have been conceived as parkland. Yet one of the amazing things about it, I think, is that it was inspired by nature; by what was perceived by some as wilderness taking over an abandoned elevated railroad.

Are there “good” and “bad” parks? The masses voting with their feet have clearly proclaimed the High Line “good.” I concur. By contrast, some parks, considered unsafe, are shunned by the general public. However, those parks are more likely to be refuges for wildlife. This also seems like a good thing to me. Good animals? Bad animals?

During the past week I spent four days walking and photographing the High Line. Time well spent, I believe. The park is a remarkable accomplishment. But, although it was inspired by the kind of urban wilderness to which I am usually attracted, it can no longer be called one. The website says that the landscape design is “reminiscent of the quiet contemplative nature of the self-seeded landscape and wild plantings that once grew on the unused High Line.” Emphasis mine.

What role should an urban park have in bringing the experience of nature to the citizens of any city? Followers of my Urban Wilderness blog know that I am fully committed to urban parks that enable connections with nature. There has to be room for a variety of experiences and a spectrum of natural features, from formal gardens to outright unmanaged “wildernesses.” New York happens to be large enough to accommodate both. The High Line is a hybrid, exquisitely designed and carefully controlled.

Public art is a significant feature of the High Line’s program, but I submit that the High Line itself is a work of art that will always transcend the installations on and around it. The High Line elevates questions about the intermingled roles of art and nature to a unique level. Pun intended.

This is the first of what I expect will be at least a few meditations on my experiences this week on the High Line. And a lot more pictures. I hope you’ll stay tuned. 

Friday, October 5, 2012

Frank Lloyd Wright house to be demolished?

Photo by Neslie Cook
There's been a temporary stay of execution, but this remarkable house in Phoenix designed in 1952 by Wright for his son may very well be sacrificed to the god of mammon.

See a brief story in the Los Angeles Times.

See a longer version in the New York Times.

See a gallery of lovely images here.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Ai Weiwei Never Sorry

I saw Ai Weiwei Never Sorry, the award-winning documentary about the eponymous Chinese artist/dissident, at the Oriental Theater this evening. It's being featured as part of the Milwaukee Film Festival now going on. In a word, it's inspiring. Try to make it to one of the festival screenings - you have three more opportunities: schedule at Milwaukee Film.

You won't be sorry.

For more art related Film Festival recommendations, check out Mary Louise Schumacher's post on Art City.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Beyond the Canvas in the Menomonee Valley

Blowing in the Wind
It is billed as a "non-traditional plein air event" and called Beyond the Canvas to indicate that participating artists may use a wide variety of media in addition to painting, which is usually associated with plein air--traditionally outdoor, on-the-scene--methods.

What a great idea! Art and the environment. I've been out in the Menomonee Valley, one of my favorite places, for the past several days, shooting and creating photographs for the event. The annual contest and exhibition is sponsored by MARN, the Milwaukee Artist Resource Network.

This year's event schedule is as follows:
o Exhibition opening – October 19, 5-9 pm
o A Silent Auction opens on Gallery Night
o The exhibit runs Monday, October 22 to Thursday October 25, hours are 12:00 to 5:00 pm
o Closing reception, silent auction closing, awards, ceremony, live music, refreshments, Oct. 26, 5-9 pm

 All of the above activities will take place at the
Pedal Milwaukee Building, 3618 W. Pierce Street

I hope you'll join me there!

More information on the MARN website.

This is the first of a suite of 12 images of the Menomonee Valley that I shot for Beyond the Canvas 2011. The handmade book, called "Palimpsest," that I created from them won the first place prize in the Photography category last year. To see the whole suite go to my website and choose the Palimpsest portfolio from the drop down menu.

The triptych, Blowing in the Wind (above), also won an award in Beyond the Canvas 2010.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Gary John Gresl: An Assembler

Mnemonic Device..., detail
A small cabinet contains some unlabeled and unidentifiable pickled vegetables and jellied fruitsand dime store Indianhead salt and pepper shakers. But the contents are obscured by the cabinet itself, which is thoroughly encrusted with multi-hued buttons, old Christmas light bulbs, miniature statuary, vintage cameos. It is festooned with hemp, rawhide, feathers, and strings of beadwork. A familiar looking sock puppet monkey hangs ignominiously off to the side. An old enameled tin spoon stands at attention atop it all. It is a commanding gesture, but one left open to interpretation.

Titled "Mnemonic Device, I Remember Grandma," this is one of the more restrained and contained assemblages by Gary John Gresl in his current show at Mount Mary College’s Marian Gallery. Some of the more flamboyant installations feature human and animal skulls, stuffed deer with racks of antlers, rifles, feathered arrows, fishing paraphernalia, full-scale farm implements and other machinery. Gresl calls himself “an assembler,” which is an understatement.

Gresl told me that his work is inspired by the environments and people of his youth: “cabins, fishing holes, farms with their dried corn stalks and haylofts, attics and country auctions, and the good unpolished people that were my aunts and uncles, cousins and friends, all Wisconsinites.” But, although the work at a superficial glance appears to be rough and haphazard, his ideas are anything but unpolished. Art that suggests hunting lodge décor or a fisherman’s wharf are often pigeonholed or, worse, dismissed by the art establishment. (I was happy to see some of this work at UWM’s INOVA gallery recently, an indication perhaps that Milwaukee’s art establishment has a healthy willingness to transcend traditional dichotomies.) This work deserves serious consideration and careful scrutiny is rewarded with layered meanings and potent symbolism. 

Gresl counts Robert Rauschenberg and the abstract expressionists among his many influences and considers Franz Kline, “with his huge bold black and white strokes” a favorite. The connection could easily be overlooked, but the relationship is there in the extravagant gestures of thick rope, steel barrel staves, worn wagon wheels, andyesantlers and bones.

This piece in particular, intriguingly titled “What We Found After I Opened It,” easily recalls Jackson Pollock or even Frank Stella’s more recent high relief sculptures without losing a sense of its own identity.

Art has the power to provoke, to delight, to disturb, and to surprise. It is a rare work of art that can do all of these things. Art can be sensory, intellectual, emotional. The successful combination of all three of these modalities is likewise a rare achievement. This show, subtitled “New and Old Works, Large and Small,” is both a retrospective and a tour de force. It is a truism among serious art patrons that an authentic experience of original work is lost when it is seen in reproduction. That is especially true of sculpture—and, I will confidently assert, most definitely true of this exhibit.

It will come as no surprise that for several decades Gresl made his living as an antique dealer. In fact, I first met him in his shop in Milwaukee’s Third Ward, a typically dusty and cluttered establishment full of potential treasures. “I chose that occupation for the most part because the objects fascinated me. Handling antiques and collectibles have provided me with opportunities for learning: . . . their design . . . their history . . . their sometimes peculiar and enlightening place in cultures. They bring [to my sculptures] that sort of multi-layered history with the associations and possibility to create metaphors.”

Gresl’s love of materiality is self-evident in his artwork. The conceptual rigor that lies beneath the encrusted cabinetry takes more effort to appreciate. But it is well worth it. As indicated parenthetically in the exhibition title“possible solo finale” this may be the last opportunity to see his work in this breadth and depth. While reassuring me that he is in good health Gresl conceded that the physical effort and financial investment that are required to produce, transport, and install such elaborate pieces are taking their toll.

Perhaps this is one reason why the labor-intensive installations are supplemented with images of what Gresl calls “Outstallations.” These are interventions in the landscape that become available in the gallery setting through meticulously composed photographs. While I personally find the installations richer in texture, denser with metaphoric possibility, and packing a more powerful emotional punch, I look forward to seeing how this new phase of Gresl’s long career develops.

The exhibit opened last weekend but the “opening reception” is Sunday, September 16, 2–4 pm. The show runs through October 27.

The Marian Gallery is in Caroline Hall on the Mount MaryCollege campus at 2900 N. Menomonee River Parkway, Milwaukee.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Madison and Racine open photography shows this weekend

I am honored to be in two juried exhibitions that both open this coming weekend. When it rains, it pours.
The Steenbock Gallery, in association with the Center for Photography at Madison will be showing 2012 National Juried Exhibition of photography through October 5. The show officially opened yesterday but the artists' reception is Friday, Sept. 7, 5 - 8 p.m.

The Steenbock Gallery is at 1922 University Avenue in Madison, WI.

And on Sunday, the Racine Art Museum presents Wisconsin Photography 2012 at its Wustum campus. The reception is 2 - 4 p.m.

The Wustum Museum is at 2519 Northwestern Avenue, Racine, WI.

Horizon II

This evite for the Steenbock just came in:

Nicaragua book now available on Magcloud

My latest book is a selection of photographs from several of my regular trips to Nicaragua.

Between 1999 and 2010 I made six trips to Nicaragua under the auspices of a non-profit organization called Bridges to Community. The mission of Bridges is to promote cross-cultural interaction through the process of living and working with local communities. Volunteers from the United States work with local people to build houses, dig wells, or create other types of infrastructure sorely needed in these communities, many of which have been devastated by hurricanes and earthquakes. Most of the images in the book are portraits of the beautiful, hard-working, and resilient Nicaraguan people - and I have a special fondness for the children!

The book can be previewed and ordered on Magcloud by clicking here.

Monday, August 6, 2012


This poem by James Kirkup is based on the 'Hiroshima Panels' paintings by Iri Maruki and Toshiko Akamatsu, done in response to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, August 6, 1945.

Ghosts, fire, water
On the Hiroshima panels by Iri Maruki and Toshiko Akamatsu

These are the ghosts of the unwilling dead,
Grey ghosts of that imprinted flash of memory
Whose flaming and eternal instant haunts
The speechless dark with dread and anger.
Grey, out of pale nothingness their agony appears.
Like ash they are blown and blasted on the wind's
Vermilion breathlessness, like shapeless smoke
Their shapes are torn across the paper sky. 
These scarred and ashen ghosts are quick
With pain's unutterable speech, their flame-cracked flesh
Writhes and is heavy as the worms, the bitter dirt;
Lonely as in death they bleed, naked as in birth. 
They greet each other in a ghastly paradise,
These ghosts who cannot come with gifts and flowers.
Here they receive each other with disaster's common love,
Covering one another's pain with shrivelled hands. 
They are not beautiful, yet beauty is in their truth.
There is no easy music in their silent screams,
No ordered dancing in their grief's distracted limbs.
Their shame is ours. We, too, are haunted by their fate. 
In the shock of flame, their tears brand our flesh,
We twist in their furnace, and our scorching throats
Parch for the waters where the cool dead float.
We press our lips upon the river where they drink, and drown. 
Their voices call to us, in pain and indignation:
'This is what you have done to us!'
Their accusation is our final hope. Be comforted.
Yes, we have heard you, ghosts of our indifference, 
We hear your cry, we understand your warnings.
We, too, shall refuse to accept our fate!
Haunt us with the truth of our betrayal
Until the earth's united voices shout refusal, sing your peace! 
Forgive us, that we had to see your passion to remember
What we must never again deny: Love one another

James Kirkup

Monday, July 30, 2012

Haggerty Museum of Art highlights a major donation

Robert Rauschenburg
When I think “art collector” I must admit the image that comes most readily to mind is one of a person with substantial means at his or her disposal; an Andrew Carnegie or Peggy Guggenheim. And certainly an “art collection” that includes large scale works by the likes of Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenburg, Ellsworth Kelly, Chuck Close, and too many other major artists to list must confirm this stereotypical image, mustn’t it? Well, much to my surprise I had to park that bias at the doors of the Haggerty Art Museum when I went there to see the current exhibit, “Selections from the Mary and Michael J. Tatalovich Collection.”

What I found most sobering, however, was not simply the remarkably perceptive choices made by these two collectors that were acquired with limited resources. It was to be confronted with the unassailable notion that, but for some art world savvy and a healthy dose of persistence, I might have amassed a collection of similar proportions. A profound revelation in this large and exemplary exhibition of outstanding modern and contemporary artists was that Mary and Michael Tatalovich managed to collect it during their careers as teachers in the Milwaukee Public Schools.

Richard Serra
Please don’t misunderstand me: this exhibition needs no such compelling narrative. It stands on its own merits and can be fully appreciated without reading the wall text that reveals this personal tidbit of information. I particularly liked discovering Richard Serra’s enormous etching, called Bo Diddley, which I’d never seen before. Serra can leave me hot or cold, depending on the piece and the context. This one works for me - but you have to see in situ. The scale is essential.

If, like me, you haven’t been to see it before now, try to make it before it closes on August 5.

Tom Arndt
While you’re there, be sure to stop by the small galleries to see two more modest exhibits that feature the photography of Tom Arndt and Mark Ruwedel. All of these shows close August 5.

Mark Ruwedel
You can read more about all of these exhibits at Third CoastDigest. Reviewer Brian Jacobson was more on the ball than I and filed his piece in June. But you still have 6 days to get over there!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

"Priceless" artwork worth nothing or $65 million?

"What is the fair market value of an object that cannot be sold?" asks Patricia Cohen in a New York Times article about a masterpiece by Robert Rauschenburg. Cohen likens the question to a Zen koan, which is a statement or question used in Zen practice that often contains a paradoxical element.

But the more I read about the controversy that has erupted over the difference between the artwork's appraised value versus its tax value, the more it reminded me of a Catch-22. Joseph Heller's 1961 book was set in Italy during World War II. The term Catch-22 referred to government (military) regulations that involved circular reasoning to arrive at an impossible conclusion. Heller's satirical conceit so caught the imagination of the country that the term quickly entered the lexicon and is often used rather loosely.

However, it applies perfectly to the question of the fair market value of Rauschenburg's piece, which is called Canyon.
Canyon, Rauschenberg Estate/Licensed by VAGA, NY
As you can see, Rauschenburg included a stuffed bird in this example of one of what he called "combines" - a painting combined with assemblage. But that's not just any bird; it's a bald eagle, which is a federally protected endangered species. Because of that the painting, although legal to own, can never be sold. Therefore its appraised value is zero.

But the IRS demurs, says it's worth $65 million and expects a tax payment of $29.2 million!

You cannot sell - so says the government - so it's worth nothing; the same government demands taxes on a value of $65 million; but don't try to sell it to make the tax payment: Catch-22.

The fact that we're talking about a wealthy collector who could afford to make that tax payment doesn't change the principle, which potentially could be applied in cases that would financially ruin someone less fortunate. Or is this simply too unique a situation to make that case?

Is this another example of "big government" over-controlling personal and civil liberties? It's more complicated than that, of course. Read the whole article to get some of the nuances. But here's an appropriately cynical quote from Heller's book: "Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we can't stop them from doing."

But wait! What was Rauschenburg thinking, I have to wonder, when he knowingly used a bald eagle in this work? Or Sonnabend, the art dealer/collector, who obtained the non-salable but highly valuable piece from the artist? Perhaps the (absent) monetary value deliberately was being pitted against or contrasted with inherent artistic value. It's an intriguing story any way you dice it. Priceless.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Madison full of art

I spent an art-filled day in Madison recently. Here are some snapshots and a taste for what's on exhibit now. Follow the links for more info, or better yet plan a trip over to Mad-town for some good art.

This new mural celebrating the unity of women on the Willy Street Coop was dedicated Friday evening. The mural was done by Panmela Castro (below), who is from Brazil. Castro is sponsored by Vital Voices around the Globe. Her work intends to remind us that women in many parts of the world suffer oppression. Extending the length of the building, the piece is certainly dramatic and beautiful, but that message isn't clearly evident in it.

The Willy Street Coop is at 1221 Williamson St. on the near east side of Madison.

The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMOCA) has several exhibits to see. The featured exhibit is called One must know the animals. Drawn from the museum's collection, this is a large and diverse show that strays far from the typical wildlife art that might be expected from the title.  Read more. The exhibit runs through Aug. 19.
Sergio Gonzalez-Tornero, Wolf, courtesy MMOCA
The exhibit to which I was especially drawn was Within a Stone's Throw, by Cecelia Condit. The exhibit is dominated by a three-panel large screen video, but goes further. This is from the museum's website: "Although Condit is best known as a video artist, this exhibition signals her new immersion into the world of still imagery. A series of seven photographs complements Within a Stone’s Throw, each image a complex, digitally constructed composite of Lake Michigan and its environs. These works showcase the sublime beauty of the natural world, at once threatening and delicate, while addressing both the fragility and the timelessness of our planet." Read more.

This exhibit runs through Sept. 23.
Cecilia Condit, video still, courtesy MMOCA
While you're at MMOCA walk over to the adjacent Overture Center for a slew of smaller but engaging exhbits.

The top-floor James Watrous Gallery hosts a pair of very different bodies of work.

Milwaukee photographer James Brozek and art historian Debra Brehmer of Milwaukee's Portrait Society Gallery teamed up to create a portfolio of vintage photographs called Flowers by Livija. If you missed it at the Portrait Society, here's another chance to see the "hundreds of hauntingly beautiful still-life compositions, self-portraits, and images of the floral arrangements [Livija] created for her husband’s grave."

Courtesy Watrous Gallery
The other half of the duo couldn't be more dissimilar. "Lon Michels’s large, lavishly detailed figure paintings, landscapes, and still lifes are rich with art historical references, but their primary subject is his love affair with color and pattern."

Don't take the elevator back down after your visit to the Watrous Gallery. There are three discrete exhibits in each of the even smaller hallway spaces known collectively as the Overture Galleries. The short hallways are easily overlooked. They extend away from the central rotunda. Most people likely go there to find the restrooms. But if you go now you will find more intriguing art.

In Gallery 1 you will find At Your Service, which "presents the common domestic plate as a site for cultural investigation." Seven artists appropriate, alter, and re-interpret ceramic dinnerware. Read more. (Through Sept. 16.)

Courtesy Overture Galleries

Have you heard of "Alternography?" I hadn't heard the term before and I'm curious to know if "The Alternography Group" who comprise the artists in the Gallery 2 exhibit coined the term. Whether or not the term is new, the methods they use decidedly are not, and that is the point. Alternative techniques and processes, whether primitive cameras or darkroom printing methods (yes, some of them use darkrooms!), drive the creative output of this sub-group of the Center for Photography at Madison. More interesting to me than the use of alternative processes in themselves is the content of the show, entitled Trespass, which "explores three types of trespasses: trespass to person, trespass to property, and trespass to land." Read more. (Through Sept. 12)

Courtesy Overture Galleries

Gallery 3 hosts a more diverse collection entitled Once and Again, which "explores images and ideas related to symmetry." Read more. (Through Sept. 16.)

Courtesy Overture Galleries