• Sometimes A Donut Is Just A Donut

    This morning on my way to Schwartz on Downer, I stopped in at the Obama headquarters and helped myself to a plain old unfrosted old-fashioned donut. The workers were busy firing up the troops for the final days of the world’s longest presidential election. On the north wall, a large portrait of Obama (resembling a Chuck Close painting), stood guard over the laptops and walls plastered with directions, instructions, phone numbers, blah, blah. I strolled around eating my donut trying to decide who I was going to cast my vote for on November 4. Earlier in the day, I drove by the Zeidler building in hopes of finding a parking spot to cast an early vote. No luck, but no problem either. On November 4th I have only to walk a few blocks north of where I live, and vote at the lovely Charles Allis Museum. The good news on Downer Avenue, is that the huge Gokhman parking structure has decided to get rid of the puke-green accent on the front of the building. In fact, it looks like the whole paint job has been changed. It’s much better….quieter in understated shades of ivory and white. The bad news is that Lixx is for sale, and well, Downer was spookily quiet, almost deserted. That section needs help big time. A block north, things are much livelier. It was quiet at Schwartz too, but they had my copy of Mishima’s “After the Banquet” ready to take home. There’s an air of tension everywhere this week, or is it just me? When you set your clocks back on November 2, you had a whole extra hour to feel tense. For many voters, the choice of our next president will be clear. Me? I’m still in a fog. The donut I ate weighs heavily as I write.

  • Monkey See, Monkey Do

    I have three basic rules for reviewing art. They address the content, the craftsmanship, and the consistency of the work. Making art does not involve “magic,” nor does writing about it. What’s needed is an experienced eye, clear thinking, and, unless you are some kind of whiz kid, long hours. Computers are great tools, but I know of none that “think.” We live in a world fraught with “information” rushed to deadline: words mashed and tangled beyond recognition, words spewed from press release re-writes. Angry words, dumb words, and here and there, intelligent words shaped into cohesive thoughts before they are fired into space. I’m a big fan of the latter. All of this chaos makes me ponder the role of the art critic. Those two words, art critic, are attached to responsibilities, and words devoid of thought are zero. It’s easy these days to plunder websites (so many, so diverse) and pack a review with clever asides, so as to create the illusion that the writer has been thinking. Oh well, (you say), the virtual universe has infinite space, so what’s the excuse for not giving as many folks as possible their fifteen minutes of online fame? What’s the harm? Brain dead coverage is the harm. Description without opinion or conclusions well considered. One of the prickly problems in solid coverage of visual art, is that all artists yearn to be loved. They hope that writers covering the arts, will (naturally) rave on about what they’ve produced, and in return, the artist will rave on about the critic, and so goes the lie. Awesome, Astounding, Magnificent, Glorious, Amazing…. words tumble forth, even though it’s clear in almost all “preview” writing, that the writer has not seen the work. The same holds for “reviews” where the words may be pretty, but the writing is vapid. A weak reviewer (in Milwaukee) can not get lost in the crowd. My skin isn’t so thick that I desire running into an artist at an opening, an artist who will snarl that his or her work was not given the accolades he or she absolutely knows it deserves. On the flip side it makes me uncomfortable to meet up with an artist I’ve given a “good” review to. When they smile and pat my shoulder, I suspect it’s just another form of grooming. Consequently, I avoid art openings. I’ve observed that artists who receive lukewarm (or worse) reviews, are unable to separate reviews from their personal selves. I’ve been on the receiving end of a disaster review, written by Tom Strini who was sent to West Bend way back when, to cover an exhibition of my work. My phone didn’t ring for weeks, as friends who read the review were too embarrassed to call. I wrote Strini a note thanking him for his coverage. He told me years later that it was the only thank you he’d ever received for a devastating review. He moved on. I moved on. I continue to be a […]

  • Pea Green

    With apologies to Edward Lear (1812 – 1888), author of The Owl and the Pussy-Cat. The Owl and the Pussy-Cat went to sea In a beautiful pea-green boat They took some honey, and plenty of money Wrapped in a five-pound note… Revised version pre-election 2008: Sarah and John went to sea In a beautiful Republican boat They took some honey, and plenty of money Wrapped in a stock market quote… I just returned from my second visit to the 2007 Nohl Fellowship exhibit at inova/Kenilworth. Seven artists, each with their slice of the competition’s modest money honey, dance by the light of the moon. The moon, the moon, they dance by the light of the moon. The show closes in January 09 and shortly thereafter our new President will be sworn in. Colin Mathes’ drawings and sculptural forms define America as honky-tonk carnival, and among the various installations, stand out as the most political.

  • The Big O

    No, not that one. Or the other O’s either. I’m talking here about the O that counts on Tuesday, November 4th. You’ll be setting your watches, clocks, and other timepieces back one hour on November 2, which means you’ll have an extra hour before casting your vote two days later. It’s almost over, all the months of waiting, considering, reading and arguing. I’m beginning to wonder what I’ll do with my time when the die is cast. And what will all those pundits do? The Atlantic has redesigned their magazine in keeping with the times, which is to say, they’re trying to be hip and with it. In the publishing biz for 151 years (1,791 issues), the November issue has a great piece on “China’s Neurosis,” and for the hipsters, a feature by Andrew Sullivan on “Why He Blogs.” Jeffrey Goldberg writes about the “Idiocy of Airline Security,” and there’s more, much more, between the screaming black, gold and red cover. And just so you know, the New Yorker is going to be publishing online (totally dude) in a few months. Yesterday I picked up a copy of John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, a novel that set my hair on fire and set me on the track to reading everything he ever wrote. The lone copy of Prayer looked lonely sitting next to Irving’s unimpressive Until I Find You. Over the years I’ve purchased several copies of the former and have given all the copies to friends who I deemed worthy of reading his work. Sadly, it seems when the author went Hollywood, he also slipped into a deep depression and well, his writing hasn’t been the same since. Updike and Oates are still writing, so life isn’t entirely grim, but they’re getting old and soon I need to tap into authors of equal quality. Who are they?

  • Visual Arts Picks

    On Thursday, September 4, a video tribute dedicated to the victims of September 11, 2001 aired at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul. It prompted a visibly upset MSNBC commentator, Keith Olbermann, to apologize for its insensitivity. A week later, he was yanked as anchor for the November 4 election coverage. “Razor blades. Pocketknives. Scissors. Corkscrews. Nail clippers. Lighters. Match boxes. Innocent, everyday items, once routinely carried onto planes, took on different meanings after the events of September 11, 2001.” So reads a press release for Michele Pred: (dis) possessions, now through October 12 at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan. Pred’s materials? Personal items (yours, mine) confiscated at airport security checkpoints. A California artist who exhibits globally, her “Fear Culture” features red, white and blue Petri dishes, each containing a seized object. Assembled to resemble an American flag, it challenges the core of American freedom – rather than preaching, it informs in a minimalist manner. It’s a good fit with the October 5 lecture in the Lubar Auditorium at MAM. Listen (for free) to “Monument Men” survivor Harry Ettlinger, who helped rescue artistic and cultural items plundered by the Nazis during World War II. Prints in MAM’s Gallery 13, titled The First World War: Its Horror and Its Aftermath, will prod you forward to November 4. On October 10, the 2007 Mary Nohl Fellowship Award event debuts at inova/Kenilworth. Photographer Kevin Miyazaki’s Camp Home series records the Tule Lake Japanese internment camp where his father and his family were placed during World War II. And on Gallery Night, October 17 the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design’s Media Projects 2008 (curated by artist/ MIAD professor Jason S. Yi) includes the work of Bethany Springer, who explores place and its relationship to biology, terrorism, communication and security; at Dean Jensen Gallery, The Newspaper House unfolds. Peruse the newsy walls, inside and out, while considering the fragility of nature, and further, the fragility of life as the elections loom. Stop.look.listen: an exhibition of video works (from 14 global artists) starts October 23 at the Haggerty Museum of Art. Janet Biggs’ two-channel video installation (Predator and Prey, 2006) will air on huge plasma screens, similar to those displaying the 9-11 video at the Republican Convention. Images: past, present, and future. What is their role in shaping our perceptions in the year 2008 and beyond? VS

  • Cinco Jugueteros de Venezuela @ Latino Arts Center

    I hate sounding like Scrooge, but my memory bank is filled with nights-before-Christmas spent assembling toys for my kids. If you’ve ever tried finding a minuscule screw in inch-high shag carpeting, you know what I mean. There were endless batteries to test, a parade of dolls (Chatty Kathy, Baby Wets, Raggedy Ann) and, atop our aluminum tree, a revolving purple-and-blue light on the fritz. And where were Barbie’s pink shoes and Ken’s shirt? Would my 5-year-old like the green cowboy boots I bought in Mexico? I learned later that not one kid in his preppy pre-school wore cowboy boots, let alone green ones. What was I thinking? The turkey thawing in the kitchen seemed to be the only thing not giving me tizzies. On these nightmares before Christmas, I slugged down extra eggnog. Cinco Jugueteros de Venezuela (Handcrafted Venezuelan Toys) was scheduled to open Friday, December 7 (5pm-7pm) at the Latino Arts Center, 1028 S. 9th St. When I arrived for the gala opening, it had been rescheduled. The new date is Friday, January 4, 2008. The show will run through January, so you’ll be able to greet the New Year with a selection of toys crafted entirely by hand, with no assembly required and no lead-paint problems. As I write this, the shipment of toys is sitting somewhere in Memphis, held up due to changes in Venezuelan shipping regulations. “The toys don’t talk, they don’t walk. They run entirely by imagination,” said Zulay Oszkay, a member of the Milwaukee Arts Board and Artistic Director of Latino Arts, Inc. She added that she and her staff had painted the 300 sq. ft. auditorium room entirely white so as to better “show off” the toys. They tracked the Fed-Ex shipment for several days, right up to the last minute, but alas! No toys in time for the December 7 opening. The toys were to be accompanied by the artisans who made them, but they were unable to get visas for the visit. While writing this, I found a website blasting Venezuela’s President, Hugo Chavez. It seems he thinks Barbie and Ken represent “disgusting stupidity”; his holiday choices are items made in Venezuela. For boys, he suggests wooden rocking horses and/or “Ilaneros” (cowboys), and for girls … rag dolls. However, I doubt if politico Chavez was actually thinking about simpler times. Call him a dictator or a Democrat; he does seem a bit sexist when it comes to toys. Venezuela is in the throes of political turmoil, which contributed to the delayed shipment of toys. As Zulay and I sipped coffee and chatted in the auditorium, kids came in to participate in “toy-making” workshops and the United Community Center Youth Cuatro Ensemble arrived to perform. Images of the exquisite toys flashed by on a nearby television screen. Despite the cancellation of the opening, the mood was upbeat and the room sparkled with decorated trees. This is a wonderful facility and worth a visit anytime. Later in the evening, a friend and I […]

  • Art vs. Craft

    After seven rounds, nationally-recognized Art vs. Craft has become a Milwaukee institution – by way of minimally institutional principles. Also an anomaly: over 75 progressively-minded, “new wave” artists, crafters and designers will be vending their handmade and independent wares – just in time for the holiday feeding frenzy.

  • Running the Numbers

    An American Portrait

    Art and social commentary have always been kissing cousins. In a sense, all art is social commentary, as it reflects artists’ views of the world they inhabit. Whether that reflection is viewed in a straight mirror or distorted like a fun-house mirror is the choice of the artist. In Running the Numbers: An American Portrait, Chris Jordan set out to “look at contemporary American culture through the austere lens of statistics.” Each large image represents a specific statistic in visual format: one depicts fifteen million sheets of office paper, representing five minutes of paper usage in America. The stacks of paper tower and wobble like something out of Dr. Seuss’ nightmares. The artist’s hope is that the visual impact of “seeing” these statistics will make the way we live and the vast, ever-increasing complexity of American society accessible to individuals. His thought is that the enormous numbers in most statistics are incomprehensible. What, exactly, does 3.6 million SUV sales a year look like? Our brains can’t fathom it; the numbers are too large. But a picture created out of all the Denali nameplates sold in a year, arranged in pointillist fashion to recreate the peaceful mountain scene used in Denali commercials, has an impact. Looking at each individual name plate, you are struck by the enormity of that number in a way that simply reading it can’t accomplish. The piece is titled “Denali Denial,” in an extension of that social commentary. If everyone drove such a vehicle, there would be no more peaceful mountain scenes of crisp air and fresh water. My favorite piece of the exhibition is called “Painkillers.” In it, 213,000 Vicodin pills swirl around a center point, a maelstrom of small, white ovoid shapes. It’s like they’re circling the drain, about to go the through the tubes and hit rock bottom. And at the same time, it’s like being high, unable to control what’s going on and letting it all just swirl around you, content to be passive. The number of pills in the composition is equal to the number of emergency room visits every year related to the abuse or misuse of prescription painkillers. Running the Numbers: An American Portrait opened at the UWM Union Art Gallery on November 15, 2007 and will run through December 14, 2007. The gallery’s hours and upcoming events can be found on its website,

  • Time Machine

    Three days after listening to Russell Bowman’s lecture at the Milwaukee Art Museum, I drove with a friend to re-visit the John Michael Kohler Arts Center (JMKAC) in Sheboygan. Bowman, the former Executive Director of MAM, spoke so eloquently and in-depth about when and how MAM’s “folk art” collection came to fruition; it seemed the perfect excuse to take another look at JMKAC’s collection of art, specifically Sublime Spaces & Visionary Worlds: Built Environments of Vernacular Art, which runs until January 2008. Let’s forget about labels for the time being. Whether you choose to refer to work produced by self-taught artists as “folk,” “outsider,” or “visionary,” bear in mind that the distinctions overlap more often than they divide. Blurred boundaries can be a good thing. Sunday, November 11 may not have been the best day to travel north, though my friend and I fortunately dodged the crowds rushing to Lambeau in massive vehicles bound for the Packer-Vikings game. The upside was finding JMKAC virtually empty, so we more or less had the glorious place to ourselves. There is no admission fee and on that day, parking was certainly not a problem. My travel companion, self-taught artist Jilan Glynn, lives in a tiny Walker’s Point home resembling an art installation. She uses a cane to get around these days, but not just any old cane. She made hers, and it was a perfect accessory for a perfect day. Walking through the galleries is somewhat akin to entering a voluminous tent where a circus is underway. Step right up, folks. Don’t be afraid. What you are about to see is not an illusion. With twenty-one artists represented, artists from here, there, and everywhere, you’d expect to feel claustrophobic, because many of the artists produced massive figurative works originally intended for “natural” environments such as yards and wide open spaces. Thanks to the excellence of JMKAC’s curatorial staff, though, each artist’s work clearly has its own space and never seems isolated. Nothing is crowded or crammed awkwardly. The interior architecture embraces the collection. Intricate, concrete constructions lead to stately clusters of figures fashioned from fabrics and clay before giving way to the light and airy wire fantasies of the wildly prolific Emery Blagdon. Standing there, I wondered what it might be like to live inside of a delicate web spun by the mind of an artist. My friend remarked that she wished there was a fan blowing nearby, so she could see the slender objects move. When we looked skyward to pieces suspended from the ceiling, indeed, some were moving, but ever so gently, in the whispering air currents. A fan would have been a travesty! In his lecture, Russell Bowman remarked that sometimes when the work of self-taught artists is removed from its natural environment to an institutionalized setting, it acquires another meaning. I agree with his statement, but such is not the case with this outstanding exhibit, which avoids being “precious.” At the risk of sentimentalizing the entire experience, it did […]

  • The Art of Work

    By Kerensa Edinger Milwaukee already has an art museum that in itself is a feat of engineering, but a museum dedicated to the art of engineering is another thing altogether. It may seem an anomaly, but we now have one of those, too. The new Grohmann Museum, on the campus of the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE), is home to Man at Work: The Eckhart G. Grohmann Collection, the largest and most comprehensive of its kind. From agriculture to alchemy, coal mining to tax collecting, the approximately 700 paintings and sculptures display the vast breadth and evolution of human industry. With few exceptions, the artwork comes from the private collection of Dr. Eckhart Grohmann, an MSOE Regent, Milwaukee businessman and avid collector. Grohmann grew up in Germany, where he would often visit his grandfather’s marble processing business and quarry in Silesia (now part of Poland). In watching the stonecutters and sculptors toil to select and transform their raw materials, he developed an admiration for the beauty of work. To Dr. Grohmann, work is an essential, evolving aspect of human progress. Currently the chairman and president of Milwaukee’s Aluminum Casting and Engineering Company, which makes high-volume aluminum components for the automotive industry, Dr. Grohmann began his extensive art collection in the 1960s. Grohmann and his wife, Ischi, have long contributed to scholarships for MSOE students and donated funds to buy the property for the Kern Center, MSOE’s health and wellness facility, just a block from the museum. In the same philanthropic vein, Grohmann donated his collection for the purpose of establishing a museum and provided the funds to purchase and renovate the building that would house it. Constructed in 1924, the three-story, 38,000 square-foot concrete structure was home first to an automobile dealership, Metropolitan Cadillac, and then later occupied by the Federal Reserve Bank until 2004. To fit the needs of the Federal Reserve Bank, the building had relatively small windows and secure, anonymous entrances. MSOE purchased the structure in 2005; demolition and renovation began in September of 2006. Uihlein-Wilson, the project’s architects, kept the small windows –ideal for allowing in just enough light to preserve the delicate artwork – but replaced the corner of the building at Broadway and State with a glass cylindrical atrium capped by an open metalwork dome. Soaring over the museum’s entryway is the 700-square-foot mural, its two hemispheres, Vulcan’s Forge and Great Minds of History, linked by a spinning celestial wheel. Vulcan’s Forge reinterprets The Element of Fire, a 16th-century painting by a student of Francesco Bassano that depicts the Roman god Vulcan forging arrows for his son Cupid while Venus, combing her hair with one breast demurely bared, looks on. For his mural, the German artist H.D. Tylle lifted these primary figures from their cluttered, gloomy backdrop and set them against a simple landscape of rolling hills and blue sky. He used live models and new costumes to paint the figures, transforming the placid, stylized originals into striking creatures of flesh and blood. The […]

  • A Vision Defined

    Nov. 3 – Dec. 1 Opening Reception: Nov. 3, 6-9pm A year ago, Whole Foods Market opened to much hoopla and artist Matthew Kirk’s work was selected to add some “local flavor” to the sprawling food emporium. The installation of his work, arranged by Hotcakes Gallery proprietor Mike Brenner, went off without a hitch. It was removed shortly thereafter. Whole Foods explained “it didn’t fit Whole Foods’ Corporate image.” However, it is a good match for Hotcakes, a gallery at 3379 N. Pierce St. in Riverwest, known for innovative and quality exhibits. Kirk’s solo event, his second at this venue, opens with a reception on Saturday, November 3, and runs through December l. In his artist statement for, he says he “makes pictures to convey the sense of loss and aimlessness that I feel from growing up in a society that has only one vision, and one place, for what an American Indian is, or should be.” His biography notes he was born in Arizona on a Navajo Indian reservation. But need we feel sentimental about that? Painting a Hat, 1914. Edward Curtis. I’ve seen the paintings and prints of Karl Bodmer and George Catlin, and nostalgic photographs by Edward Curtis, and though they depict American Indians, the makers of the art are non-Indians on what smacks of a sentimental journey. However, the images are gorgeous and are important in the history of art making. In the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Bradley Collection, there used to be (and I hope there still is), a painting (Untitled, 1976) by Fritz Scholder, the first artist to paint American Indians surrounded by flags, beer cans and cats – a big leap from the formal portraits produced by Curtis in the early twentieth century. Scholder’s work intrigued me, not because he was an American Indian, or because his painting depicts an American Indian. What intrigued me was his bold palette and broad painterly strokes, so typical of the unfettered art world of the ’70s. Indian in the Snow, 1972. Fritz Scholder. A few years ago, I saw the paintings of Shonto Begay at the Phoenix Art Museum. His website identifies him as a Navajo artist with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from California College of Arts and Crafts, practicing since 1983. I emailed him about the Hotcakes exhibit and asked for permission to use one of his images. He replied thusly: “I have no problem helping a fellow Navajo showing far from home or anywhere … It is an interesting situation being a Native visual artist, and how we view ourselves. Marginalized and anthro material even in our most creative and free expression. Anyway, Curio or not, we love what we do and hope to continue.” “Curio. Marginalized and anthro material.” Kirk and Begay have never met, but it sounds like they share similar thoughts about “loss and aimlessness.” Kirk’s artist statement expands on this by saying it comes from “growing up in a society that has only one vision, and one place, for […]

  • IN

    SITE unveils Fall 2007 installations

    Much of Milwaukee’s art revival is concentrated in the condo-ready Third Ward, so it seems a brave feat that a two-block stretch – beginning at the struggling, yet bustling 3500 block of West North Avenue – is seeing a revival of its own. It’s strange and wonderful to see art and vitality on an arterial street that doesn’t share the business or attention of its East Side and Wauwatosa bookends and this installation, organized by IN:SITE, purveyors of public art, features artists Laura Gorzek, Chris Murphy and Kasia Drake. The untitled exhibit opened on October 27, and each of the three installation promises to provoke and inspire. “The thing about public art that I don’t always like is when it advocates a certain point of view,” says Laura Gorzek, a photography-based artist currently attending UWM. “I’d like to keep it more open-ended … letting [viewers] draw from their own experiences, their own level of dealing with something.” Gorzek’s piece, Surface v. Secret, incorporates elements of her photographic works on four vinyl-constructed banners across a large 8-by-24 foot billboard at 3615 W. North Ave. With her artwork she hopes to address women’s identities and self-perception – what is apparent and what lies hidden. Each piece demands multiple viewings to grasp the complex, layered narrative thread. “I thought it would be interesting to try this – most of what I do is more intimate and private. So juxtaposing this to a public space, it’s like making private life more universal,” says Gorzek. Chris Murphy’s piece, Choros, has been gestating for awhile. Murphy watched day after day since last summer as stories of Milwaukee’s homicides racked up on the news. “Someone else is shot again. I mean, I lived in Oakland, California and it didn’t seem this bad,” says Murphy – a master electrician, artist and father. “I’m a very 3-D person, and I thought about ways to put a face on it.” Choros – Greek for the chorus of masked players in tragic plays who offer background or commentary – is composed of scores of semi-translucent masks molded from the faces of real volunteer subjects. The gauzy masks, made of quick-drying water-based resins, are mounted on a maroon backdrop at 3611 W. North Avenue, each lit from behind by LEDs. They represent each person killed by gunshots in the city this year. At night the sculpture takes on an ethereal quality. “I just want to have [the viewer] acknowledge it as a first step,” says Murphy. “I want to humanize the whole thing instead of victims being a whole number. These people are not going to show up to the dinner table – they’re gone.” The final project, by fabric artist Kasia Drake and 11 collaborators, continues the international You Are Beautiful campaign started by anonymous artists in Chicago. It is installed in the long-standing Milwaukee Paint Store windows at 3532 W. North Avenue. YAB’s mission is to “reach beyond ourselves as individuals to make a difference by creating moments of positive […]