Visual Art

A World of Self-Portraits

New show at The Warehouse offers works by many big-name international artists. A must see.

By - Sep 7th, 2020 10:16 am
Collage by Della Wells. Photo courtesy of The Warehouse.

Collage by Della Wells. Photo courtesy of The Warehouse.

Tucked away in the Guardian fine art storage building at 1635 W. St. Paul Ave. is The Warehouse, an exhibition and performance space created by Jan Serr and John Shannon. If you have never visited this unique space in the Menomonee Valley, it is a must. And this is a great time to do so, as The Warehouse is presenting a wonderful exhibit entitled  “I Am a Story: Self-Portraits”.

The tradition of self-portraits goes back centuries. Artists have used them to document changes in their style, in their lives, and to practice their art when a model was not available. Self-portraits by Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Frida Kahlo and many others have fascinated viewers. Nowadays everyone creates them with their mobile phones and sends them out daily to friends and the online world.

Serr and Shannon are married and have been collecting for half a century, including many self-portraits, going back to a reprint by Kathe Kollwitz which Serr bought when still a UW-Milwaukee student from a traveling exhibit in 1963. The works they own are all personally significant to the couple, but Shannon notes that Serr has been the guiding force as to what they should acquire.

This is part of the uniqueness of this exhibit. The two collect for themselves, not to “cover” a certain period of time or represent certain styles which a museum is often forced to do. It’s in keeping with the approach of many collectors, including major Milwaukee collectors of the past like Frederick Layton and Peg Bradley.

There  is a very European feel to the space and the aesthetic going on here. This is not a commercial gallery so it’s freed of the need to sell anything. Serr and Shannon are simply presenting these works to appreciate and enjoy, sharing their love of art with the community.

The exhibition includes works by 54 Artists from 10 countries on five continents in a diversity of media: printmaking, painting, collage, sculpture and video. Among the most famous artists included are Cindy Sherman, Jim Dine, David Hockney, Carrie Mae Weems, William Kentridge, Keith Haring and Edward Steichen. Statements by many of the artists about their work are provided by “Artphone”, a cell phone-based audio guide service created by The Warehouse and debuting during this exhibition. Using their own smartphones, visitors can call in and hear recordings of the artists speaking about their work.

It’s a strong show of interesting work with a variety of themes: references to artists of the past, artists at work, artists in nature, artists camouflaging or hiding as much as revealing themselves.

There are a fair number of local artists represented: Mary Bero has an exquisite little mixed media piece combining painting with embroidery. The embroidered self-portrait reminds me of the old scapulars we wore in Catholic school, but is much more dense, rich and colorful.

There is a dreamy yet austere Mark Mulhern work from 1994. He provides a brief narrative too, suggesting this was a beginning of a new direction in his painting after a visit to the Prado in Madrid. His luscious, soft misty colors are already there, along with poignant gray blues and wispy details often found in his works.

A fierce but warmly hued self-portrait by Virgi Driscoll, the well-known educator and advocate of the arts in Milwaukee for decades, confronts us in the first section of the exhibit.

JoAnna Poehlmann is in the company of other artists of world renown paying homage to the past by inserting her own profile into historical portraits. Her whimsy and humor offers a sly wink to the rich patterns and sumptuous colors of the Renaissance old masters.

Samuel Fosso, a Cameroonian photographer created a book entitled “SIXSIXSIX” a collection of 666 polaroid self-portraits all with the same lighting and colors. The images are projected via video on a pedestal in which the viewer can turn the virtual pages.

Carrie Mae Weems, an internationally known African-American artist, photographs family and friends sitting at a kitchen table. Their interactions feel commonplace yet there is a provocative edge to the stories she sets up.

Della Wells, an African-American artist of long standing in Milwaukee, created a collage for this exhibit. The artist looks out at us with large staring eyes and invites us to celebrate the rich materials and colors she has chosen to represent herself.

Kentridge, a South African artist, has two pieces in the show. Viewers may remember the amazing video installation by him in 2019 at the Milwaukee Art Museum “More Sweetly Play the Dance”. One of his works here is a homage to the time honored tradition of the artist and model, but with a twist, and done in a lively gestural ink drawing. This is the first time it has been exhibited.

The second piece is a small screen with a continuous loop of animation honoring the French film pioneer Georges Méliès. Kentridge is also shown in his studio hamming it up in the slapstick style of the early live animations of Méliès.

Leslie Dill, a New York artist, is known for theatrical, literary inspired installations. She is represented here by an exquisite little sculpture based on the word “radiance,” as her audio description explains.

These are only some of the works that struck me; it’s a lovely show that invites close observation and is filled with exquisite pieces one doesn’t get to see all together, much less in these challenging times.

Speaking of that, the show is set up to assure your safety. Admission is free, but reservations are required on Monday, Wednesday or Friday. The show runs through October 23 and in case you have questions, The Warehouse has an excellent website with lots of information.

P.S. The Milwaukee group COPA (Coalition of Photographic Artists) will present a complimentary Pop-up Exhibition entitled “I Witness: Photographic Portraiture in the South Galleries” and also in the Guardian building on St. Paul  from September 21- October 21, 2020.

“I Am a Story: Self-Portraits” Gallery

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