On Wisconsin, Part I: Highlights from MadMOCA

Joe Coleman, “The Man Who Walked Through Walls” acrylics, 2010
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The global art scene certainly is alive and well in Madison, Wisconsin. Evidence: the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MadMOCA), which contained three decent shows, two small shows and then a main event surrounding the life of Houdini.

The first small show: E Pluribus Unum, featured art framed by sociopolitical viewpoints. Such views resonate in Wisconsin, where recently the governor raised storms of protest against his financial views. He now faces a contentious recall vote to push him out of office. Within this context, paintings from Reginald Marsh and silkscreens of the dollar sign from Andy Warhol hit the walls hard. Profound in its documentary poetry was Paul Shambroom’s photo “Dassel, Minnesota, City Council March 15, 1999.” What I love about Shambroom’s photos is their Vermeer-like softness of light and form paired against contemporary events. Details such as drink bottles, file folders, and phones always populate the scenes, deeply familiar to our contemporary Home Depot and OfficeMax aesthetic. Meanwhile, local government officials look at turns bored, engaged, and deep in thought. Zoning, taxes, school decisions: things that affect us much more directly than most political issues are decided in meetings like these. Could Shambroom’s work be a satire? A tragedy? A mockumentary comedy? It might be all of these forms.

Paul Shambroom, "Dassel, Minnesota, City Council March 15, 1999” inkjet on canvas with varnish
Paul Shambroom, "Dassel, Minnesota, City Council March 15, 1999” inkjet on canvas with varnish

Another show at MadMOCA, Tierra y Libertad: Revolution and the Modernist Print, presented prints from David Siqueros, Diego Rivera, José Orozco and many others. I especially liked José Posada’s (1852-1913) tiny print “The Seven Vices” which showed a dancing man in a business suit, surrounded by seven dragons-demons.

José Posada, “The Seven Vices” zinc etching, date unknown
José Posada, “The Seven Vices” zinc etching, date unknown

Many of the prints exhibited terrific technical mastery of printmaking.  Leopoldo Mendez (1902-1969) woodcut, quite beautiful, but horrific in content: “Deportation to Death” (1942). The print shows a train entering the dark of night, lit by a guard holding a lantern to reveal the deported huddled into a freight car. Mendez’s print is stunningly cut and designed, its beauty the best kind of shocking counterpoint to the terror of its imagery. According to the curatorial text, this was one of many prints created to encourage the Mexican government to lend support to the Allied causes against the Holocaust.

The main event at MadMOCA was the travelling show Houdini: Art and Magic. It included a rich selection of historical photos, documents, and props from Houdini’s life and performances, as well as a goofy selection of contemporary artworks that were Houdini-inspired.


Houdini with Milk Can, photo by Bill Orcutt, 1908. Courtesy of Fantasma Magic Shop, New York, www.fantasmamagic.com.
Houdini with Milk Can, photo by Bill Orcutt, 1908. Courtesy of Fantasma Magic Shop, New York, www.fantasmamagic.com.

I was delighted that the art show included a few good walls of historical photos and posters from Houdini’s work as a skeptic, a well-known debunker of séances and spiritualism. Also in the show were numerous examples of Houdini’s travel notes and diaries, datebooks, archival film footage of two different straitjacket escapes, promotional posters from his shows, and even a haunting photo of young Houdini—Erich Weiss, at the age of 9 standing with classmates outside an old schoolhouse in Appleton, Wisconsin.

As for the art, Matthew Barney’s “Cremaster 5: The Erich Weiss Suite” was on display, about which in the guestbook one young visitor wrote “Nice pigeons! Best I’ve ever seen in an art show!” That’s about what I thought.

A holograph of shackled hands appeared and disappeared in front of a large metal milk jug, by Ikuo Nakamuro, titled “Materialization” 2009. The holograph was sort of a neat trick.

Joe Coleman’s excellent, richly colored painting, “The Man Who Walked through Walls,” memorialized many of the better-known moments in Houdini’s life. Cartoonish and meticulous, the painting seemed to honor Houdini, rather than provoke cultural critiques.

Joe Coleman, “The Man Who Walked Through Walls” acrylics, 2010
Joe Coleman, “The Man Who Walked Through Walls” acrylics, 2010

Petah Coyne’s “Untitled #698 (Trying to Fly, Houdini’s Chandelier)” seemed roughly comparable in form to Houdini’s upside-down pose while he escaped from straightjackets. And speaking of straitjackets, a couple of video performance artists tossed themselves around in straitjackets. So? I guess the show did what it set out to do, which is reveal a few links with Houdini as an inspiration for a few artists.

Houdini, the curators remind us, once remarked of his own skeptical inquiry that “It takes a flimflammer to catch a flimflammer” (1924 Los Angeles Times). This double-take is indeed part of the fun with watching great magicians perform: the undying knowledge that they’re performing unbelievable tricks which seem so very believable, shocking and funny even when you know you’re being had. I think too many contemporary artists don’t understand this, and there was little or no sense of this give-and-take with your audience’s beliefs and entertainments in the contemporary art in this show. Too bad. So, off I went to view more of the historical documents. Houdini is stranger than contemporary art.

About Gregory Scheckler

Gregory Scheckler teaches painting, drawing and digital photography as Associate Professor of Art at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, a member of the Massachusetts State University system. He can often be found hiking and skiing the Berkshires.

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