Wisconsin portraitists, vintage and current, at St. John’s » Urban Milwaukee
Judith Ann Moriarty

Wisconsin portraitists, vintage and current, at St. John’s

By - Nov 3rd, 2011 04:00 am
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St. John's On the Lake. Image courtesy of St. John's website.

St. John’s On the Lake. Image courtesy of St. John’s website.

St. John’s, the senior residence on the lake side of Prospect Avenue, towers over its neighbor to the west, the venerable Charles Allis Museum of Art. If you’re out and about, visit both venues to see what’s happening in the world of art made in Wisconsin. There’s plenty to see at St. John’s, where a glassy new addition, designed by Continuum Architects, houses selections from the Museum of Wisconsin Art (MWA) in West Bend.

In a bold move, perhaps a visionary move, MWA has formed a partnership with St. John’s. Quarterly exhibitions, curated by MWA, will draw on that museum’s permanent collection. Curators will select works best suited for the the long wall that runs east and west, just off the lobby in the soaring South Tower.

Before I entered the current portrait show, Soul Searching, I paused to enjoy a pair of outstanding photographs by Wisconsin artist Tom Uttech. I also perused a glossy book detailing his paintings and photographs. I’m familiar with Uttech’s work; those who aren’t will be clueless about the Uttech paintings that hang unlabeled throughout the building.

Very visible signage identifies the staring portraits of Soul Searching, which is handsomely installed through Jan. 10 in the newly named Museum of Wisconsin Art on the Lake. Information accompanies each portrait, and a complete bio of each artist appears in a binder set on yet another table, this one marble-topped.

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“Grandpa Spears,” Lester Bentley, oil on canvas, n.d., Museum of Wisconsin Art Collection

One would expect a portrait by Carl von Marr, because his enormous The Flagellants painting is the jewel in West Bend’s artful crown. Von Marr is represented (the next exhibitions focuses on his drawings), but among the portraits that got my attention is Grandpa Spears, an oil by Lester W. Bentley. Lester is long gone, but his art lives on. It suggests the style of Lautrec. In his top hat and tux, well, Grandpa Spears (oil on canvas) seems fully intact and raring to go.

Anyone who has studied Wisconsin art is aware of Spicuzza, a chap I like to think of as “Milwaukee’s Impressionist.” Karl Priebe is represented by Portrait of a Woman, beautifully so. But Alexander Marquis’ dark portrait of seriously serious Solomon Juneau is too serious, though it does speak to the era of portrait painters who recorded historical personages. Outstanding pieces rendered on paper find their place on down the line.

Frankly, I was desperate for work by a living artist, if only one. And there it was, “The Blue Hat,” an oil/pastel on paper by Charles Dwyer, born in 1961 and very much alive and living in Bay View. It’s not his finest work, but it charms, though perhaps I am attracted to it because it is both decent and recent, to wit: 2008.

Two glass cases near route’s end display art items that address portraiture but don’t fit the painting/drawing category. Appropriate, but a bit macabre, a plaster death mask reminds me that Soul Searching eventually comes to an end, both literally and figuratively. Later, in the elegant St. John’s café, I munch a chicken-salad sandwich on wheat bread, and ponder the meaning of life and how art, and the history of art, fit into the scheme of things.

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Untitled (portrait of Solomon Juneau), Alexander Marquis, oil on canvas, n.d., Gift of Nicholas Geimer, MD Museum of Wisconsin Art Collection

The building itself is welcoming and well worth a trek. If the current exhibition is an indication of the benefits of partnerships, I’ll return, perchance to view a future exhibition detailing Wisconsin artists who are among the living.

In the past few years, the CharlesAllis/Villa Terrace moved forward into the realm of intriguing exhibitions linking the old with the new. It’s a great idea rooted in curatorial excellence. All things said, this is only the beginning.

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