Monday, February 20, 2012

“Aqua Bella” and more at the Delafield Arts Center

Charles Wickler
The Delafield Arts Center wasn’t easy to find, at least not at night when we went there on Friday for an artists’ reception. Despite the Google map that pinpointed the location we drove right by coming and going without seeing it. After parking, my wife and I found it on foot. But it was my intuition guided by Google that led us to the brightly lit interior with artwork on the walls, visible through large storefront windows. Only later did I notice the name printed on the front of the dark awning overhead.

Maybe the locals don’t need any clearer signage, but if the Center wants to attract those of us from out of town who haven’t been before, a more prominent street presence would help. Fortunately, the place was worth the effort it took to find.

We were greeted graciously in the spacious foyer and our coats thoughtfully taken to a separate cloakroom.  A room full of small photographs by VickiReed swept off to the left and another hung with paintings by Colette OdyaSmith swept off to the right. Each space in turn was intimate, well suited to the work that was displayed there.

Reed and Smith were two of a triad of artists in the featured show, called “Aqua Bella,” and their work was familiar to me. The watercolors of Amy Arntson, who completed the threesome, hung in another gallery beyond the first two. As the title suggests, a common subject connected their disparate media and styles: water.

Reed personalizes the natural world with a dream-like style and the deliberately low tech Holga camera that she often uses. The scale of her images invites close inspection and a meditative response to lyrical features in the landscape rendered in a gauzy monochrome.

Colette Odya Smith
Smith, while she clearly lives in the same natural world, sees it – and expresses it – very differently. Leaves, logs, rocks, water – whether still or swirling – become layered patterns in her colorful pastel paintings. Without a horizon for an anchor her perspectives become ambiguous and disorienting. The imagery has equal parts earthiness and mystery, suggestive of a transcendent, perhaps spiritual presence.

Amy Arntson
Unlike her compatriots, Arntson leaves the earth completely behind, venturing out into the open sea. Her meticulous watercolors depict ethereal and ever-changing patterns of surf and sea-foam in a style at once hyper-realistic and abstract.

But wait! There’s more….

The Arts Center continues on past the end of the “Aqua Bella” exhibit, opening to more galleries as you proceed, with side galleries along the way. With 7,000 sq. ft. of gallery space, it feels like an ambulatory of artistic chapels.

One of the side “chapels” houses a pair of black and white photographers whose work is very familiar to me. Their dual exhibit is entitled “Blurring Reality.”

Valerie Christell’s installations at her now closed Merge Gallery were always provocative and challenging. Although presented here in a more traditional, hence tamer manner, her current crop of enigmatic photomontages are consistent in tone and content.

Philip Krejcarek, whose work shares the same space, also mines a new lode from a familiar theme, the human figure laden with art historical and occasionally religious references. In several of these he has veiled his subjects in a uniform sheen of white, perhaps a mystical shroud. (Upon seeing them fellow photographer, and friend of the artist, Tom Ferderbar jokingly quipped, “More proof of the need to use archival printing processes.”)

A larger gallery towards the back held the work of a diverse group of artists, including a series of Charles Wickler’s bold text-based mixed media pieces. I didn’t keep a count as I wandered through in disbelief at the sheer size of the place and scope of the exhibitions, but the Arts Centerwebsite lists 16 artists on display in addition to the three featured in Aqua Bella.

And still that’s not all! At the tail end of the string of galleries, in yet another room of its own, is a show of work by people with disabilities.

There’s a reason I call my blog “Arts Without Borders” and I’m happy to have explored farther afield than usual to discover this new - for me - scene in Waukesha County.

 “Aqua Bella” remains on display through March 31 and “Blurring Reality” through April 1.

(Full disclosure: a surprising number of the artists in this show are friends, colleagues and acquaintances – way to go y’all!)

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Chandelier Mistaken for God

This installation by James Croak is entitled "Chandelier Mistaken for God."

An article posted in NY Press says, "The boy is startled, empowered, and utterly absorbed by the light from the interlacing flock of bulbs and crystals, as if he is experiencing the same exhilarating, inexplicable excitement of someone encountering an angel’s halo, a golden religious icon, or the glory of Aurora Borealis."

OK. That's a possible interpretation. On the other hand, I've experienced being mesmerized by any number of lighting situations, natural and artificial, without confusing my experience with divine intervention. I may even have gone further on occasion and crossed over into the numinous and sublime. So, I can relate, I guess.

This piece could be a thoughtful social commentary, a meditation on transcendence, a revelation of naïveté -- or perhaps "It is a spontaneous, subliminal and physical experience of absolute truth that cannot be controlled or explained," as the article goes on to say.

The title of a work of art is important, of course. I often give my own work titles that direct the viewer's attention in unexpected ways, as Croak seems to be doing. One of the most famous instances of this is Magritte's "The Treachery of Images." The French phrase in the painting, of course, reads "This is not a pipe." The title, along with the phrase, transforms the painting from representational into conceptual - and in fact, in this case, the concept is the very idea of representation.

But one must be cautious about this. The danger is that the clever title turns what could be a subtle, ambiguous and thoughtful piece into a one-liner or visual pun.

I haven't decided whether I think Croak's piece steps beyond it's title or not. What do you think?

The NYPress article says Croak's work is installed at the Stux Gallery in New York. I found additional examples of his work, many of which I like better than this one, at the Bernice Steinbaum Gallery.

The image of "Chandelier Mistaken for God" is from the Stux Gallery website.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Arnold Newman at the Jewish Museum Milwaukee

Jonas Salk, creator of the first polio vaccine, stands upright and stares with a steady gaze at the viewer. His figure takes up a small proportion of the right half of a composition that is dominated by the massive and enveloping concrete forms of the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California. A series of square architectural voids recede into deep space on the left. The formal qualities of the picture, with its stark geometries, harsh lighting, and evocative use of space, would make for an intriguing image no matter who the subject was.

It is an example of what makes Arnold Newman an exceptional portraitist. The photograph of Salk is part of an exhibit called "One World, One People" on view at the Jewish Museum Milwaukee.

Credited with originating what has come to be known as environmental portraiture, Newman specialized in the placement of his subjects within settings that were both meaningful and carefully controlled.

"I didn't just want to make a photograph with some things in the background," Newman once said. "The surroundings had to add to the composition and the understanding of the person. No matter who the subject was, it had to be an interesting photograph. Just to simply do a portrait of a famous person doesn't mean a thing."

The Newman technique is clearly evident in the portrait of another famous personality, Leonard Bernstein. In the exhibition the image is printed with dark, moody tonalities and the precisely centered conductor seems to brood in the shadows of a slightly disarranged middle ground soon to be occupied by the orchestra. A seemingly enormous score in the foreground and the repetitious lines of white chairs for the chorus frame his pensive form. The stillness of the pose and the composition’s symmetry belie the passion that will soon explode onstage as it fills with the music of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (as revealed in the exhibition wall text.) Only the slashing diagonal of the baton that cuts across the outspread score suggests the imminent transformation.

Curators sometimes debate the virtues and failings of text panels – do they provide needed background or distract from the pure experience of the image? Well conceived labeling does the former without succumbing to the latter. The texts that accompany these images add supplementary narratives that I found helpful in humanizing what occasionally feels like overly engineered formal structures. They were well worth the time spent reading them and provided new insights for me into Newman’s working methods.

While the environmental approach lends depth to portraiture, Newman’s attention to abstract formalism can seem a bit forced – and sometimes repetitive. Authors, philosophers and politicians often appear in similarly book-lined rooms, as with the portrait of Golda Meir.

On the other hand, I was especially taken with the few portraits that broke away from Newman’s traditional methods. Woody Allen, for example, is portrayed in a tightly cropped but casual pose, splayed across his bed where he does his writing. He seems to have been arrested at a moment of creative insight, glancing up at the interruption by the photographer. We learn from the text panel that Allen had allowed only 45 minutes between takes on a movie. But Newman managed to strike up a conversation about “taking advantage of unexpected situations and other creative problems” and the session went overtime.

Highly atypical was the fragmented visage of a sculptor named
Yaacov Agam, the image constructed from crudely shaped slivers of collaged photographic paper.

By far the most moving piece in the show, for me as well as others I spoke with, was probably the least posed. In the house made famous by her unparalleled and heartbreaking story, the father of Anne Frank leans against a bare wooden pillar. In the unbalanced and deeply shadowed interior, the silhouette and simple posture of Otto Frank reveals what I can only imagine is a tiny fraction of the weight that he was experiencing by being there.

Here is a prime example of a picture that is worth a thousand words. We read that both subject and photographer wept and that Frank’s wife finally urged Newman to stop photographing because he “was killing my husband.” Newman himself is quoted as saying, “It was the most emotional experience I ever had in my life.”

In a lecture about portraiture in association with the exhibit, Lisa Hostetler, curator of photography at the Milwaukee Art Museum, described Newman’s importance as one of the “triumvirate” of great mid 20th-century portraitists (the others being Irving Penn and Richard Avedon.)

At 39 prints this is not a major retrospective. But whether you are unfamiliar with his name or a long-time fan of Arnold Newman, as I am, this delightful show has something to offer.

For a medium in which monumentality has come to such prominence lately, it is also refreshing to see that modestly scaled black and white silver-gelatin images still can retain expressive power.

"One World, One people: Jewish Photographic Portraits by Arnold Newman" will be on display at the Jewish Museum Milwaukee, 1360 N. Prospect Ave., through March 30.

This review first appeared in Art City.
Image credits, from top: portrait of Leonard Bernstein, 1968; portrait of Golda Meir, Jerusalem, Israel, 1970; portrait of Woody Allen, 1996; portrait of Otto Frank, 1960; all images courtesy the Jewish Museum Milwaukee and the Arnold Newman estate.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

What’s remarkable about Milwaukee?

Monday evening the preservation group Historic Milwaukee Inc. held an annual event called “Remarkable Milwaukee.” The main purpose was to honor a Milwaukee organization, business, or corporation that “exemplifies Milwaukee’s spirit, has a strong history in our community, and has made important contributions to our city’s heritage.” This year the honoree was the Pabst Theater Foundation, along with its director and founder. Congratulations! Well deserved.

The Pabst Theater set the scene for the evening with an onstage “experiment in civic dialogue” in the form of a “conversation” called “Envisioning the Seen.” A panel of community leaders shared their ideas about what is good about the city and what could make it better. I noticed, however, that what the panelists envisioned for Milwaukee seemed almost entirely focused on its downtown. Was this emphasis by design or simply inherent to the mission of Historic Milwaukee? I don’t know but as the conversation progressed I found myself envisioning with a larger perspective.

One of the themes of the conversation was connectivity and I think it could have been emphasized more. The panel seemed largely unified in its vision of Milwaukee, but a second, and I suggest related, theme that emerged from the small degree of discord was inclusivity. I’ll come back to these themes.

The conversation began dynamically with statements that championed downtown Milwaukee – in contrast to the suburbs, which were painted with a broad negative brush. How unfortunate to hear again the divisiveness that has characterized our larger community for so long and that easily could have turned off someone like me, who came in from a suburb to participate. But I was glad I stuck it out. A shift in tone was exemplified by restaurateur Joe Bartolotta who encouraged everyone to “put a positive spin” on our community.

Jill Morin, an author, consultant, and activist, went further, insisting, “We are our own worst enemy.” We know this a great community. People who come here tend to stay. But we’re not yet good at attracting people in the first place, she said.

Former Mayor John Norquist expressed a particularly telling insight: “The parts are greater than the whole.” Though referring to Wisconsin Avenue, he could have been describing the whole fragmented region.

It was Reginald Baylor, the sole African-American on the panel, who urged inclusivity. That concept, I’d like to add, extends in many directions and is central to any vibrant community. I would argue that inclusivity means reaching out to the much-disparaged suburbs as well as to traditionally disenfranchised groups within Milwaukee. All of the parts need to be considered – and invited to the table – before the whole of the Milwaukee region becomes greater than the sum of our parts.

After all, quipped Norquist, “if it weren’t for Milwaukee, Wisconsin would be Iowa.”

Where inclusivity is crucial connectivity follows closely behind. Historian John Gurda’s attempt to steer the conversation in this direction resulted only in a brief, heady consensus (amongst panelists and audience alike) that effective mass transit is sorely needed. Amen – and good luck!

One vital form of connectivity that should not be overlooked is Milwaukee’s magnificent park system. To be truly inclusive, in addition to wrapping an arm around the suburbs instead of keeping them at bay, we need to acknowledge the incredible wealth of nature that we have in our midst. There was a lot of talk about the Grand Avenue Mall, infrastructure like roads and bridges, the resurgence of downtown, and arts organizations – all concerns that I applaud. But there wasn’t a single mention of the lakefront, Milwaukee’s premier public space.

Of course these observations do not diminish the Remarkable Milwaukee ideas discussed by the panel and the good work being done by Historic Milwaukee, which I support. Closest to my own perspective was Sarah Daleiden, who suggested that we need “new ways of walking in the city” and cited the Beerline Trail – which connects the burgeoning residential developments along Commerce Street with the remarkable Milwaukee River Greenway – as one opportunity to “get off the grid.”

Milwaukee River Greenway
As a booster of our metropolitan area’s virtues, I won’t take a back seat to anyone. I love what’s happening downtown, and I love the arts. But along with all that, I envision a day when we can’t have a discussion about Milwaukee’s future without mentioning its parks, open spaces, and natural areas. This is truly one of the most remarkable urban areas in the country. If we believed in ourselves we could become as well known for our natural environment as for “the Calatrava” or any other part. I believe we could compete for attention with cities like Portland, OR.

The panelists were asked, what one thing would you recommend be done to improve the city? Real estate attorney Bruce Block replied, create “more and greater public spaces.” Yes! We have one of the largest and best (and most remarkable) in my neighborhood of Wauwatosa: the Milwaukee County Grounds.

Inclusivity means bringing together all of the parts. Let’s celebrate the Pabst, the Art Museum, the marsupial bridge, and all of our excellent and catalytic structures. But wait! There’s more. Among the best things about a vibrant city are places where there are no buildings.

Architect Grace La asserted, “Healthy cities are measured by beauty.” I couldn’t agree more.

Milwaukee County Grounds