The World According to Fred Stonehouse
The noted Milwaukee painter’s show at MOWA is edgy yet elegant, freaky yet fun.
Milwaukee artist Fred Stonehouse was recently included in a group show at the Halle St. Pierre, a gracious old structure in the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris. The Halle is well known for producing catalogs and publications devoted to Art brut, Outsider Art, pop culture and art singuilier (“singular”), and as my husband and I were were traveling in Paris in September, I stopped to see the show.
Much of the work was tattoo inspired or referenced, much was grotesque, disturbing, horror-movie kind of stuff, some of it was fantastic and exquisite. Stonehouse’s work fit into the show’s theme, yet it also stood out for its own distinctive look. It was part of the scene, but also singuilier.
As the current exhibition of his work at the Museum of Wisconsin Art proves, there is nothing quite like the work of Fred Stonehouse. His work straddles the popular, tattoo hipster genre and the exquisitely crafted traditions of European painting. A painting may juxtapose familiar, pop references with beautifully crafted techniques of the old masters, but other paintings have devil-like images that might suggest an update of Renaissance painter Hieronymus Bosch. Stonehouse can be elegant but gritty; you feel he really knows art history, yet he can also create works with a rough, unfinished, almost slapdash approach
Fred Stonehouse was born in 1960, grew up in a working-class family and once thought of becoming a car mechanic until art began to call to him. His mother was deaf, and as Debra Brehmer explains in her well-written catalog for the MOWA exhibit, Stonehouse became very selective and articulate in his communications. His paintings sometimes include words, but their meaning can be elusive. Stonehouse attended UW-Milwaukee and with just a bachelor’s degree had his first solo show in Chicago. He’s never taken another course, and has supported himself with his art ever since, living in West Allis for many years with a studio in his garage.
In person, Stonehouse is down-to-earth, anything but an effete art snob, generous and even humble. There is a vulnerability and humor to his work. He has a personal cadre of symbols and motifs which have been running through his paintings for past 25 years, yet never seem to get repetitive.
Stonehouse is often his own subject, turning himself into all kinds of odd-looking creatures: characters who might be from cartoons, nursery rhymes or clowns from the circus. The figures typically have dwarf proportions, not the classical, academic model, no Vitruvian man here! And the eyes are often soulful, limpid pools, that look much like his eyes.
His painting, “Already Gone,” from 2001, gives us a character who looks much like Fred, but in monk’s robe and with Mickey Mouse ears, carrying a bag in a pastoral setting. But Stonehouse adds a palimpsest effect, of layers upon layers: flat gray dots and smears of paint cover parts of the old painting underneath, almost as though the artist changed his mind and defiled his own idea. Finally, the painting offers this text at the bottom: “Days passed before anyone realized he was already gone.” It’s quite funny, yet the painting itself leaves you on edge.
Images of the devil also pop up frequently. Stonehouse often paints himself as an almost cute little devil, a shiny black face and horns, the moist colorful eyes often shedding tears. Stonehouse talks about his identification with the devil as a rebellion to all the Catholicism he was raised with as a child. The 1998 painting “Que” portrays a green-eyed devil with bubbles coming out of his mouth which look like they may contain a liquid. The painting has a distressed looking surface evoking an old billboard or advertising sign. The feeling and tone of his paintings can be elusive and contradictory.
The MOWA exhibit includes more than 70 of his paintings, a mixture of new and older, more well-known work. A video about Stonehouse by Christina Wright captures the painter in his studio and Fred the flea market fanatic and collector. He delights in old salt-and-pepper shakers, kitschy kewpie dolls and has a fascination with the everyday. He talks about his favorite commercial from childhood of dancing food in a refrigerator. His sensibility and aesthetic seem to reach far back into his childhood, deep into his psyche.
The exhibition also includes potent quotes from Stonehouse, like this one: “There is this exquisitely melancholy moment, when you first wake from a dream and realize you were sleeping.” It’s a provocative show.
Stonehouse has an international reputation and is now in his mid-50s, yet he still attracts new young audiences. This is partially due to his mastery of social media. He exports new paintings almost daily to Facebook and Instagram, where he has 10,600 followers; each post may draw 500 to 700 “likes.” But more than that, it is his imagery that remains relevant. Human nature changes slowly, if at all, and Stonehouse seems to know that. His work resonates because he’s been honing his imagery and vocabulary over a lifetime.
“Fred Stonehouse: The Promise of Distant Things,” through January 17, 2016, Hyde Gallery, Museum of Wisconsin Art.