Exhibition Review of ‘This is Bliss’: Jon Horvath at The Alice Wilds, Milwaukee (updated!)

Jon Horvath at The Alice Wilds

Milwaukee artist and teacher Jon Horvath opened a moving and complex exhibition last night, his first with The Alice Wilds – one of the newest galleries in town, whose roster of artists and well-curated shows have already made it a destination.

Horvath’s story goes something like this: about four years ago the artist found himself driving through Idaho, and could not help but exit when an interstate highway sign read “Bliss.” What he found is a town with a rich and complex history – part of the Oregon Trail and first railroad system in the continental US, an inspirational space for Ansel Adams, Evel Knievel, and J.D. Salinger – now mostly abandoned and forgotten. All that is left, Horvath explains, is “one school, one church, two bars and two gas stations” serving about 300 residents.

Jon Horvath at The Alice Wilds

On first entering the exhibition, we encounter the hand-written-esque sign pictured above (top), setting up a tension between celebration and critique: for what once was, for what currently is, for the potential of what is yet to come. Bliss’ story, we understand almost immediately, is the story of America: its promise and its loss, our nostalgia for possibilities which are still possible but further away, our regret for the halt – nay, backwards movement – in progress.

The first room, then (second picture, above – click for large view), is a portrait of portraits, moments and places, people and objects, caught over four visits Horvath paid to the town of Bliss in the months that followed. He learned much of Bliss’ lore in conversation with a resident who was watering a patch of corn in his garden, on his first trip, and consequently collaborated with other Bliss-dwellers on follow-up narratives and images.

This room is by far the strongest on the exhibition. Horvath’s eye is refined and subtle, where he cares for and is generous with his subjects, conveying both pride and humility, hope and not-yet defeat. Each image, and their installation together, moves and is moving, invites us not to look on as voyeurs, but rather see ourselves in the photos, as part of them and that life, here and now.

In transition from this room to the back (a much more intimate space, which I will write about in a moment) is a series of painterly or graphic boards with inspirational quotes from the likes of Albert Einstein and Helen Keller. I’ll admit, I wonder what their significance was, specifically in relation to Bliss and its story. I found them to be interesting and inspirational, yes, but also a bit overdetermined in relation to the rest of the exhibition, which was more subtle and thoughtful. Perhaps that was Horvath’s point? Maybe they were ironic? He is too smart of an artist to dismiss this series as simply “off-topic,” or “failed,” so I welcome feedback in the comments, if anyone has them. They make me think, and ask questions… is that enough? I’m going to reach out to Horvath, and will follow-up if and when I hear back. (His response now below!)

From Jon Horvath, via email to me:

Happy to address your questions about the paintings, as I fully acknowledge how they may appear like an unusual departure from many of the other works in the project.

The paintings are given the broader title of “Senior Class Quotes.”  On the second day of my first visit to Bliss in 2014 I was invited to attend the high school’s graduation (I was quickly and warmly introduced to the town by the local residents).  That year, Bliss graduated a total of seven students and at the graduation ceremony was a digital slide show that contain[ed] inspirational quotes selected by each of the graduates.  As you touched on in the article, themes of idealism and the failed/unexpected outcomes that are often close behind are very present in the larger Bliss project.  So, for me, I wanted to take the occasion to honor the hopefulness of these graduates at a critical transition point in their lives by turning the digital slides into something more concrete in the form of the paintings.  The background imagery of each painting is a close recreation of the graphic imagery that each student used within the video editing software.

So while the paintings do possess the possibility of some irony, I’m less interested in concentrating my efforts on that and more so attempting to honor this moment of sincere thoughtfulness on the part of the graduates.

The last room felt like it was more about Horvath’s personal relationship with Bliss, and is for this reason my favorite on exhibition. Look at that relationship between hair and water, above. Just look at it. Better yet, go to the exhibition and spend time with. I stared at it for quite a while, with wonder.

An artist book (which I purchased), a photo catalog, receipts from his diner visits, some bottles and trees… This was where I briefly chatted pleasantries with the artist while my daughter ate cookies. But I was admittedly distracted by the imagery around me, and eventually told Horvath I had to spend time with it.

You should, too. Both ‘This is Bliss’ and The Alice Wilds are very much worth your time.

This is Bliss is on view at The Alice Wilds in Walker’s Point from September 15 through October 21, 2017.

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