Milwaukee International

By - May 25th, 2008 02:52 pm
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It’s a little late to be posting any coverage of last weekend’s Milwaukee International, and I don’t have much to say for myself – besides that I’ve been thinking about it, sorting out the hour or so of art I saw and the subsequent hour or two of beer I drank at Polish Falcons. There’s a lot to say about Milwaukee International, and it deserves more careful coverage than it’s received. Timelier coverage, too, but that’s another matter.

The show (which you can read more about here and here if you need background) was fast and low. It was crowded and god-awful hot as the gallery lights beat down on the exhibition hall, normally reserved for weekly dartball league, which is a game I had no idea existed until Andrew Swant told me about it. The choice of venue may have been in celebration of Milwaukee blue-collar/polka/bowling culture, but make no mistake, it was also completely tongue-in-cheek. This is an art movement — and more widely a cultural movement — that celebrates the unexpected, the kitschy, the almost-condescendingly but incongruously sincere appreciation of low-fi, low-brow, low-cost, low-maintenance.

Yes, friends: Milwaukee International is an expo of the best hipster art from around the world. I felt like I was walking through an issue of The Believer, live outtakes from Me and You and Everyone We Know and a Riverwest rummage sale – all at once.

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bingamanburt_thumbMano Izquierda from San Juan presented large, colorful portraits of Magic Johnson, Cookie Monster and other artifacts of the recent past, leaving out sticky notes and writing utensils for viewers to participate in the installation. There were a lot of adorable, poorly-drawn sketches of everything from plastic forks and knives (in what was actually a compelling selection of works on “obsessive consumption” by Kate Bingaman-Burt at the Paperboat Gallery booth) to men and women in their underwear and folks looking mopey to legions of scary, miserable, wobbly-faced troops (presented by Hiromi Yoshii from Tokyo, whose sat miserably by, surrounded by flickering, despondent TV sets piled on cardboard boxes; a groaning post-apocalyptic work that reminded me of a less fluid and exuberant Kristopher Pollard, whom I saw in attendance a few minutes later). The Green Gallery presented a clock made out of tostadas (for $2,000, it can be yours).

milwaukeeartist_thumbPerhaps the ultimate in garage sale style was the riotous installation of “Milwaukee Artists 1946-1956″, representing derivative mid-modern works from Milwaukee’s “Layton School” period. The editorial edge classifies such works as “the zenith” of our city’s artistic achievement. Photographs from gallery openings in the era were scattered across the bar; a graph on a nearby wall tracked Milwaukee’s art in a thick red line, with the ‘80s and ‘90s were labeled merely “Drugs” and an arrow crashing below the graph’s threshold where “Milwaukee International” appears. It’s an obvious stab of cheeky sarcasm and a statement about what makes art what it is, who gets to decide and how we all assume that we’re living at the height of achievement, the time of times, in the most vital, red-blooded and up-and-coming scene. The installation encourages pause before self-congratulatory back-patting; it also seemed to me a biting statement directed toward the fussy allegations that Milwaukee International botched their handling of other local galleries interested in participating.

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A few galleries presented more staid shows: David Robbins looped his 2006 short film Lift (the story of a long-haired and handsome personal trainer who was my neighbor in my old apartment building); Midway Contemporary Art from Minneapolis filled their small space (notably unmanned) with an exaggerated table, an almost comically huge, imposing Gothic chair and an old alarm clock whose flip numbers had been replaced with scary Roman numerals. There was something for everyone, as organizer Nick Frank commented on Judith Ann’s earlier preview, and everyone was there, from Milwaukee Art Museum Chief Curator Joe Ketner and his curatorial assistant, wunderkind John McKinnon to less “institutional” Milwaukee artists gallerists (representatives from White Whale Collective, Armoury Gallery and Special Entertainment were all there on Saturday night) to droves of young hipsters, presumably from all over the place, perfect ambassadors of the zeitgeist, decked in thick glasses, smocks, furry hats, hand-me-downs, crooked haircuts and other accessories of the child-chic movement.

It’s not a bad thing, this do-it-yourself/don’t-do-it-at-all spirit, on our backs or faces or on gallery walls. It’s a little silly, and it often falls short of the soaring, the transcendent or the sublime (at least when it comes to art; I guess I could really care less if my corduroys bring me to a higher awareness of the magnificent). But it’s participatory, it’s positive and high-spirited, and most importantly, it means things get done. To my knowledge know this is Milwaukee’s only major international art show. It’s free, it’s completely unpretentious, and it’s absolutely fun. You like it, you don’t like it, you buy it or you don’t. But have a beer (or five), meet your friends, hang out with artists, and go home and write about it. Less than a week later, if possible. If not, hopefully someone will forgive you. VS

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