Slowly, and by hand: Two artists at Abel Contemporary Gallery explore timeless concepts

From January 17th issue of Isthmus
By John McLaughlin

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Technology in all of its wonderful and confusing forms has entered every facet of our lives, hovering over us as an invisible, ubiquitous presence.

But two artists at Paoli’s Abel Contemporary Gallery are harking back to a pre-digital world, exploring the idea of artists as craftspersons and working with their hands to create singular objects.

New Works, open until March 3, is an exhibit from potter and educator Joanne Kirkland and printmaker Nick Wroblewski.

Kirkland, a longtime ceramic artist and instructor of 13 years at Madison College, displays an array of functional pottery in the form of mugs, pitchers and other housewares. Many of her ceramic pieces are stark and geometric, repeating and replicating lines that eventually fan out or fold into themselves. The result is a quiet and almost mystical aesthetic.

“There’s a part of me that loves these simple geometric designs,” Kirkland says. “There are certain images that show up that were being done on clay work and cave paintings 8,000 year ago, on every continent.”

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Other examples of Kirkland’s work maintain the same ageless simplicity while weaving in small amounts of personal narrative. On one piece, a flock of dark chickens is pecking in the foreground while foxes appear in the background. Kirkland once saw one of her backyard chickens carried away by a fox.

Wroblewski’s woodblock prints make an excellent pairing with Kirkland’s ceramics. A longtime printmaker, Wroblewski attended Bennington College in Vermont and has been honing his craft for 20 years. His pieces in New Works actually double as illustrations for a children’s book called Hush, Hush Forest, inspired by the Minnesota wilderness that Nick knows intimately. “That’s the original reason the publisher approached me, because they saw the relationship between what I was trying to capture, very local landscapes, and the author [Mary Casanova], who’s from northern Minnesota,” he says.

Wroblewski’s prints are relatively small, at 11 inches by 14 inches, but their size still allows the viewer to inhabit the rich Minnesota dreamland he has so carefully crafted.

One print contains a hunched-over black bear walking across a fallen birch trunk. The creature’s lush, textured fur dominates the frame and clashes with the smooth, almost empty surface of the night sky. In another, a stand of barren trees surrounds a tiny cabin in the distant forest, as their shadows are thrown like skeletons across the frame.

In a third, echoing Kirkland, a fox creeps down a snowy hill that’s beginning to show the first signs of spring. The trees are white, and the orange light of a sunrise bathes the scene. It could have taken place 100 years ago, or yesterday. According to Wroblewski, creating these pieces was time-consuming, but that’s something he hopes viewers can take away.

Wroblewski wants viewers to gain an understanding of the slow process he undertook to illustrate the book. “I hope it reminds people that there are slower, more hand-carved approaches,” he says.

In its penultimate show before moving to a new location in Stoughton, the gallery is debuting two other shows alongside New WorksNocturne features the work of nine different artists in a variety of mediums as they address the theme of night, both figuratively and literally. From cryptic ink prints of vessels in the inky blackness of space, to a subdued low light screen print of a forest caught in the gloaming, to strange pieces of sleek, darkly earth-colored ceramic work, Nocturne is a beautiful and quietly unsettling group effort.

Abel Contemporary Gallery has a tradition of featuring more experimental works in the gallery’s Cooler space. The former creamery building includes a strange, close-corners space previously used for cold storage, perfect for the single installation of a small solo show. Chelsea Thompto, a master of fine arts student at UW-Madison, utilizes the Cooler for her visually arresting commentary on transgender issues and politics, Productive Bodies. Thompto’s multimedia work features a video where jagged, punctured geometric shapes shift seamlessly between forms, often depicting violence to human bodies. Thompto is comparing trans bodies with the Mississippi River, attempting to connect how both types of bodies face violence.

Click here to view the original article on the Isthmus website

Charles Munch: Between the Lines at the Museum of Wisconsin Art

For almost forty years, Charles Munch has lived on 220 acres of pristine forest and grassland close to Lone Rock in Wisconsin’s Driftless region. Drawing inspiration from his untamed surroundings, Munch has established himself as one of the most insightful artists working today on environmental issues in Wisconsin. 

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Between the Lines will feature thirty paintings from four decades that trace Munch’s evolution from pure landscapes to vividly imagined narratives that explore the often complex relationships between humans, animals, and their interactions with the natural world. It is, in fact, the presence—and interaction—of humans and animals that take center stage in his dramatic vignettes. Although sometimes serene and in harmony, often his forest actors are threatened or confrontational and the outcome is uncertain. The paintings are frequently deliberately ambiguous or open-ended as Munch acknowledges that there are opinions besides his own and that some of the issues he addresses will remain unresolved. He avoids moral dictums: “I want my works to stimulate conversation and to encourage a variety of viewpoints.” 

Munch’s paintings are deceptively simple. Since the early 1990s, he has shifted from a traditional realism to a linear, graphic style informed by comic books and commercial advertising. Bright colors, clearly defined lines, and bold, readable subjects are hallmarks of his current work. He eliminates unnecessary details and carefully composes each painting with the landscape as the principal backdrop for an unfolding narrative that often packs the visual punch of a graphic cartoon though with none of the inherent humor. 

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The exhibition will include seminal early works such as Blood Rain (1987), which deals with the effect of acid rain on the landscape, and Boundary Issues (2003), which crystallizes the relationship between man and nature, symbolizing the conflict that can arise when the lines between their domains become blurred. Hush (featured on the cover) acknowledges the common ground between humans and animals while also invoking the viewer to quiet attention. Munch’s largest and most recent work to date, Family Vigil (2018), finds the artist taking an extraordinarily optimistic and conciliatory approach to nature that suggests a Garden of Eden. Is this a vision of a lost past or a desired future? Viewers must decide for themselves

-from MOWA, link to the webpage

images courtesy of Abel Contemporary Gallery

Munch’s exhibition at MOWA has already generated some great press:

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Staff Pick: A Brief History of Dead Birds in Western Art

Yellow Throated Warbler , Jonathan Wilde

Yellow Throated Warbler, Jonathan Wilde

Jonathan Wilde, an artist much beloved for his picturesque landscapes and naturalistic wildlife paintings, often elicits an entirely other reaction from viewers of his postmortem avian portraits. Individuals retort abjectly to these dead feathered friends, wondering why on earth would someone portray such a morbid subject, especially someone who holds such clear reverence for life and all creatures? And, why on earth would someone collect these macabre scenes?

Here, I aim to shed some light on this rather dark subject matter. Dead birds have a long and rich history in Western Art History, having been used as a subject matter by artists from Pablo Picasso to Albrecht Dürer. Our contemporary distaste for this type of imagery is however not innate; in fact, humans have historically admired and even revered such images.

detail from Willem Van Aelst’s  Hunting Still Life  of 1665

detail from Willem Van Aelst’s Hunting Still Life of 1665

Though precedented far earlier, The Golden Age of Dutch Painting (during the 17th century) saw perhaps the most iconic rise of dead birds in Art. Owing both to the massive economic success of the Dutch Empire and the split between Northern Europe and the Catholic Church, artists and patrons increasingly turned to secular subjects. The newly wealthy Dutch merchant class invested in works that represented subject matter grounded in their own reality, emphasizing the overwhelming opulence now available to them. New pigments imported from China allowed for true-to-life depictions of the vivid hues and iridescence found in nature and Dutch artists relished the ability to manifest a whole new realm of color and light. Ventures to the Middle East and East Asia renewed already piqued interest in Falconry, leading several Dutch cities to rely on the sport so heavily that their economies became entirely dependent on birds. Although our modern tastes no longer include consuming songbirds, the delicacy’s popularity once rivaled larger game such as ducks and grouse. Furthermore, the delicate morsels provided an ideal subject for still life painting, an art form once viewed as the basest of genres which the Dutch elevated to near iconic status. Much like the decadent, ripe fruit and extravagant, sumptuous floral arrangements, the hapless fowl were transformed into stunning examinations of color, light and texture, and emblems of the Dutch Aristocracy.

Flamingo,  from “Birds of America,” John James Audubon

Flamingo, from “Birds of America,” John James Audubon

Celebrated American ornithologist and naturalist, John James Audubon, is best known for his extensive publication “Birds of America” which detailed over 700 species, 25 of which had never been identified prior. Life sized and painted in exquisite detail, these birds too hold a morbid secret— every single bird Audubon painted, he killed. Though less obvious in smaller species, his depictions of larger animals are often posed in bizarre and unnatural contortions, confined by the size of his canvas, their bodies manipulated with strings, pins, and wires. Sometimes shooting more than 100 birds in a day, Audubon, however, did not delight in killing. Of the practice he lamented "The moment a bird was dead… no matter how beautiful it had been in life, the pleasure of possession became blunted for me." The creatures’ deaths was a mere necessity of scientific and artistic observation.

We owe much of our modern sensibilities and attitudes towards animals to the Victorians. Spearheaded by Queen Victoria, the formation of RSPCA (the Royal Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) and the passing of a number of animal welfare acts mid-century demonstrated a drastic shift in human and animal relations. Once deemed synonymous with inanimate objects, all creatures suddenly gained anthropomorphic characteristics and were worthy of sympathy and Victorians sought to limit their pain and suffering. It may seem strange that holiday greeting cards during this period bore the images of dead birds; however, their presence was founded in the same contemporary ideals. These little slain birds were symbols intended to elicit sympathy for the less fortunate, and were even thought to bring luck to their recipients. These cards also served as memento mori (reminders of the inevitability of death) for the death obsessed Victorians who still held fast to their Christian hope of life after death.

Winter Birds , Jonathan Wilde

Winter Birds, Jonathan Wilde

In light of these anecdotes, let’s re-examine another work by Wilde. Winter Birds depicts a Dark Eyed Junco flanked by two Chirpping Sparrows strung up by one foot in an uncanny resemblance to “the Hanged Man” figure of the Tarot deck. These creatures met their demise upon colliding with a windowpane but are immortalized by Wilde’s reverent representation, as he sought to pay homage to their fate. Winter Birds is an exquisite object study, the mundane browns and grays of the bird’s plumage are pored over, ever feather meticulously rendered with splendor and precise observation. What is perhaps most startling about these dead birds, is their stark reality and variable discomfort that comes from finding visual pleasure in death. Such works cause us to question the boundaries between human and animal and reveal an inherent empathy many of us feel toward these creatures.

-Lauren Miller, Gallery Associate

Wild & Tame : Charles Munch

White Clouds  , oil on canvas, 30 x 30

White Clouds , oil on canvas, 30 x 30

We are all part of one world, one of resonances and harmonies, one of contradictions and conflicts. In our dichotomous existence, where does one draw the line between self and other, man and nature, wild and tame? These are the quandaries postulated in the works of Charles Munch.

Munch’s use of emotive color and expressive line is in many ways reminiscent of the French Fauvism, an art movement whose artists sought to radically demonstrate the innate emotional value of color and assert the visual power of the artist in manifesting an image beyond naturalistic representation to also encompass the artist’s inner world.  However, unlike these so-called Fauves, or “wild beasts,” Munch complicates this matter of representation by not seeking solely to represent his experience of the world, but also their intrinsic forms, evocations, and qualities. 

Munch engages in a type of reductive abstraction which transforms complex images into easily understandable visuals. His emphasis on surface, stripping away nonessential detail and distilling objects to their most simplified form, invites meditative introspection on the essential truths and questions posed in his paintings. Though his works are rooted in nature, or rather the experience of being in nature, they possess a dream-like, imaginative quality which allows for a universality that transcends natural law, space, and time. 

-Lauren Miller, Gallery Associate at Abel Contemporary Gallery


I first saw Charles Munch’s paintings in the Milwaukee Art Museum’s 1984 Wisconsin Directions 4 exhibition. I was immediately taken with what seemed to me a unique way of portraying figures and landscapes. By this time Charles had abandoned a carefully descriptive realist style of painting in favor of a search for abstractions, symbols, and signs, that would express his inner life.

Black Bear Falls,  oil on canvas, 44 x 34

Black Bear Falls, oil on canvas, 44 x 34

Since then he has continued to invent and refine visual equivalents for emotional states in pattern, color and narrative. In addition to Charles’ experience as a realist painter, he also had a long career as an art conservator specializing in museum quality paintings including those of the Dutch 17th century.  He has a deep knowledge of the history of picture making and this provides a grounding for the involved fantasies that may be the viewer’s first impression of his work. Color and pattern bloom and sometimes seem to want to burst out of control but structure is always there, skillful composition holds it all together. Luminous color, embedded in decorative design, lures us into narratives where figures, creatures, and landscape forms are actors in a dream space. Ambiguities abound, questions arise, sometimes risky business transpires, and frequently a quiet humor lurks.

These dream spaces are often patterned after the rolling landscape of the Wisconsin driftless region where Charles has lived and worked for many years. He is immersed in those woods and waters, and his highly cultured art is inspired by his life there, not by what is art-scene trendy. There is always something playful and wild in his paintings.  It seems somehow just right that Charles would live on Bear Valley Road!

-Randall Berndt

Randall Berndt is an accomplished Wisconsin artist and former assistant curator of the James Watrous Gallery and director of the Wisconsin Academy Gallery. He holds an MFA in painting from the University of Wisconsin - Madison and garners numerous awards and honors. 

Seeing II , oil on canvas, 16 x 22

Seeing II, oil on canvas, 16 x 22


Wild & Tame is available for viewing from 10-5 Tuesday-Sunday, through November 4th 2018.

Becoming an Art Collector Can Sneak Up on You

Becoming an Art Collector Can Sneak Up on You

Theresa Abel

Last week it was reported that the painting Past Times, by Kerry James Marshall, sold for $21.1 million to Sean Combs, music mogul and art collector. The same week Amedeo Modigliani’s 1917 painting Nu couché (Sur le côté gauche) sold for $157.2 million. Purchasing high-value work and donating large sums to museums are what most people picture when they think of art patronage. But what about those who live modest lives and still fill their homes with original art, visit museums and galleries regularly, and follow the careers of living artists? When does someone become an art collector?

I’m curious about people who value art for what it adds to their life more than its potential resale value. Did they grow up in art-filled homes? When did they begin buying original work? Do they have regrets? I sat down to talk with a few local art collectors to find out when art became important to them.

I met Rick and Kristen at my gallery when they came in to commission an artist to create a bespoke cabinet for Rick’s collection of Wendell Berry books. They live on Madison’s near west side and have filled their lovely bungalow with original paintings, sculpture, functional ceramics, and handmade furniture. When we get together, our conversations often revolve around travel, and their trips seem to prioritize visits to art museums and galleries. Even though their home is brimming with art, they surprisingly did not think of themselves as collectors until recently.

As a child, Rick was an altar boy exposed to the grandeur of art in the church. Although he grew up in a home devoid of art, an influential high-school teacher took him to theatre, ballet, and museums. Kristen’s first exposure may have been her grandmother’s amateur paintings and trips to the local art museum.

A college professor of Rick’s had original art in his home and sparked the realization that living with art had value. Over time, they met other friends who were not wealthy but had good art. It was inspiring. Visits to museums became a regular activity, but it was on a trip to Israel they purchased their first piece. Upon arriving home, they were surprised that framing the picture cost much more than the charcoal drawing itself. Kristen said from then on she wanted to spend more on art than framing. They continued to study, learning about art history while educating themselves about local artists and slowly adding works they loved and could afford.

When I asked if they had advice for people thinking about collecting, they mentioned building a relationship with a gallery whose aesthetic resonates with the collector. Good gallery staff will take the time to talk with you about artists they represent and art in general. And they can call you when new work arrives by artists you love so you get an opportunity to wait for just the right piece. Starting out this way is comfortable because you have confidence that the pricing is fair and the work is high quality. Rick and Kristen said once they learned more about art, their self-assurance grew and they were more willing to take risks. The only regrets are the pieces that got away. As Rick looks around his home, he says that being able to own art feels like a privilege.

I next visited the country home of Wanda and Byron, where quality of life in all things seems to be the prevailing philosophy. Their countryside home, southwest of Madison, has gorgeous views, which become wonderful backdrops for outdoor sculpture. Inside, their home is filled with a collection of art and antiques that can only be acquired with patience. Each piece has a story.

Byron and Wanda grew up in homes filled with framed family photos and handicrafts, such as needlepoints and decorative plates common in Pennsylvania Dutch Country, where they were raised. It was in adulthood they decided to be surrounded by lovely things, purchasing antiques and art when they could afford to. At least one of their early antiques was found abandoned on the curbside and refinished by Byron and Wanda themselves. They understood the inherent value in living with beautiful and interesting things early on. To paraphrase Byron, you can have another big-screen TV or you can have lovely art.

Byron finds the notion of being a collector kind of strange. He says he and Wanda did not decide to start collecting art, it just happened. The first time they realized they were considered collectors was when they saw a published image of an artist’s work they owned with the caption “in the collection of…”

Wanda and Byron have a lot in common with Rick and Kristen. They echo the idea of potential collectors finding a professional gallery they have faith in and where they feel a sense of community. They also do not regret any acquisitions other than the ones that got away. Byron recalls a print they wanted many years ago that was not very expensive but, at the time, they could not afford. Decades later he was able to track down one of the editions, and it now hangs in their home along with the other things they say make their life richer.

Being an art collector is so much more than being a patron. It’s finding something personal or familiar in a piece and injecting your ideas and persona into it. The value of having several pieces that carry a story or remind you of something personal is that you get to show off a side of yourself family and friends might have yet to meet. Perhaps even a side that leads to you better understanding who you are.

Theresa Abel is an artist and owner/director of the Abel Contemporary Gallery, a fine art and fine craft gallery in Paoli. She studied painting at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the Scuola Lorenzo de’ Medici, Florence Italy, receiving her BFA in 1991.

View additional photographs at homeelementsandconcepts.com .
photography by Eric Tadsen

Abel Contemporary Gallery 
6858 Paoli Road
Paoli, WI 53508
608.845.6600
abelcontemporary.com

Staff Pick: Unfinished Thoughts

Dreamlike, a summer pastoral landscape emerges through a haze of atmospheric light, as if conjured by our own vision.  Brushy suggestions of clouds meander across an otherwise ambiguous and aleatory sky while we stand at the edge of a field fading into scattered optical unconscious. This oil painting by Jonathan Wilde, exhibited in his current show with Craig Clifford entitled Birds and Boundaries, as its title suggests, is in name, unfinished. However, as it hangs framed on a white gallery wall, its name is a bit of a paradox.

Unfinished Thoughts, Jonathan Wilde, 17.5" x 28"

Unfinished Thoughts, Jonathan Wilde, 17.5" x 28"

Unfinished Thoughts belongs to a class of works that Art Historians call non finito, that is to say, intentionally left unfinished. Though the technique traditionally was used in sculpture during the Renaissance and Baroque periods, nineteenth-century artists during the Romantic era began applying the style to their paintings. Many scholars, myself included, argue that this quality signals the beginning of Modernism as we know it. 

Artists, especially painters, have historically struggled with the finishing their works. While Jacques-Louise David and Paul Cézanne embraced non finito works, deliberately leaving large areas unfinished or blank entirely, others, such as Claude Monet and Joseph Mallord William Turner, never felt their works were finished and rather continued to develop over their careers, returning again and again to paintings to make small additions here and there. These works represent the problem of infinite of possibility, finite time, and the possibility of over working (of which I am myself, a watercolor artist, acutely aware). Camille Pissarro even famously proclaimed that “[t]o finish a work, is to kill it.”

Non finito works are, at their core, experimental; we can see the artist’s process as he works out visual challenges— his thoughts leaving their mark across the canvas. I believe that works like Unfinished Thoughts hold a particular power as they insist the viewer actively participate; our inherently creative minds make sense of the “partial” image  by filling incomplete portions— we too become artists in our own right. Looking becomes making.

Q&A with Jonathan Wilde and Craig Clifford

Wilde's responses as they were sent to Abel Contemporary Gallery

Wilde's responses as they were sent to Abel Contemporary Gallery

Established Wisconsin artists, Craig Clifford and Jonathan Wilde, will be featured in an upcoming exhibit entitled Birds and Boundaries. We emailed these two with a few questions as to what we can expect to see in this exhibition of their newest works and their artistic processes— Clifford emailed his answers, while Wilde sent us a delightfully handwritten response on the back of a local library book sale flyer (see image).  

Throughout my art education I have become fascinated by artist notes in all forms: pieces of scrap paper half-discarded in the studio, new ideas both fleeting and overworked, and small notes never meant for eyes other than the artist's-- they all reveal an inner life often hidden from the public eye. However, I would suggest that these "answers" provide a greater insight into the artist than any type-faced, seriffed response. 

 

-Lauren Miller 

Craig Clifford,  Range

Craig Clifford, Range

Why did you decide to work in your chosen media?

CC: Clay works the way my mind works.  The material allows me to change course quickly, cut off a part and add a new part.  There isn't another material that looks like glaze.  The more times, I fire a piece the deeper and richer my colors get. I'm not great at measuring, but if I'm off somewhere clay is soft and I can fill the gap with another piece of clay.  My first ceramics class was in 1988 and I still learn new things about ceramics all of the time.

JW: I am attracted to oils mainly because of the strength of the colors, feel I can get more “umph”. As well I like how the  paint can be maneuvered for effect. Partially, they are easier to frame than works on paper which generally require mattes, glass, etc

How has your work changed over time?

CC: My work has always been sculptural in nature, but the main aspects of the pieces were functional; teapots mostly.  This body of work starts to move away from the functional object, although a couple of teapots still show up.  

JW: Technically I try to pay more attention to value changes, how they lend themselves to enhancing the subject matter

Jonathan Wilde,  Life Getting Easier , 25 x 37

Jonathan Wilde, Life Getting Easier, 25 x 37

 

What's the most indispensable item in your studio?

two of Clifford's favorite tools in his studio   

two of Clifford's favorite tools in his studio

 

CC: My favorite tool is a long nail cleaner, from a beauty shop (image attached).  I'm not even sure how I got the tool, maybe a student left the tool in class.  One end is pointy, but rounded, while the other end is flat, perfect for smoothing.  I've probably have had the tool for ten years and will go into a beauty supply store looking for for a replacement, but can only find the short ones.

JW: Most indispensable… Well I suppose Me! The usual— paint and brushes— good quality, being important. Speaking of brushes, an unusual “ingredient” I really like is “lard oil” which really helps to keep brushes in good form.

 

Is there an artist who has strongly influenced your work?

CC: Tony Marsh has influenced my work the most.  Tony was my undergraduate teacher, his work isn't anything like mine, but Tony taught me how to work and be an artist.  I look at a lot of artwork and take something from all of it, but there isn't really one person.

JW: Winslow Homer, Andrew Wyeth, Peter Poskas, Marc R. Hanson.

 

Can you tell us something noteworthy about your current work?

CC: It's hard for me to comment about the current body of work, I'm still in the making process.  This work is more narrative to me.  It's small, but there little bits of story spread out through the pieces.  I maybe the only person who is aware of these stories, because I make them up in my head as I make.  

JW: I feel I’m getting more “out of the paint,” or  at least I’m trying to push it. When it works it can be responsible for paintings that are closer to accomplishing what I set out to do/capture.

 

Birds and Boundaries opens Friday, April 20th 2018, please join us for an opening reception from 5-9pm with the artists  and light refreshments.

Staff Pick: Iceberg Jars

The death of a glacier is an ear-splitting event. A cacophonous chorus of moans, groans, shrieks and wails accompanied by rounds of shotgun cracks create a deafening atmosphere unlike anything else on earth. These death rattles are the loudest natural phenomenon—louder than volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and thunderstorms combined. However, sound cannot travel in a vacuum, like that contained in a bell jar, a vessel which became immensely popular for the display of taxidermy and other curiosities during the Victorian era. Richard Jones’s Iceberg Jars, part of the Abel Contemporary Gallery’s Water exhibition, play with the imminent reality that glacial ice, due to man’s interactions with the environment, will soon become such a curiousity.

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The Iceberg Jars are reminiscent of biological specimens in a natural history collection, preserved for study so that future generations may study these bygone relics. Their striking beauty is bittersweet and in their viewing one is confronted with a mix of emotions: awe, loss, veneration, introspection, a desire to touch something so transient, fragile, and breakable. Upon lifting their lids and reaching in to feel the glistening texture of the exposed tip of the iceberg, one discovers the surprising weight of the sculpture which invites further investigation after the realization that the inner “berg” may be lifted out to enable functional use (I envision these as fantastic ice buckets and imagine watching the ice melt down around the inner piece, dripping down along the long contours of submerged half of the iceberg, and pooling at the base of the jar). 

 

 

-Lauren Miller

Staff Pick: Scene of the Crime

Rounding the leaden door of the so-called “Cooler” gallery, we are transported, like Alice down the rabbit hole, into a world in which our existence is diminutive in the presence of an enormous severed string of pearls. Of course, the sensation of being made small by a work of art is nothing new, evoking the sublime often being the artist’s goal. However, in the case of Lisa Gralnick’s Scene of the Crime, what dwarfs the viewer is not only the colossal sculpture, but rather the act which created this spectacle and our interactions with the piece. 

Pearls are the world’s oldest gems, found among the tombs of Egyptian queens, referenced in ancient Chinese texts, and imbedded in Greek jewelry. Before the discovery of modern cultivation techniques, pearls were both financially and, at times, legally out of the reach of anyone not of royal or noble blood. Functioning as symbols of the wearer’s purity, piousness, and often femininity, strings of pearls often stand in for their iconic owners, Coco Channel, Jackie Kennedy, Grace Kelly and Marge Simpson to name a few. 

Curiously, from their conception, pearls are products of irritation— being formed by particles covered in layer upon layer of a crystalline substance excreted by their mollusk craftsmen. Gralnick’s work is also seeded by a similar punctum. The gesture of tearing off one’s pearls— be it by one’s own hand in a fit of hysteria, like the femme fatale staring in a film noir, or by an assailant, as in the case Bruce Wayne (Batman)’s Mother’s tragic demise— is a trope of climactic rejection of their emblematic affluence. 

Scene of the Crime poses the viewer in the position of witness, or perhaps investigator, of such a dramatic and pivotal episode. The larger than life evidence imbues the claustrophobic “Cooler Gallery” with echoing and inescapable lines of questioning: “What happened here?”; “Who has done this?”; and “Why?” A single matching pearl stud lays discarded near the exit, its partner no where to be found— hinting that the owner escaped the Scene of the Crime and still is at large. 

-Lauren Miller

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About the author: Lauren is the newest addition to the Abel Gallery, bringing with her a BA with Honors and two years of PhD work from the University of Wisconsin— Madison in Art History and Visual Cultures; several years of curatorial and exhibition work for the Chazen Museum of Art, the James Watrous Gallery, and the Ebling Library; and an unrelenting enthusiasm for the Arts. She engages with interdisciplinary topics running the gamut from nineteenth-century spiritualist photography and victorian sorcery, to phenomenological examinations of Cézanne and his contemporaries, to early anatomical texts.

Madison Essentials - A Farmer at Heart, A Printmaker at Hand

The latest issue of Madison Essentials had a lovely feature on S. V. Medaris, a painter and printmaker represented by the gallery. Read the article below, and see her work at the gallery!

A Farmer at Heart, a Printmaker at Hand

"I think we are slowly losing our tie to the land, as the percentage of people who live in the country is much smaller than times past." Hearing S.V. (Sue) Medaris, you wouldn't expect her to be a printmaker. She's so enamored with her muses that you almost miss the way she chooses to honor them.

Home Elements and Concepts - Creating Art Pt. II

"Meaningful art is an important part of our society. You may purchase art for the joy it brings and to enhance your home’s interior, but it also helps support artists so that they can devote themselves to their craft. How does one become an artist and how is art priced? In my last article, I explained how one becomes an artist through formal education and practical experience followed by the challenge to create a professional and consistent body of work. The final steps include getting the work from the studio to exhibition, then hopefully to being purchased. "

-Theresa Abel

Read the rest of the article by following the link below.

Creating Art Part II

Meaningful art is an important part of our society. You may purchase art for the joy it brings and to enhance your home's interior, but it also helps support artists so that they can devote themselves to their craft. How does one become an artist and how is art priced?

Gerit Grimm turns ceramic figures into storytellers

Diane M. Bacha, Special to the Journal SentinelPublished 9:30 a.m. CT Dec. 18, 2017

(Photo: Courtesy of MOWA)

(Photo: Courtesy of MOWA)

Most of us know figurines as ornamental trinkets. They’re diminutive, breakable, and invariably sentimental. Modern-day iterations are often angels and fairies, rosy-cheeked children and big-skirted princesses.

I’ve never been a figurine collector, but I’ve been thinking about them a lot since viewing Gerit Grimm’s ceramic sculptures at the Museum of Wisconsin Art.

Grimm, who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is a meticulous and accomplished ceramicist. Her work reflects an accumulation of influences and interests that date back to her childhood in the former German Democratic Republic, her years as a production potter, and her early fascination with the California Funk ceramic movement. She is a voracious consumer of art history and a determined boundary-pusher at the potter’s wheel.

Her calling card is a method of creating figures and tableaus by fusing pottery and sculpture. Grimm begins with wheel-thrown pots that might become a torso or a skirt, a tree trunk or a boat hull. On to these foundational shapes she layers delicate and telling details that give each a story to tell.

“Gerit Grimm’s Fairytales: In a Time Neither Now Nor Then,” curated by MOWA’s Graeme Reid, fills the changing-exhibits gallery with the results of this painstaking process. Seven groupings of figurative ceramic sculpture are installed to easily accommodate 360-degree viewing. All are rendered in the unglazed, stone-brown clay Grimm has been working with exclusively since 2011.

Walking through the exhibit can feel like a stroll through an enchanted forest populated by characters from – as the exhibit’s title implies – a book of fairy tales. (That Grimm shares a last name with the famous storytelling brothers is a delicious coincidence.) But the “fairy tales” label, rich as it is, risks putting Grimm’s sculptures into too small a box.

Her inspiration springs from a stew of classical mythology, Biblical stories, folklore, Renaissance paintings, children’s books, and decorative crafts among many others. In describing her work, she has referenced dolls, puppets, and the theatrical traditions of commedia dell’arte. Her earlier work – colorful, highly glazed, and smaller in scale – hearken to Meissen figurines of porcelain shepherdesses and gentlemen. To this she adds her own lived experiences and interests (she tango dances and sails in her spare time).

The MOWA show spans seven years of Grimm’s output. It is populated by villagers, peddlers, children, lovers, boaters, mourners, a nobleman, a bride, an executioner, and an alchemist. They play out scenes from the Bible, Greek mythology, folklore, and Grimm’s own imaginative (and often witty) re-interpretations of all the above.

Gerit Grimm's "Entombment" (2017) at the Museum of Wisconsin Art in West Bend. Grimm's art fuses pottery and sculpture.  (Photo: Courtesy of MOWA)

Gerit Grimm's "Entombment" (2017) at the Museum of Wisconsin Art in West Bend. Grimm's art fuses pottery and sculpture. (Photo: Courtesy of MOWA)

“Wedding Procession of Psyche” (2015) is a scene from Greek mythology in which the doomed bride is surrounded by attendants, some carrying bouquets and others sheathed in funeral attire. “Fountain” (2011), which evokes the centerpiece of a village square, is seething with frolicking couples and fish spitting water. In a series of four trees (2011-'15), Grimm tells stories about gloom, happiness, love, and community by festooning each tree with mothers and babies, couples and lovers, children at play and adults at work. Elsewhere we see a horse-dawn carriage, a monument to an 18th century ceramics patron, an assembly-line of beauty-salon body parts, and mythology’s Ulysses encountering sirens.

 

It’s easy to greet this exhibit, at first, as a collection of dolls and puppets. Grimm plays with that first impression, then upends it. Seeing puppet-like figures chop off a head (“Guillotine,” 2012) and doll-like characters carry a corpse (“Entombment,” 2017) is our first clue that something else is going on here. Three of her sculptures are life-sized, looking us straight in the eye. We notice, too, that the garments are from no distinct era, which plays with our sense of time and setting.

This upending also has much to do with the astonishing results Grimm coaxes from her medium, imbuing each figure with a sometimes haunting, sometimes humorous sense of presence. Hand gestures, facial expressions, even the eye contact between figures are magically expressive. These details add complexity to the stories each character tells. Along with the absence of color, Grimm is renegotiating her relationship – and ours – with the ubiquitous ceramic figurine.

We can see that relationship evolving. In her most recent works, Grimm’s pots take on more qualities of fabric, revealing the movement of limbs beneath. The detailing is more sparse, and a subtle note of abstraction is introduced. Her “Sirens” (2016-'17) squirm in their Martha Graham-like garments – are they trying to extract themselves, or conveying a message? It’s a universal human-vs.-wardrobe tussle choreographed so artfully your eye keeps returning to the dance.

The most recent sculptures are installed at the back of the gallery: five groupings depicting the crucifixion and entombment of Christ (2017). They are more distilled and, to my eye, more intensely felt. After her father’s unexpected death in 2016, Grimm found herself turning to the topics of mourning and grief by using, as usual, age-old symbols as touchstones. Her “Lamentation” is suffused with tender sadness. Her “Pieta” merges an animated figure with a clumsy, lifeless one, in a sobering juxtaposition of love and loss.

Even setting aside subject matter, this exhibit begins on a lighthearted note and slowly insinuates an unsettling theme. Grimm is aware that there’s an awkwardness to her figures. The tension created by joining high and low themes is a conscious one for her. It’s as if she’s rescuing the figurine from its enslavement to coyness and decoration, which disrupts accepted and long-held associations.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many of her figures recount stories about women, especially women under duress. Grimm’s female figurines have grown up, found their own voice, and are much less delicate than their antecedents. Despite initial appearances, you have to take them seriously.

“Gerit Grimm’s Fairytales” is on view through Jan. 7 at the Museum of Wisconsin Art, 205 Veterans Ave., West Bend. For more information, visit www.wisconsinart.org.

Diane M. Bacha is editorial director at Kalmbach Publishing Co. and a former arts editor.

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