Michael Horne
Plenty of Horne

Black Cat Mural Alley Opens

Sometimes the best public art is hidden from view.

By - Sep 19th, 2016 04:41 pm
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MTO's frog. Photo by Michael Horne.

MTO’s frog. Photo by Michael Horne.

The cat is out of the bag and in the alley as Milwaukee’s Black Cat Alley opened Sunday, September 18th. This nearly two-block long alley (more of a loading dock, in fact) provides a good argument that outdoor public art might be at its best and most enjoyable when it is not particularly visible.

Work by ten Milwaukee street artists joined that of others from France, L.A. and Philadelphia, with pride of place going to MTO of France, whose signature giant frog, painted on the south wall of the Oriental Theater, makes great use of trompe-l’oeil imagery. Any 3-D movies shown inside the theater have nothing on it.

The frog juxtaposes nicely with the Ma Fischer’s restaurant sign hung a few feet away. One is clearly art, the other clearly commercial. Even though this giant painting is in full view, it’s hard to see thanks to the density of buildings in the immediate vicinity, and the fact that traffic on N. Farwell Ave. heads south, one way. By the time you see it in the rear view mirror, it is gone. So, being hidden in plain view allows this mural to surprise and excite — and make you wonder what else is going on in that alley.

Part of the fun of the alley is that you have to look for it. The alley is not suitable for bicycling, since it terminates rather abruptly in an unfenced three foot wall, and is accessed from the south by narrow stairs. It was never heavily trafficked at any time. Time to go in but watch your step, and avoid the unfinished areas of what is to become a very urban garden.

Here, in a cloistered environment, the paintings are arranged gallery style, except they are on the outside, not the inside of buildings. But the room-like setting gave a feeling of intimacy and scale.

Whereas MTO and his three-dimensional mastery provides one way of energizing a flat brick wall, Milwaukee’s Adam James Stoner took an approach that emphasizes the two-dimensionality of his concrete canvas, which is covered by monochromatic prison-orange paint. A figure in orange prison clothing blends with his background in this commentary on Milwaukee’s incredibly high rate of incarcerated black males. Here the figure is not coming at you, but he is there, and perhaps too easily ignored.

Black Cat Alley

Unveiling Draws Crowd

The unveiling took place on a delightful Sunday afternoon with the streets throughout Milwaukee jammed with families and groups, many enjoying the delights of Doors Open Milwaukee, of which this was one.

Adam James Stoner's mural. Photo by Michael Horne.

Adam James Stoner’s mural. Photo by Michael Horne.

E. Kenilworth St. was closed off between N. Prospect and N. Farwell avenues for a street party where the alley-cum-loading dock has its southern terminus. (The northern is on E. Ivanhoe Pl.) It was a noisy spot, the cacophony fueled by the incredibly loud generators which apparently are standard equipment on food trucks.

Here, various items of merchandise were available to the public. The Black Cat Alley is officially a project of the East Side Business Improvement District, and its Executive Director Jim Plaisted was there keeping an eye on things as dozens of people — many of them families — walked and gawked in the artistic alley. It was a mecca for selfies, and for more formal compositions. He was joined by Ald. Nik Kovac who took in the festivities while standing before a most colorful and bubbly mural which made a humorous backdrop for a serious portrait I took of him. Kovac had only a few hours to prepare for his live play-by-play broadcast of the Packers game held later that night at Linneman’s Riverwest Inn with co-host Jim Owczarski, the city clerk.

(By the way, Owczarski’s son has been cast as Tiny Tim for this year’s Milwaukee Rep production of “A Christmas Carol”. Apparently ham is hereditary.)

Here and there are surprises, like the Koi fish that have been swimming on our sidewalks for years. They are the product of former Milwaukeean Jeremy Novy, now of New Orleans.

Dieter Wegner, the Walker’s Point developer who keeps an active eye on the art scene, was particularly taken with the black cat stencils found in the alley.

Since the alley runs from the southwest to the northeast, it can be somewhat disorienting to those of us who spend our lives on orderly north-south and east-west streets, especially if we are trying to track the sun. As it turns out, 2:30 p.m. on a mid-September afternoon coincides quite nicely with the celestial rhythms, and beams of bright light shone directly into the narrow alley illuminating the works and people within.

We’ll see how the colors of the brighter murals pop (or not) in the low light of the winter, or if the darker, moodier works will prevail.

Along with the numerous murals I was taken with a few items that my largely unreliable eyes interpreted as a three-dimensional sculptural wall piece. Alas, I was deceived by what was in fact a wall of twenty brand new electrical meter boxes.

You can read more about Black Cat Alley on the project blog.

International and National Artists Represented:

  • MTO (France)
  • Bunnie Reiss (L.A.)
  • Janson Rapisarda (Philadelphia, Milwaukee trained).

Artists from Milwaukee:

3 thoughts on “Plenty of Horne: Black Cat Mural Alley Opens”

  1. Dudemeister says:

    This is pretty cool. Hope to see it, and the new development, next time I’m in town. Thanks for writing on it!

  2. Marg says:

    Fun pics, thanks.

  3. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    I especially liked the mural with the orange background of a young black man dressed in orange (and how just outlining his body but painting in the face and hands and arms filled out the image for us). Great coverage, Michael Horne!

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