Five questions for Deb Brehmer

By - Jul 8th, 2009 07:36 am
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WHO: Deb Brehmer
Owner of the Portrait Society Gallery, former publisher of susceptibletoimages.com

When VITAL Source was a print magazine we ran a monthly feature called 5Q, where we asked a local notable or up-and-comer five questions about their craft, career or passion. Now, in our super-deluxe web format, it’s easy for YOU to ask the questions. And you have. In this installment of 5Q, we invited local art fixture Deb Brehmer to answer your questions about Milwaukee’s art scene, her favorite local artists, why portraiture fascinates her and her favorite experiences with art around the world. We welcome your suggestions for future 5Q subjects. Send us an email! (Putting “5Q idea” in the subject line would be helpful.) —ED.

Does Milwaukee have a vital visual arts scene?

“Vital” is a pretty big word, but there seems to be an active pool of visual arts activities and venues here. It is an environment in which galleries struggle, however. There is a healthy art viewing public, as evidenced on gallery nights, but the art buying public needs nurturing. It seems that traditionally we’ve relied on the individual to visit galleries and contribute to the health of the art economy. But perhaps now we have to think about a larger infrastructure and find ways to connect more firmly to the architectural and design communities so that the visual arts are not an “option” but an important and fundamental part of any project.

I say, forego the granite counter tops and use the savings to buy one really amazing work of art. You will reap the benefits, I promise. There are enough galleries in Milwaukee to offer a huge range of choices, all very credible.

Who are your favorite visual artists living and working in Milwaukee today?

My range of interests is broad, so this is be difficult to answer. My “favorites” change all the time, depending on what shows are up and who I am drawn to think about. Right now, because I am teaching a summer course on vernacular art, I’m thinking about Mike “Ringo” White; Mrs. Gaska (at Portrait Society, Gallery B); Prophet Blackmon; George McCormick; Rudy Rotter (also at Portrait Society); Dr. Evermore and all the so-called “self-taught” African American or old lady artists whose work is not included in the mainstream of art history.

I think Peter Barrickman is a good painter. I like Chris Niver’s stitched works. Nicholas Grider’s photography projects are a great addition to the local landscape. I have old friends like Fred Stonehouse, Kay and Richard Knight, Mark Mulhern, Julie Lindemann and John Shimon, Francis Ford, Janica Yoder, Roy Staab who would also top my list.

Why did you open a gallery that focuses on portraiture?

I have always been interested in art that functions outside of the confines of the museum or gallery. I did my master’s thesis on Mary Nohl’s art environment in Fox Point. Years later, I became interested in portraiture. Portraiture has a life of its own. It is much more intimately connected to daily life than other art genres. It is a work-a-day art form and I like how it slides around across boundaries and economic class structures. I didn’t really want to run an art gallery, but I did want to explore the history, role and various expressions of portrait-related endeavors. I frequently stretch the conventional definition of “portraiture” in what I show at the gallery, but there’s always some connection to the core idea. And now I do indeed run a gallery and I’m learning what that is all about.

Are you in Milwaukee for the long haul? Where else might you want to go?

I have been in Milwaukee for the long haul and will be here for quite a while longer because my youngest child is just entering 5th grade. I will be here for another eight years. After that, I would like to live somewhere else in the winter but stay here in the summers. Perhaps New York or New Mexico or New Zealand. Somewhere “New.”

Do you have a favorite piece of art – like in the world? Or any notable art viewing experiences that are remarkable in your life?


I don’t really have a favorite piece of art, because I find that art viewing is always contextual. Meaning and poignancy come from the unique combination of who I am at the time and where I am and all the other momentary conditions of the experience: the rainy day in Padua viewing Giotto’s Arena Chapel; the Italian man who shared a conversation where we marveled over Van Gogh’s only painting in an Italian collection; the Venice Biennale where Sofie Calle’s installation about the “break up” letter had us lingering; the perfect public art moment of Chris Burden’s lamppost installation in Los Angeles and also his fantastic granite chair forms in the new wing of the Art Institute of Chicago; the refurbished Ancient Americas galleries also in LA, which looked like they were designed by Liberace; seeing a Jackson Pollock painting in a funny place like Ravenna, Italy; spending hours in total peace drawing Donatello’s wacky David; anything by James Castle; walking down Heidelberg Street in Detroit as well as seeing the Diego Rivera murals there for the first time (wow); the Courbet portrait at MAM; all of Hans Memling’s portraits and the great show at the Frick a few years ago; all of Lucien Freud’s portraits of his ailing mother as well as Richard Avedon’s portraits of his elderly father; Alice Neel; the first time I stumbled upon a huge exhibition of Fayum mummy portraits; the joy of Chicago’s Crown Fountain; Elizabeth Peyton; the happenstance discovery of the collection of portrait miniatures at the Philadelphia Art Museum, especially the “eye” portraits. And this list is off the top of my head at 7:45 a.m. on a Tuesday. It would be different at 6:25 p.m. on a Thursday.

Categories: 5Q, Art, Arts & Culture, VITAL

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