Kat Murrell
Visual Art

The Secret Life of an Artist

Discovered after death, a Chicago nanny’s photographs are a revelation.

By - Feb 7th, 2014 12:50 pm
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Photograph by Vivian Maier, featured in Certificates of Presence at Portrait Society Gallery.

Photograph by Vivian Maier, featured in Certificates of Presence at Portrait Society Gallery.

Vivian Maier was a nanny in Chicago. Or so people thought. Few knew she was also a photographer with a gift for street imagery that is striking, both for its compositional acumen and its humanitarian compassion. Born in New York in 1926, she spent time living in France and eventually settled in Chicago until her death in 2009. By the end of her life there were no friends or family to speak of, only an stunning body of work that was discovered through the sale of her abandoned storage locker.

As a nanny she was an integral part of a family, yet was also at a distance as their employee. As a photographer, too, she was part of the larger society outside of the domestic sphere, but ultimately a quiet observer of it. Surreptitiously she photographed people on the beach and on windy streets, drawing out glimmers of private thoughts, the inner states we carry around in a crowd or in the solitude of our own rooms.

Maier seems sympathetic yet straightforward in her approach. She’s different from other street photographers whose currency is amusement or oddity, as though to show the world as a slightly bizarre place, or using visual punnery on the formal play of reflections in puddles or glass. The human condition, self-contained and dignified, reaches her lens and she frames it carefully, judiciously.

Her self-portraits similarly reveal both presence and absence. In one of the most striking images, the camera stares squarely at a mirror but her eyes escape our gaze. In other self-portraits she appears only as a tall shadow, or represented by her bicycle and shopping bags.

The exhibition which features Maier’s work, Certificates of Presence at Portrait Society Gallery through March 8, juxtaposes her with two other photographers: Livija Patikne (1911-2001) and J. Lindemann (b.1957).  Maier and Patikne share a common thread in

Photograph by Livija Patikne, featured in Certificates of Presence at Portrait Society Gallery.

Photograph by Livija Patikne, featured in Certificates of Presence at Portrait Society Gallery.

their biographies: both female photographers produced a substantial body of evocative work on the down-low; essentially unknown during their lifetimes, the discovery of their surviving images has won them posthumous currency.

Patikne was a native of Latvia who settled in Milwaukee. Her images are frequently devoted to still lives of flowers, arranged in delicate simplicity and bathed in a cool light and rich hues. A sense of beauty permeates her aesthetic, whether in the floral subjects or in her self-portraits. Patikne dresses herself carefully in 1950s and ‘60s elegance, posing with regal confidence amid the humble surroundings of a rather plain, ordinary home. Patikne elevates beauty to a consciously chosen condition, perhaps a way of being, in her photography.

J. Lindemann’s recent work stems from photographs as a document of life but in the frame of uncertainty and illness (cancer). Her series, “The Life of a Shut-In,” is composed of images taken with an iPhone during a year of chemotherapy. Lindemann is well-known for her substantial reputation and body of work as a photographer, often working with partner J. Shimon. This series is her own, a collection of the world as it passes, maybe to be seen again and maybe not. Her pictures are elegiac and expressive. The freshness of nature and flowers, the austerity of the medical setting, as well as humor and ironic references to instructions on a good life together offer a rich variety of themes.

Photograph by J. Lindemann, featured in Certificates of Presence at Portrait Society Gallery.

Photograph by J. Lindemann, featured in Certificates of Presence at Portrait Society Gallery.

Collectively, the work of Maier, Patikne, and Lindemann draws from the familiarity of things we all know and use and touch in our daily lives. Through their eyes and images, ordinary stuff is transformed; they collect, capture, and make us see from a slightly different angle, and that makes all the difference.

 

Certificates of Presence: Vivian Maier, Livija Patikne, J. Lindemann

January 17 – March 8, 2014,

Portrait Society Gallery

207 E. Buffalo Street, Marshall Building, FIFTH floor (suite 526).

 

 

THIS WEEKEND 

 

FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 7

The Price of Freedom 

Exploration of Material 

Walker’s Point Center for the Arts 

839 S. 5th Street

Opening reception 5 to 9pm

Exhibition continues through March 22.

In March, Milwaukee will host the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) 48th Annual Conference. It is a major event in the ceramics world and the WPCA is getting ready with the opening of these two exhibitions.

The Price of Freedom addresses issues circulating around the gun control debate. Artists working in ceramics draw upon questions of freedom, morality, and humanity in this emotionally charged exhibition.

Exploration of Material showcases porcelain made by Yoshinaga Kawamura, a process-oriented artist whose work reflects a deeply tactile approach to art. Kawamura’s work has been described as “conversations,” his ceramics taking on forms that retain a feeling of the artist’s hand, while the use of light and shadow create nuanced surface effects.

 

Beth Lipman: Precarious Possessions 

Beth Lipman's Sideboard with Blue China will be on view in Precarious Possessions at the Museum of Wisconsin Art.

Beth Lipman’s Sideboard with Blue China will be on view in Precarious Possessions at the Museum of Wisconsin Art.

Museum of Wisconsin Art 

205 Veterans Avenue, West Bend

Exhibition on view Feb. 7 – April 13

Described by the Museum of Wisconsin Art as “Beth Lipman’s latest and most extravagant work to date,” Sideboard with Blue China is a monumental reimagining in glass of a mid-nineteenth-century sideboard. Lipman is noted for the extraordinary complexity of her glass sculptures, and rarely does a material so fragile appear so easily, undeniably powerful.

 

 

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 8 

 

4th Annual Winter Carnival 

Lynden Sculpture Garden

2145 W. Brown Deer Road

10am-4pm

Admission $9 adults/$7 seniors, students & children; children under 6 are free. Family passes available for nonmembers are $20 at the door. Admission is free for members.

 

If you can’t beat the weather, frolic in it. That may be the attitude to take for this weekend’s winter carnival at the Lynden Sculpture Garden. The snow and cold are tenaciously hanging in there so you might as well enjoy all sorts of creative carnival activities. Plans for the day include art-making indoors and outside, tours, tree-walks, kites, candle making and cookie decorating. An outdoor cinema is in the works from artist Caleb Engstrom, which will be complemented by seats and stop-motion animations made by carnival visitors. Ashley Janke presents the final exhibition of her nAbr Gallery residency with “Ashley Morgan: Let’s Build Something Together.”

 

0 thoughts on “Visual Art: The Secret Life of an Artist”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Now I am so curious about the Certificates of Presence photography show! Thank you for your review!

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