A Mixed-Up, Muddled-Up, Shook-Up World
Portrait Society presents two young artists with playful but worried views of the world.
The Third Ward’s Portrait Society Gallery, known for interesting, often edgy contemporary art, presents the work of two young artists, Steve Burnham and LaNia Sproles, whose works grab at a lot, with themes of the self, socio-political issues, feminism, and racial identities, in two exhibits, displayed through through February 23.
Unlike My Image, Burnham’s exhibit of 37 mixed media paintings and drawings, are, in the artist’s own words, “in some degree, self-portraits, although they may more overtly function as social or political critique.”
Burnham incorporates a grab bag of themes, all of which contain abstracted faces. Echoes of environmentalism, psychology, history, social media and technology, and literature all make their way into the artist’s paintings and drawings.
“They are really playful and experimental. He covets chance, to some extent,” says gallery owner Debra Brehmer.
Besides spray paint and acrylic, Burnham uses a number of natural and recycled materials in his paintings, from pieces of old canvases to glass and small stones.
A poet who received a Masters of Arts degree in English from UW-Milwaukee, Burnham employs clever wordplay (and a healthy amount of 21st century slang and phrases) in the titles of his paintings, including “Polar Cap,” “Tao Long Didn’t Read,” “Zeusplaining,” and “Not So Super Ego.”
Despite the subtle humor Burnham weaves into many works, such as “Remember Postmodernism?” (acrylic and modeling paste on canvas), and “Accessories before and after the Fact” (acrylic, spray paint, canvas on canvas), some are somber.
“Ash Tuesday,” (ink, gouache, acrylic on paper) with its drawings of large haunted eyes, gray and black tones, and white dots, relives the horrors of September 11, 2001, which the artist viewed firsthand from his Brooklyn apartment.
“Inner Candyman (Dopesick)” (acrylic modeling paste, spray paint on canvas) depicts a wan, Pepto-Bismol-colored face topped with modeling paste, giving the painting an uneven and unhealthy appearance, suggesting the physical and emotional side effects of drug addiction.
“Not So Super Ego” (acrylic, spray paint, canvas, paper on canvas) features three unhappy abstract faces, painted in primary colors, melded into one large one — the id, ego and super-ego merged in one?
“Flower’s Ghost,” (acrylic, spray paint, paper on canvas) “The Anxiety of the Flower’s Ghost,” (acrylic, spray paint on canvas) “Sun King,” (acrylic on canvas) and “Polar Cap” (acrylic, spray paint on canvas) point to the implications of environmental decay and climate change. The bluish-white, rounded face of a snowman wearing a knitted hat appears to be melting; a sun blazes against the profile of a crowned figure; pink and orange flower petals surround a black-and-white, skull-like face.
“There is irony and play and humor, and even goofiness, in each painting,” writes Burnham. “At the same time, they are deadly serious.”
In her series of five drawings, with the title “Who Built the Burning House?”, 2017 MIAD graduate LaNia Sproles (known for her work with cut paper) places female figures, many of them African-American, in bold-colored fantasy worlds, with winged creatures, lush plants, hybrid animals and reptiles, comfort snacks and angels shooting bows and arrows.
Dressed in knee-high boots, crop tops, and tight dresses, the figures in the drawings appear, at first glance, comfortable in their own skin, and confident.
For example, in “Who and How Much?” (gouache, pencil and marker), a horned, statuesque woman dressed in a yellow and blue leotard and red heeled boots reminiscent of a superhero, a blue tail wrapped around her body, stands atop a carousel horse and points eastward.
The drawings are “very in-your-face, feminist, and female-forward,” said Brehmer.
But even in these seeming utopias, ugly realities creep in and oppression is prevalent. Fire appears as a frequent motif, perhaps to represent destruction—and hopes of rebirth and renewal.
“Never Safe,” (pencil, watercolor pencil, paint marker, gouache, watercolor crayons) portrays three women sitting atop large birds holding torches, possibly seeking a refuge from painful memories.
In “Who Stayed and Who Left?” (pencil, gouache, watercolor pencil, ink, watercolor crayon) a figure wearing patterned boots is trapped beneath a burning home, surrounded by sinister snakes, a small fire-breathing dog, and a tiger with a human face.
In her artist’s statement, Sproles writes, “The figures are scorned, but free from operating underneath the formidable conditions of their oppressive realities. Dreamscapes full of hot Cheetos, quick weaves, and patterned crop tops plague them to rest their inevitable traumas in these idyllic places.”
An artists’ talk with Steve Burnham and LaNia Sproles will be held on Gallery Day, 3 p.m. January 19 at Portrait Society Gallery, 207 E. Buffalo St. #526.
If you think stories like this are important, become a member of Urban Milwaukee and help support real independent journalism. Plus you get some cool added benefits, all detailed here.