Stella Cretek

Beneath The Gold Sticker

By - Sep 1st, 2008 02:52 pm
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September: this is the month when writers, editors and sometimes readers in massive polls are asked to pick winners from the tsunami of venues, programming and promising stars careening toward the shore. I have to say it reminds me of scratching off a gold sticker, a sticker that perhaps conceals THE winning number, which you already know isn’t likely to be yours, or if it is, blame it on dumb luck! If I’ve learned anything about the arts over the years, it’s that sublime moments are seldom hidden beneath gold stickers: in fact, I would venture to say that the more the sticker glitters, the duller the “win.” When swamped by hype, I cast a wary eye.

Should I desire the sublime, I stick with civilized, tried and true venues simply because they don’t shout or tout like shills at a circus. And no local gallery fills the bill quite like Dean Jensen, an informed survivor with a logo resembling something stamped from steel. Jensen’s shows rarely disappoint, and the man himself, though a poetic writer at heart, is no-nonsense in his approach to art. Should you care about what art “is,” he’s available to share thoughts. Jensen is cut of the cloth I admire: grey flannel, neatly tailored and forever admirable. On fall Gallery Night – October 16 – stop by for Newspaper House, an installation by former Milwaukeean (and current Brown professor) Joan Backes that is just what it sounds like: a space made from newspapers that visitors can walk through and explore.

Tory Folliard Gallery also takes a subtle approach, and the staff doesn’t posture in order to outshine the art. Fat chance that would happen, anyway, with the likes of glorious painters Patrick Farrell, Fred Stonehouse and the many other luminaries who will return in 2008-2009. On September 12, Folliard opens a new exhibition by Milwaukee artist Mark Mulhern, featuring the artist’s abstractly naturalistic and softly-lit works, and come February, Folliard will mount their first-ever Photography Showcase highlighting some top (and up-and-coming) state photographers. Folliard gives generous consideration to Wisconsin-based artists, which in turn gives lie to the myth that artists from our state get screwed when it comes to gallery shows. Come on. Can you think of a single gallery or museum that eschews Wisconsin-based artists just because they’re from Wisconsin? The loudest screamers are probably those artists whose works aren’t yet (and perhaps never will be) up to snuff.

Time was when I rarely visited the Charles Allis Art or the Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museums; if I did, it was to enjoy the summer gardens and a few moments of quiet contemplation. However, their recent shows have been on the upswing, due at least in part to the efforts of Ms. Laurel Turner, a young curator who will be leaving the institution (dang!) to return to academia. But I look forward to the coming season and their competent ongoing Wisconsin Masters series. While a bit uneven in quality, the series is still a step in the right direction, though who is going to guide the two venues is anyone’s guess. Recently-hired Executive Director Elly Pick, who came to Milwaukee from the Museum of Wisconsin Art in West Bend, resigned in June after just weeks of employment. Ms. Turner will stay on until a successor is chosen.

Several of our art museums have new directors and it’s safe to say that all are faced with budgetary problems in a sagging economy. The aforementioned MWA is trying to grow while continuing to focus on regional art. Their leadership is solid and their expansion plans have a fair shot at success if they can keep the attention of, and raise funds from, the folks in the Kettle Moraine area.

A particular joy is the John Michael Kohler Arts Center. “But!” you say, “They must have a huge budget.” Yes, they do – but they could have frittered it away and left viewers with nothing but pretty stuff plastered to walls. Not this institution: the Kohler is just the best. Exhibitions by Renee Lotenero and kathryn e martin open in October; both artists build delicate, elegant and challenging structures from unexpected materials, dismantling the architecture of the sensory world.

The Inova/Kenilworth gallery, spacious and new (and part of UW-Milwaukee’s Peck School of the Arts), forges its hopes on little or no budget. The Peck School also has a new Dean, Wade Hobgood, but what the future holds for the Kenilworth space is anyone’s guess. The trio of stalwarts guiding it – Polly Morris, Bruce Knackert and recently-appointed permanent Curator Nick Frank – are obviously stretched to the max, and speculation continues to swirl about monies enough to keep the place alive. But I refuse to give up on the possibilities of this space. Everything takes time and these times are hard, though hard times can be beneficial when directors and curators are forced to think about what they’re doing. What would I like to see in that space? Big, glorious paintings, carefully curated. Elegant soaring sculptures. Perfected drawings, not uber-hip scribblings pinned to walls and full of “messages” attempting to indicate that the artist is really, really into timely concerns. Photographs with major impact. One perfect installation. One perfect video, rather than many spewing nonsense.

Marquette’s Haggerty Museum of Art (under Executive Director Walter Mason) recently re-configured their entire collection – and wow! If the photographs of Stephen Shore are an indication of things to come, I’m pumped. In conjunction with the Shore show, I was pleased to see the Milwaukee Art Museum’s photography curator Lisa Hostetler and astute photographer/writer/ UW-Milwaukee educator Tom Bamberger on the roster of speakers. Does this signal a fresh era of cooperation (rather than dissention) between venues essentially competing for attention?

I fret about the number of venues who haven’t fully shaped their plans for the 2008-09 season. It gives me the creeps to imagine they’re hanging by their toenails, cobbling things together at zero hour. Perhaps this is the result of our warp-speed online world, where anyone can peck and grab at whatever listings are available, whatever attracts one’s twitchy attention on any given day. Why read previews of the coming season with so much saturated information available? Have we reached the point where arts writers are used goods? Young gallerists, ever on the prowl, have established intriguing websites and some have stacked the cards by featuring “reviews” of their shows – reviews which are rarely in-depth, and perhaps serve more as marketing tools than anything else.

In shaping this piece, I spoke with Elaine Erickson, who has been in the art biz for 18 years. I expressed my concerns about how difficult it is to get a full schedule of planned events from October through the spring of 2009. Tom Hoffmann had a nifty show of his quirky “portrait” paintings at her gallery, and I asked her when he’ll return. “I generally rotate artists about every two years,” she said, adding that because of scheduling conflicts she is sometimes left scrambling. As the chief cook and bottle washer at her Third Ward space, she’ll stick with what she knows best: paintings, sculptures and drawings. She told me she knows nothing about “interactive art” (the next big thing at MAM?) and admitted she isn’t even interested in it. Katie Gingrass Gallery (another survivor) is east of Erickson’s, with a heavier focus on crafts; one of my 2008 thrills was the work of young photographer Jeffrey Kenney, who works at the gallery. These are the thrills that keep me writing. Gallery 218, a co-op in the Marshall Building, rarely gets press these days, but it was there I saw the work of West Allis artist Thomas Kovachic. A modernist to the core, his paintings are quietly sublime – another surprise when least expected. The Racine Art Museum is modest in size, but when it comes to thoughtful shows, they’re worth the trip south. Squeezed in between Milwaukee and Chicago, they’ve carefully carved out a niche for themselves, doggedly so. From the get-go, they were in it for the long run. They’re especially esteemed for their craft and decorative arts collection, so look out for excellence with their winter knot and knitting show, All Tied Up.

As I prepare to forward this to the VITAL Source editorial team, the 1955 words of a college professor ring in my head: “Judith,” he said, “do you believe everything you read?” At age 18, ever eager to please in a dumb bunny kind of way, I said, “Yes!” The professor replied, “No! Never believe everything you read. You need to learn to think.” It is advice we all can heed when considering the lady or the tiger, the gold sticker or the gold standard.

Fifty-five years down the road, I’m still learning. VS

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