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.