It may be impossible to speak of a worldwide style of art, and instead we must contend with diverse methods, processes and aesthetics of visual art. But within this wide range, it does seem that some places in the world have special relationships with their environments, developing their own kind of aesthetics. Wisconsin is one such place, with its harsh winters and broad farm fields, historic links with progressive and conservative politics, rich Native American histories, and glaciated landforms. Wisconsin art tends to be thoughtful, sometimes a bit wacky and surreal, and almost always meticulously crafted. There’s no better place to gain these sensibilities than at the Chazen Museum of Art (formerly the Elvejhem). For me it’s always a delight to visit this museum, indeed I grew up in Madison and often frequented the collection. What are some of the highlights in 2012?
Currently on view is the University of Wisconsin art faculty show, Compendium 2012. UW-Madison’s art program is widely known as among the best in the nation, with many of its graduate students becoming teachers elsewhere. As an art professor I was quite curious to see this show. Compendium offers a good diversity of contemporary practices.
One excellent mixed media piece consisted of three medallions framed together, the first revealing dried blood, the second a red pattern on white and gold, and the third a gold disk cut with red letters—a rarified, mature artwork by Lisa Gralnick, titled “The Prototype and the Image Belong to the Same Category.” The quote and imagery references a 9th Century scholar Theodore the Studite, updated for the 20th Century. Theodore was a famous monk who built an outstanding scholarly center; it’s good fun that an art professor teaching within modern academe would reference him. Gralnick also presented a delicate pair of golden-grilled glasses matched to an extending miniature mirror, titled “Foucault’s Panopticon,” – a witty repositioning of Foucault’s constant self-referentiality.
Warrington Colescott, an emeritus mainstay of the Madison art program, presented strong color etchings, ruminating on oil spills near Louisiana. Jason Ruhl’s charming collages even included a disturbing bandaged person sitting near a tree trunk. And Raymond Gloeckler’s woodcut “No matter who you vote for, the government wins” was a biting punditry at a high level of craft. In paintings, T.L. Solien’s colorful works decorated the walls with big and wacky. And Steve Feren’s sculpture “Constellation Gorilla” confronted viewers with a smirking, oversized white gorilla covered with glass spheres.
A handful of artworks in Compendium 2012 also seemed too derivative, or they simply attacked social issues with more vigor than what my own preferences for subtle craft skills can tolerate – yes, I am that biased. But overall the exhibit certainly felt intensive for teaching artists. UW-Madison’s art program continues to sponsor top-notch and dynamic artist-professors.
In contrast the Chazen’s permanent collection showcased an even larger proportion of outstanding, refined masterpieces. Having grown up in Madison, some of these artworks are also familiar old favorites, and much of my response to the collection involves nostalgia. A few highlights:
Wisconsin painter Aaron Bohrod felt at home in the gallery. His still life paintings conjoin still life, surrealism, and realism with an amazing array of painterly technique, flatness versus roundness, and subtle color. “Medusa” is particularly funny, with seed-pods doubling as the legend’s hair. As a youth, in fact the first professional artist I ever visited was Aaron Bohrod, who allowed our school group to stomp through his studio, which was full of still lives in progress. He wasn’t happy about us noisy kids, and we had to write copious thank-you notes. His imagery has always stuck with me as a great example of representational painting.
A nice little surprise, two little Impressionist landscapes by Piet Mondrian, from long before his mature phase of abstract, line and box paintings. And some old favorites—Johann Georg Hainz’s “Still Life with Nautilus Cup and Fruit” (1690′s), Albert Bierstadt’s “Boating Party,” Sanford Gifford’s sketch of Mount Washington (1858), and lesser-known painter Francois Bonvin’s delicate narrative “Seated Boy with Portfolio” (1857). These are all paintings I could view again and again.
Among the obligatory Lichtensteins, Pearlsteins, Motherwells, Calders, Gabos and Nevelsons, and next to a couple lesser works from Magritte, one can find the stunning intelligence of Joseph Cornell’s “Sun Box” (1956). Cornell’s works were a perfect match for three by Vanujan Boghosian, including ‘The Offering,” a haunting assemblage of two porcelain doll hands holding a ball, within a worn-out canvas stretcher or frame; as if we are looking into a mysterious artwork seen from reverse or a surrealist fantasy of the how the mind works.
The Chazen also houses a fine presentation of historical Chinese, Japanese and Indian art—among which what this year most caught my eye was a delicate, brown and earth-toned painting of a bird sitting among some rocks, titled “The Hoopoe” circa 1610, an Indian miniature by an unknown but awe-inspiring artist.
Of contemporary additions to the collection, Wisconsin artist Martha Glowacki’s “My Arcadia” (2000) presented a large cabinet full of drawers carefully arranged with photos, metal trees and bones. These became constant reminders of life’s transitory nature in the face of repeated forms – perhaps reflections of organizing principles in the face of entropy – such as sinew, cat whiskers, tree branches, leaf veins compared to cardiac vessels. The overall effect and the opportunity to open and close the cabinetry is stunning poetry, the kind of thing that sculpture ought to do.
An equally amazing piece was Steffen Dam’s glasswork “Cabinet of Curiosities” (2010). Backlit within a white frame: glass blocks filled with biomorphic abstractions reminiscent of jellyfish, protozoa, sperm, and ocean life. Completely gorgeous, and an odd conjunction of fiction versus reality, so much so despite its fairly small size it overpowered and commanded the entire gallery.
Beth Cavener Stichter’s “Humiliation by Design,” a life-sized stoneware deer trussed into a contraption of struts and gears, and another of her pieces, an erection-laden erotic pair of kissing deer “A Rush of Blood to the Head” were both fully-realized, conceptual, beautiful artworks.
Also interesting to interact with was Wisconsin painter Tom Uttech’s eight-foot wide painting of migrations, titled “Nin Mamakadendam” (2010) in which it’s possible to identify the species of nearly every one of the many hundreds of birds flying across the canvas. Some of the painting’s most interesting moments are the animals hidden into the background, such as wolves prancing through the trees, and a fat little bear sitting on a tree trunk, who appears to be watching much of the scene.
The Chazen Museum’s recent expansion allows a great deal more of the university’s valuable art and cultural collections to be on display. Clearly the Chazen’s contemporary art collection emphasizes artists who are from Wisconsin, or who have clear links with the Midwest. I wish more museums emphasized excellent local and regional artists. If nothing else this emphasis means we are sure to always find a few artworks at the Chazen that fall outside of the norms of the New York or Los Angeles art scenes. Thank goodness.