Now you see it…

By - Oct 1st, 2006 02:52 pm
Get a daily rundown of the top stories on Urban Milwaukee

By Amy Elliott + photos by Kate Engeriser

writing on the wall

You’re seeing something you know, but you don’t know what you’re seeing – that’s how “Super Subconscious” hits the eyes. Painted in grayscale and composed of hundreds of layered advertising icons, it shifts with your gaze; some things come into relief, others fall concealed. The panels of the mural snap as they sway and sink in the wind. You can hear it for blocks on Vliet Street when the traffic is light.

Two kids who’ve come to skate at the Vliet Street Commons hoist their skateboards to shield the sun from their eyes.They laugh at the cackling mug of Spongebob Squarepants, point at the logos they recognize and the brands they like.


“Led Zeppelin,” says one to the other. “This is awesome.”


Its sharp lines catch the glances of drivers-by; it looks like an emphatic banner for an epic party in the Commons or a stark charge of political will. But the piece is the attempt of artists Harvey Opgenorth and Nate Page – in their own words – to “graft a mural-sized ‘representation’ of the subconscious mind” and “to disrupt commercially implied cultural value systems.” Later this month, Opgenorth will install “Subliminal” in the window of an empty storefront across the street at 4920 Vliet, a neon piece that will blink its own questions about the nature of advertising.


Both installations are part of a collaboration with the West End Vliet Street Business Association (WEVSBA) and IN:SITE (, an organization for the encouragement, management and promotion of temporary public art in Milwaukee.


“Vliet street has a lot of missing teeth,” says Pat Mueller, President of WEVSBA. “From 43rd to 60th we have Washington Park, the old 3rd district police station, Wick Field – things that sort of eat into our retail and commercial space.”


But that same stretch – 43rd to 60th – has no national chain stores, a fact that Mueller, and the artists working for IN:SITE, wanted to celebrate and explore.


“The whole climate of the city has changed since these business districts were built,” says Mueller. “The little stores that met people’s everyday needs don’t exist anymore. You have to find a niche, and to that end we have really moved toward art.”


The backbone of hope


IN:SITE embraces temporary art for reasons that are practical as well as conceptual. Less upkeep and financial overhead means more artists have the chance to share their voices and more neighborhoods can afford to participate. Non-permanent art can change with neighborhoods that are as dynamic and diverse as the people that live in them, and the projects always stay fresh, surprising and adventurous.

In the North Avenue Gateway District on the west side, on the corner of a handsome but empty building, Chris Silva and Michael Genovese hang weathered signs, hand-lettered with equally weathered aphorisms: “Every man is guilty of the good he did not do;” “It is a sign of strength, not of weakness, to admit that you don’t know all the answers.”


“People might hear some of these things and not quite understand it at first,” Silva says about the quotes, “but as you have more experiences, you can sort of weigh those experiences with these ideas to gauge what kind of truth they might hold.”


The title of the mural is a quote from Ivern Ball: “Most of us can read the writing on the wall; we just assume it’s addressed to someone else.”


“Everything that I’ve been trying to put forth in my artwork lately has been about trying to get people to see that they actually do make a difference,” Silva says. “If everybody did actually decide to change their mind about something tomorrow and act upon that change of mind, you would see the results pretty quickly.”


This is the second set of projects IN:SITE has coordinated with the North Avenue Community Development Corporation and North Avenue property owners. And like all of IN:SITE’s projects, “… the writing on the wall …” is temporary, site-specific, and incorporates collaboration and community dialogue.


“These look like some of the things that would be painted in this neighborhood already,” Silva says. Genovese agrees: “It looks like it could blend right in. It’s just about the message.


“You can’t really identify my style in this. [But] the art’s not really about the style. It’s about the interaction with people, and the remnants it all leaves behind.”


Two men from the neighborhood stop to watch while Silva and Genovese work with a dying cordless drill to set the last of their wooden signs.


“It’s a pretty good idea,” one tells me. “You know why? Because it’s right here in the ghetto. No offense, but a lot of ‘art’ starts in other places.”

Ten minutes later, a man in a beat-up car stops at the intersection of 39th and North just long enough to roll down his window and shout, “It’s about time!”


Genovese tells me that all of his art has a backbone: “I’m interested in the idea, beyond just the graphic element of the work. I travel with ‘hope within despair’ — that’s the whole thing.”


Beyond permanence


“Most of us can read the writing on the wall …” will come down in six months. So will “Super Subconscious.” The longest IN:SITE installations last six months to a year, just long enough to stay relevant and new. But “temporary” could mean less than an hour, or a handful of days – one-shot performances or interventions that disrupt the normal pace of life. In the future, IN:SITE hopes to maintain a balance of these brief events with longer installations and possibly create a permanent space for temporary art projects in Milwaukee.


Some of IN:SITE’s projects this season are part of national public art movements, like the North Avenue mounting of “You Are Beautiful” (, a campaign dedicated to spreading a positive, anti-commodity message, and the Vliet Street PARK(ing) ( intervention by environmental artist Rosheen Styczinski. Some projects – like “Subliminal” and “Super Subconscious” – are the work of local artists, while others – Chris Silva and Michael Genovese, who do most of their work in Chicago – are IN:SITE “imports.” It’s all part of the group’s aim to foster an artistic exchange, to establish relationships with neighborhoods and to participate in the ever-widening conversation about art, development, landscape and consumer culture.


In some ways, every IN:SITE project – though each speaks for itself – seems to lend its voice to a larger point. In October, Robin Kinney will string 50 handmade books from two trees on North Avenue for her IN:SITE project “Book Trees North.” You could call it “mortal art,” but whether it’s fifty books fading and warping with the weather and season or 10 Tyvek flags snapping their call down the street, IN:SITE projects prove that art can live and grow in unconventional soil, and that art that doesn’t last forever has a magic and a vitality all its own. VS


Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us