Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Light from lives lived: photography at the Jazz Gallery

A young girl gazes intently at the camera, as if trying to dare the viewer to look away. Her T-shirt bears the photograph of another young girl, this one with a bright smile. Hand drawn in bold purple above the black and white image are the letters RIP. A smudge of purple runs across the shirt. The somber girl’s name is Alexis. The wall text quotes her saying, “This is a t-shirt in memory of my cousin, who was killed in a shooting."

courtesy Barbara Miner
Photographer and journalist Barbara Miner spent time with fifth graders at La Escuela Fratney where she posed the question, “What’s important to me?” The answers to that penetrating question stare out from a series of portraits. Some, like Alexis, have sobering stories to tell. Others, like Xavier, who proudly frames a subtle smile with his Mad Hot Ballroom dance shoes, are more cheerful. All present themselves with a potent intensity that I find profoundly moving.

Few subjects are as timeless and universal as the human condition. Miner is one of four Milwaukee photographers who narrow down that subject in a gem of an exhibit at the Jazz Gallery in Riverwest.

Despite being the middle of a holiday weekend the small gallery space was packed at the opening on Sunday. I’d like to think this testifies to the dedication of the Milwaukee art community. It may also indicate that these four veteran artists have devoted followers. I for one was familiar with all four and eager to see them brought together in one gallery. I was not disappointed.

The contributors weren’t asked to hold to a specific theme; nor were they all acquainted beforehand. But curator Mark Lawson clearly and insightfully saw coherence amongst them. They share an interest in the human family in general and the lives of individuals in our community in particular.

courtesy John Ruebartsch
Since 2009 John Ruebartsch has been documenting a wave of recent immigrants to Milwaukee. His sympathetic eye often catches them in domestic surroundings where they feel comfortable. Some of the portraits are posed, some appear candid, but all bear a sense of intimacy and companionship.

An exhibition of related work called “Here, There and Elsewhere: Refugee Families in Milwaukee” has traveled outside of Wisconsin as well as being shown in several local venues. However, the newly printed work at the Jazz Gallery has not been shown before.  

courtesy John Ruebartsch
I was struck in this one by the contrast between the colorful African clothing and the ordinary setting of a typically American kitchen.

Lois Bielefeld describes herself as a “conceptual photographer,” though she supplements her fine art practice with commercial and fashion photography. The work in this show is from her “Weeknight Dinners” series. If the work seems familiar it may be because Bielefeld was a recent Mary Nohl Fellowship award winner and selections from this series were displayed at Inova.

courtesy Lois Bielefeld
The series depicts individuals, couples and entire families eating dinner. To Bielefeld’s eye this common activity manages to appear simultaneously mundane and monumental. Details provide glimpses into private lives and suggest narratives that remain mysterious. In one composition more than the intervening living room space divides a couple. The man eats his dinner off a TV tray but a wall of pharmaceutical bottles obscures the food.

courtesy Lois Bielefeld
In another a man’s solitude is accentuated by the dark interior of his kitchen and also, curiously, by twin busts of president Kennedy that stand before him like sentinels as he sits before his simple fare staring into the gloom.

courtesy Paul Calhoun
In addition to his social justice oriented art practice, Paul Calhoun teaches at both MIAD and Mount Mary University. The work in this show travels more widely across Wisconsin than that of his colleagues. Travel is clearly not the point here, however. Each image packs an emotional punch. He takes us to a funeral for a veteran in Milwaukee and to the famous protests against Governor Walker in Madison.

courtesy Paul Calhoun
Most poignantly, to me at least, we see very young migrant laborers pausing from their work picking cucumbers on some undisclosed Wisconsin farm. Like children anywhere, they stand before the camera in a casually formal pose that is belied by their grimy faces and clothes. They hold each other’s hands. I am brought back abruptly to Barbara Miner’s question: What’s important to me?

courtesy Barbara Miner
Alejandro, according the the text panel next to this portrait, says, "My younger brother. We're best friends."

Light from lives lived runs through June 21. The Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts is run by the Riverwest Artist’s Association. It’s located at 926 East Center Street. 

An installation shot of a portion of Miner's display.