We’re So Polite
The Wisconsin Triennial offers a lot of well-behaved but well-crafted work.
With the end of the year comes the desire to view the world with a face like Janus, looking forward and back simultaneously. There have been a number of recent shows taking a similarly broad view of the current art scene (see TCD reviews of the Nohl Fellowship and Current Tendencies exhibitions). State of Art: Wisconsin Triennial at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art is the last of these major surveys.
If we take the Triennial exhibition at face value, Wisconsin artists are a pretty polite bunch. There is a lot of well-behaved, well-crafted work on view with introspective and meditative images, moments for reverie and imagination, and admiration for the aesthetics of everyday life in urban and rural settings. Frankly, except for the date, it might be hard to pinpoint these works as specifically located in 2013. Of course, this can also be ascribed to curatorial selectivity. Out of 500 submissions, the work of 35 individuals and 5 collaborative pairs were chosen, yielding a concise exhibition of about 100 pieces. But most artists are represented by multiple works, which is far more instructive of their practices, and a smart decision by the curators.
The museum’s first floor brings together a number of artists who generally delve into lyrical abstraction. Gabriel Pionkowki‘s manipulation of fibre alternately strips and enlivens the traditional surface of a canvas, creating the most delicate of relief sculptures. On the second floor, figurative works abound. In particular, echoes of Magic Realism are alive and kicking in the work of quintessential Wisconsin artist Fred Stonehouse and painters Gina Litherland and Kristy Deetz.
Okay, so sometimes size matters. A couple of the most ambitious pieces are monumental installations, and for elements of intrigue and surprise a couple stand out. Santiago Cucullu‘s Here to Go is one, mixing wall drawings with televisions and discreet three-dimensional pieces. The TV videos loop in nearly undetectable fashion, displaying obscure moments such as a man doing yoga on a New York street, a dancer at Machu Picchu, and a pair of expressive tattooed arms with dark nails gesturing in what can be imagined as gently intense conversation. The videos’ focus is tight on their subjects, and the monumental wall drawing is biomorphic but not clearly decipherable. Here to Go suggests travel, especially in the way that, without the larger context of these strange images, all we know is what we see. It’s like visiting a new place, knowing that outside the immediate field of vision are places waiting to be discovered.
Chele Isaac‘s The End of Angels is quite successful in the way the viewer becomes an adventurous voyeur. The installation is inside a room and the only way to see it is to climb a small set of stairs and stick your head through a rectangular window. The work is a mix of three-dimensional objects which are like surrealistic set pieces in front of a video where people, an M.C. Esher-like stairs, and occasionally holographic images appear. It’s esoteric and alluring, cleverly coy in a space you can see and nearly enter, but forever lies just out of reach.
Ash Kyrie‘s Untitled Media Images is one of the relatively few to delve into overtly contemporary commentary. Kyrie’s source material comes is news related to the “War on Terror.” With wheat paste, large-scale black-and-white printed images are attached to the wall and then scraped away, leaving torn and jagged edges that become gestures of purposeful decay. What remains balances elegance and destruction. We might not know what was really there, and the redaction of images might not trouble us; it is a form of gentle ignorance, leaving aesthetically pleasing remains while the scraped bits lie in a heap on the floor like shreds of truth.
In three years the Wisconsin Triennial will reappear with another mix of emerging and established artists representing trends in the state. These are the last days to see this particular exhibition and take stock of where we are now, which will soon become the retrospective of where we have been.
State of Art: Wisconsin Triennial is on view at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art through Sunday, January 5. (227 State Street, Madison, WI).