Saturday, January 19, 2013

Milwaukee rocks on gallery night!

Lake in Catskill Mountains (Woman throws crutches), Joel Meyerowitz
January is a gamble in Milwaukee. We all know that below zero temperatures and blizzard conditions could have killed any desire to go out on a Friday evening. Gallery night also is a bit of a gamble. There are a great many venues from which to choose and wide variability in the types of art being proffered by them. The very success of the venture can lead to crushing crowds in a few of the more popular locations and more of a carnival atmosphere than one conducive to art appreciation.

Last night, however, the stars must have been in alignment. Everything seemed to click, at least for me. I hope it did for you as well, if you went out. Every gallery my wife and I visited had healthy but not bruising crowds along with a wealth of wonderful art from the well established to the unfamiliar. The remarkable 40° temps earlier in the day left a balmy feeling that helped keep my spirits lifted between venues.

If Milwaukee is indeed one of the top 12 “art places” in the U.S., as recently reported, then gallery night was supportive evidence. (I attended a listening session on Monday hosted by ArtPlace, the consortium of foundations, gov’t. agencies, and banks that awarded the designation. The designation specified East Town and the Third Ward rather than Milwaukee as a whole, which neglects the overall fabric of a city that supports those arts districts as well as overlooking other significant places to find art in the area. But, mea culpa, I spent most of gallery night in East Town and the Third Ward!)

I don’t have time to do more than provide a taste of what we saw last night. Almost everything we saw was just opening and is ongoing, so check them out at your leisure.

We started with the trio of new shows at the Haggerty Museumof Art. Dark Blue: The Water as Protagonist sprawls through several of the galleries. As the name indicates, everything in this show of both contemporary and vintage photography relates somehow to water. Like the subject, it is a tenuous, fluid connection that assembles and juxtaposes conceptual with documentary, monumentality with banality. We raised our eyebrows now and then, but agreed that overall it’s a strong show. (And, hey, it includes my favorite Misrach image. How cool is that?! The Meyerowitz image at the top is also from this show.)

Swamp and Pipeline, Richard Misrach
Compressed within the tight space of a side gallery, local photographer Kevin Miyazaki has created a kind of chapel devoted to Lake Michigan. In a two-week period, Miyazaki drove 1,800 miles and circled the lake. One wall features portraits of people he met along the way and the facing wall is a grid of lake views in which the horizons are precisely aligned. The result is a surprising mediation on the not-so-subtle variations in color and texture of the water and sky. The two sides of the room suggest the interconnectedness of the human and natural aspects of the environment. 

Perimeter, Kevin Miyazaki
Gallery M at the Intercontinental Hotel is hosting the finalists in the Pfister Hotel’s artist in residency for the coming year. Once again there are a few surprising choices among the contenders and it will be interesting to see who is selected.

After that we headed to the Third Ward and lucked into one of precious few free parking spaces on the street, not far from Translator, a design firm that is hosting a show called Art in Unexpected Places. The work in this show was all done by participants in the Alzheimer’s Association’s Memories in the Making program. The watercolors are unpretentious and fresh. Each is accompanied by a short story about its creator. It is a fitting reminder not only that life is short and memory unpredictable, but that genuine art doesn’t have to be about marketplace values. 

Although we had other places on our to-see list, we ended up spending the rest of the evening in the Marshall Building, which was humming from top to bottom. Quick hits, descending from the top:

Plaid Tuba, the arts incubator created and led by Reginald Baylor, has moved from its first floor digs to an expanded suite of studios on the sixth floor. If any place can “manufacture creativity” as its motto insists, this is a good candidate.

Every year in January the Portrait Society Gallery commissions a local artist to create a “Winter Chapel.” This year Kevin Giese has installed a grove of hollow birch bark tree trunks culled from the northwoods near Bayfield, stripped and then carefully stitched back together. It provided a magical, quiet interlude in the midst of the clamoring crowds.

Sculptor James Toth has returned to the art scene after a long stint as Director of Exhibits at Betty Brinn Children’s Museum. His evocative abstractions made of polished “cementitious” materials with the appearance of marble grace a pop-up gallery on the third floor.

Along with the regular fare in The Fine Art Gallery and Gallery 218, always worth a peek, Blutstein Brondino Fine Art is hosting artworks by the Grand Avenue Club. The club provides services for adults who have experienced mental illness and displays its members’ art regularly on its own walls at 210 E. Michigan Street. It’s nice to see it acknowledged by a commercial gallery. Kudos to BBFA!

Last but not least, Elaine Erickson has anointed two long time members of CoPA (Coalition of Photographic Arts) with her first ever show of photography, called Eye of the Beholder. George Sanquist and Yong-ran Zhu are an appropriate match, each following the tradition of classic black and white silver gelatin printing process, which has become far from common in this digital age.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

AKA Peace

Bran Symondson is renowned for being one of the finest reportage photographers working in the world today. The winner of the 2011 Amnesty International Media Award, Symondson was a serving soldier when he began documenting the Afghanistan war, which became a hugely lauded and controversial exhibition in 2010 entitled The Best View Of Heaven Is From Hell. Now he returns with a new exhibition named AKA Peace for which he has asked artists such as Damien Hirst, Gavin Turk, Sam Taylor-Wood, Sarah Lucas, Gary Hume, Antony Gormley and the Chapman brothers  to reinterpret AK-47 assault rifles - the most recognisable and devastating worldwide killing machine - as arresting artworks of intrigue and even beauty.

(The above is reprinted from the British GQ website where it was posted in Sept. 2012.)

Check out the concept and images of the completed works of art on You Tube.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The best of 2012?

A dozen years ago or so, around the turn of the century/millennium, I was appalled to read a column by someone I’ll leave anonymous. She was asked who she thought was the best artist of the twentieth century. This columnist was not a specialist in the arts and in fact had no business, as far as I could tell, prognosticating about art in any way let alone passing judgment on who epitomizes the “best,” however one might construe that subjective concept.

And that is the most salient point, it seems to me: how do you define “art” before you decide who represents the best of it? She didn’t try. Her choice of Norman Rockwell (I’m not making this up) was bad enough in any case – even if we grant a definition of art that is limited to painting (which I definitely do not.) I won’t go into the pros and cons of her choice, except to say that it is not only a populist one but a blatantly culturally biased one. If it must be a painter I’d have to go with Picasso, but that’s not how I’d approach the question.

In order to get a handle on who might be the “best artist” of the twentieth century I believe we must decide what art form best represents that century. I didn’t at the time and still don’t think the answer is painting. In my opinion, it was the new medium of film. Since I’m not a film critic or historian I have never presumed an opinion about which of many great filmmakers best represents the art form. But I definitely am of the opinion that if one is to decide the best artist of the twentieth century that a filmmaker should be at the head of the class.

I do love the movies, though. All of this is to introduce my thoughts on films I saw in 2012. Again, I don’t presume to pronounce them “best” in an objective way. Some among my favorites, listed below, appeared on some actual film critics’ lists of the best of the year. Some did not. Some that I didn’t like also appeared on a few of those lists, including my choices for “most disappointing” and “stupidest.”

My list must be qualified by admitting that I have yet to see some of the films that are on many “best of 2012” lists. Several are in my Netflix queue. But that, I think, is the value of these rituals, isn’t it? To provide suggestions, encourage audiences for what might otherwise go unnoticed.

For instance, it won’t surprise anyone who has seen them (or read any of the “best of” lists out there) that Lincoln or Argo are among my own favorites. But they aren’t at the top. That spot is held in a tie by Life of Pi and Beasts of the Southern Wild.

However, rounding out my six favorite films of the year are two far less well known.

The Intouchables is a powerful and moving story about a paraplegic millionaire who hires a down and out ex-convict as a personal caretaker.

Robot and Frank is a heartwarming futuristic story with some surprising twists and quirks about a man whose family gives him a caretaking robot in lieu of placing him in a nursing home.

The biggest disappointment I mentioned? The Hobbit. I almost didn’t go to see it in fact, because I suspected as much. I love all three parts of The Lord of the Rings, but, of course, Tolkien wrote it in three volumes. Not so The Hobbit, a much lighter tale. I won’t waste money on the next two installments, which seem like the most egregious example of milking the franchise since the third trilogy of Star Wars came out. Perhaps worse.

The stupidest of the year: The Avengers wins hands down. (Of course this is still only considering movies I actually went to see.)

I don’t mind a good cartoon movie, either. My list of guilty pleasures, if that’s what they must seem, includes the latest iteration of Spiderman. I enjoyed all three of Tobey Maguire’s impersonations of my favorite cartoon character – to varying degrees. But Andrew Garfield simply was more suited to the role. It was worth the remake, I thought.

I also liked Skyfall. Bond movies have been all over the board in terms of quality and excess. So, this wasn’t a given by any means. After the success of Casino Royale, the last one with Daniel Craig (the name of which I’ve blocked from my memory) was awful. Skyfall is better than most Bond films and if it’s milking a franchise, at least it’s doing it well.

Although I waited until it came to the budget cinema, I was pleasantly surprised by The Hunger Games. I hope it’s not a prescient look at our future. My wife observed, astutely I think, that it was a combination of a futuristic version of what the Romans did in the colosseum and any number of “reality TV” shows taken to their logical extreme.

Was Magic Mike a guilty pleasure or something better? Raunchy but fun, I’m going to leave it in the guilty pleasure category.

Finally, my choice for favorite documentary of 2012: Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry. (If there were comparably good ones, as there must have been, I missed them.)

So, a few suggestions to add to your Netflix lists. Or not.