Charles Munch

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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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.