Review: The Shape of Things to Come, Karin Haas, Harvey Opgenorth, and Keith Nelson at Galerie Kenilworth

Nine Sages of Images, Harvey Opgenorth

Though I missed the inaugural show at Galerie Kenilworth, I was quite pleased to make it to their second exhibition, The Shape of Things to Come. The gallery itself is a cool story. Amy Brengel owns the building, lives in the flat above, and had Village Bazaar – selling interesting multicultural jewelry and gifts – in the space below for years. But, with the East Side (my neighborhood!) changing, “growing up a bit,” she decided that it might be time to fill it with an exhibition space. And Brengel signed on none other than Jessica Steeber to manage it. A veteran of the art world (who gave me my first ever Milwaukee exhibition!), Jessica was half of the Armoury Gallery / Fine Line Magazine team (with Cassandra Smith) in the late 2000s and early 20-teens, and the main reason I wanted to make it out tonight – and I’m glad I did.

Nine Sages of Images (detail), Harvey Opgenorth

The Shape of Things to Come is a beautiful exploration of, well, matter – and why it matters. It is a minimalist show, to be sure, in that it invokes non-representational shapes (Haas, below), and textures (Ogpenorth, above), and materials (Nelson), asking us to focus in on in how we perceive (and thus act), when there are no recognizable “signs” to “read.” This exhibition has us, rather, think-with process, and relation, and bodies in space (both human and non-human).

But, The Shape of Things to Come is also a more contemporary revisiting of Minimalism, in that it is not only about phenomenology – a human perception or experience. Here, shelves, or concrete, or wood, for example, are themselves uncomfortable. They are twinned yet their own. They are mean or light, funny or jarring; they tell their own stories, whether or not we are listening.

Untitled (Shelving), Keith Nelson

What is that sphere thinking? Why is that shelf holding on? Where are those fibers going? Idle, weird, rhetorical questions, maybe… but also worth asking. What does our world want, and are we doing right by it?

Untitled (Diptych) and Untitled (Diptych) by Keith Nelson

My two favorite pieces on show are both called Untitled (Diptych), and by Keith Nelson. Gray concrete and gray concrete. Natural, shellacked wood and natural, shellacked wood. Each half is, described that way, identical. But even the image above shows how different the twins are. Minor shifts in color and shape, in space and shadow, are… annoyingly jarring. A diptych is always meant to be inherently in tension. I feel this tension more and more, the more time I spend staring at how off-kilter, and unshapely, and simply distracting these “same-things” are in their difference.

What else can concrete and earth, wood and trees, tell us in their sameness and difference? It is worth sincere consideration.

Galerie Kenilworth is at 2201 N Farwell Ave Milwaukee, and open Tuesday – Friday 3 – 7pm, Saturdays 12 – 4pm. The Shape of Things to Come is on show until the new year.

Review: Greg Martens’s Out From the Darkness at Grove Gallery

Greg Martens holds a very special place in my heart.

He was a traveling salesman who dropped out of college and married the love of his life with whom he raised three children, eventually becoming a cobbler out in Wauwatosa, WI – where his whole family helped fix shoes in their busy little shop. At the age of 46, Martens was diagnosed with very aggressive bone marrow cancer, and given two years to live. He shut down his store, proclaimed the love his family certainly already felt, said his goodbyes, and prepared for what he was told would surely come. At the 11th hour, he was offered an extremely experimental surgery that “may or may not work,” and figured, “It can’t get any worse.” After several surgeries, transplants, being in and out of the hospital all the time, financial ruin to the point of bankruptcy, and foreclosure… Greg went into remission. He was given, he has told me many times, a new lease on life. Literally.

And then? He went back to school to study visual art.

ink on paper self-portrait by Greg Martens

This is when I met Gregory Martens: as a non-traditional, working class, undergraduate printmaker in his fifties, happy, and making, and chatting almost all the time – dedicated to telling the stories of machinists, cobblers, and his blue collar peers, all performing their livelihood, and finding their place in the New American System. I watched and participated as he finished that degree, and then a Masters, exploring everything from celebratory woodcut portraits of his fellow Milwaukutians (I am told that this is not a word, but I am going to use it because I like it better than Milwaukeean) to photography and storytelling around his own journey with illness. He now teaches printmaking part-time in the Peck School of Arts at UW-Milwaukee, and works in his own Hip Joint Press studio.

“Out From the Darkness,” Greg’s solo exhibition, recently premiered at Grove Gallery – run by current UWM grad student and entrepreneur, Adam Beadel of Team Nerd Press. According to the artist, the “darkness” he is coming out of (and I’ll admit I have some mixed feelings about this) “refers to letting go of the influences and pressures of academic training” (ha!), as he is “just trying to channel the teenaged kid back in the 1970’s who loved drawing for endless hours while listening to rock and roll on the 8-track.”

update! The artist emailed me, re:above

Regarding the theme of my show, “Out from the darkness” using “darkness” to describe academic training and influence does seem a bit counter-intuitive, but ever since I entered the art world as a maker, the brass ring has been the New York market, Art Basel, and Documenta. Global, intellectual, heady ideas shaped into visual brilliance. Work worthy of the attention of Artforum, Art in America, and Hal Foster. Work that demonstrates a fully realized appreciation, mastery, and relevant commentary of art history, art theory, and art criticism. But aspiring (and failing) to reach these heights left me in a dark place. The heart of it all for me is drawing, and upon reflection, my purest experience drawing was as a long-haired “freak” in high school in the mid 1970’s. So, I have tried to recreate that experience in my studio and the results are the work in this exhibition. No strategy, no expectations, no pressure.

In Distractions, above, we see the artist on an accordion, behind a drum set and guitar, a baby (his grandkid?), monsters, and skeletons, and more. He is in front of a library, and beside a poster for a production (his studio, maybe?)… but that studio is on the move, transporting good(s) via truck. Honestly, his distractions and work both sound a lot more fun than my own bureaucratic, academic emailing and paperwork; heck, I’m having more fun writing about his distractions, and I suppose blogging is one of mine.

As is his usual, odd and graphic style, there is a combination of homage and darkness in all the drawings, paintings, prints, and sketchbooks-as-anthologies on show, which depict, he says, “demons, comics, snakes, skeletons, monsters, crying babies, bad boys, and cool cars,” with a sense of often political humor.

Sadly, I only made it out to Martens’ exhibition today, the last day – and there was some confusion about gallery hours… so the above shot is the utterly glorious window, and I was able to view only this and what I could see beyond, as well as what is on the two sites linked to above. But it, along with what I already know, is enough to recommend curators and galleries consider his work, and artists and art appreciators visit his site, or any other upcoming exhibitions (he’s also got a few pieces on permanent view on the ground floor of the Engineering building at UWM – where I helped to arrange some purchases!). And… definitely speak with him (or Adam about his gallery and print shop!) if you get the chance. Greg is an inspirational person and artist!

Sketching: The World After Us, speculative media sculptures

This blog post is a sketch – something I will occasionally do about my own work, or with others. It will always be a thinking-with of new materials and ideas, with this one coming out of the writing of my forthcoming second book (Ecological Aesthetics: artful tactics for humans, nature, and politics), chats with colleagues and peers and specialists, playing with media objects, proposing a fellowship (I didn’t get), and more. I welcome feedback! I imagine this particular proposal being a years- and perhaps decades-long project, with this first exhibition being produced over the next two or so years… The images are very recent experiments!

THE WORLD AFTER: US SPECULATIVE MEDIA SCULPTURE

What will Digital Media do, after us?

Galaxy (yes, the phone)

The World After Us will be a new series of media sculptures that materially speculate on what our devices – phones and tablets, batteries and displays, etc – might become, over thousands or millions of years. Through research, experimentation, and craft, I will try (and likely fail) to turn phones into crude oil, coal, or other fossil fuels – and put the results on exhibit, in beakers and tubes. I will attempt to mimic geological time, as pressure and heat – through chemical interactions or specialized machinery – on laptops and tablets, then display where that potential lies, as petrified-like LCDs or mangled post-exploded batteries, on pedestals in a gallery. I hope to turn “dead media” computers into efficient planters for edible goods, food for mold, or seeds of their own growth – and show both those experiments, and their results, as videos and sculptural forms. I will also turn ground phones into usable supplies, for example ink and paper, and put them to use in these new forms. The final outcome will be an internationally exhibited body of work, and catalog. It is impossible for humans to truly fathom our planet on an Earth scale, or conversely from the perspective of bacteria. But we can feel such things, through art and storytelling – making our aesthetic encounters both conceptually and ethically vital toward new futures. At stake, whether in our everyday interactions or on a larger scale, are the (digital) relationships between humans and the natural world on the one hand, between politics and commerce on the other.

The World After Us will be a traveling exhibition and catalog, beginning in Milwaukee, and shown in several other spaces internationally. It asks:

What will digital media be and do, after us?
What will my laptop, or phone, look like in a million years?
How will our devices weather over time?
Can we artificially weather our devices, to sense and feel this?

Torch phone (yes, literally)

These are not rhetorical questions. But they are more speculative than they are able to be answered directly and correctly. And with this research project, I will speculate and experiment, wonder and wander, with our materials. I will (safely) mix phones in blenders, press laptops under steamrollers, break down tablets with borax. I will soak iPads in chlorine and sludge, cook iPhones like cakes, inject the Apple Watch with spores and mold. Torch, grind, freeze, flower. Highlight, amplify, ironize, intervene. Resiutate, speculate, wonder, and propose.

Can we use biofuel processes or hydrothermal liquefaction to turn a phone into fuel?
How might a laptop make the most efficient planter, or bed for life?
What would a tablet made of carbon, instead of plastic, be and do?
What does a joule feel like?

Geological time and Earth size, decomposition and regrowth: these are concepts we can comprehend rationally, but they are impossible to truly fathom. I propose that we can feel such things, aesthetically and thus ethically, if we substantiate future potential, artfully, in objects and installations. My experimental project will do precisely this. It will take the form of between eight and 15 objects or installations that might be: beakers of coal- or oil-like matter labelled with the device they once were (ie iPhone 7); laptops growing spores and mold, propagating life in new and different ways; participatory machines that take our energy and convert it into media; new designs for carbon-based phones, which will more easily decompose over time; prints made entirely of media devices: image, ink, paper, etc… These objects will be accompanied by the stories and experiments that produced them (text, image, video), as well as an essay which mediates the research as a whole.

Some relevant reading (not including my not-yet-released book!):

Review: Attempts at a Unified Theory, Sheila Held at Green Gallery, Milwaukee

On The Ferry (from the Women and Water series) 2015. Wool, silk and metallic weft on cotton warp. 61 x 38 inches

I first met Sheila Held at a panel presentation I gave in 2014, and she invited me to her studio / home in Wauwatosa for dinner shortly thereafter. I bring this up precisely because of how inviting she and her work – the latter entirely comprised of narrative-alluding and large-scale tapestries – are, in their combination of art, artfulness, and (sometimes cutting political) philosophy on the one hand, an invitation of dialog, friendship, or even maternal kindness on the other. Her studio, too, is a kind of wondrous binary of new technologies and old world charm.

A mature but still emerging artist, Held’s process is fun and intriguing. She says she is not the best illustrator, but she spends evenings drawing with colored pencils anyhow, a mode of thought and generative production. Her images, however, begin from magazine spreads or photographs, where she scans them in and layers them as collage-forms that imply stories around water and people, science and magic, spirituality and the environment. She just… plays until she has something she likes, then enlarges the images to the size she wants (though at much lower resolution, so that the pixels become where she can work with yarn).

The space she does this in is almost the opposite of my own. Whereas I have computers and equipment everywhere, and a big open space for projection and interactivity, her computer is tucked in a corner, and a huge loom, uh… looms over you, wherever you go. It is a horizontal rather than upright loom, meaning the back of each tapestry she is working on is up, where Held cannot see the front, and she works on a lot of”faith” that her images will come out right – all the more scary, given that the pieces take months to produce.

And this, too, is a part of her work: time. Where so much of arts discussions these days are around relationality and participation, ephemerality and waste, Held points to signification and precision, monumentality and the sacred.

Eve and Lillith Do the Snake Dance (from the Origins series), 2017. Wool and silk weft on cotton warp.
61 x 39 inches

Attempts at a Unified Theory spans more than 20 years of work, from 1995 through to Eve and Lillith Do the Snake Dance, which was “fresh off the loom,” as Sheila told me. And they are, in a word, lush. John Riepenhoff, curator at the Green Gallery, says he really appreciates the painterly quality of Held’s work, that it has managed to rekindle his own interest in showing more contemporary art forms that are traditionally thought of as craft (he specifically names fibers and ceramics here).

In her latest work, Eve and Lilith (the latter Adam’s first wife) happily and sensuously dance together, in the center of the piece, surrounded by snakes and… are those prawns or grasshoppers? The “first two women” could be flapper girls, and they have not a care, nor a man, in their world. They brought their own snakes, after all… It feels celebratory of women’s rights and the ownership of their own bodies – in more ways than one – and playful around a personal politics that must take precedence over the country’s.

Sheila Held
Sacred Cow (from the Seductions series), 2006 Wool weft on cotton warp
38 x 48 inches

One of my favorites on the show, Sacred Cow, has almost nothing recognizable within it, and that is precisely its charm. To painstakingly spend so much time and energy producing a woven tapestry of abstract forms, alongside stories and histories from myth and legend and the bible, all a part of the rest of the exhibition, makes its affective appeal all the more potent.

And my partner’s favorite is at the top of this post: three women carrying pots on their heads across the water, trapped on their water boats, yet still implicitly moving across our visual field. It again has a sense of celebration and critique, and hails from Held’s Women and Water series. So, we should ask, what about women and water? Is this of interest because they are both fertile and life-giving? Dangerous yet inviting? Resonant, dispersing, self-propelling, and persistent? Fourteen works in all, there are so many stories to share and tell.

Sheila Held’s solo exhibition, Attempts at a Unified Theory, is at Green Gallery East until November 18th. The gallery is open Wednesday – Saturday, 2 – 6 pm.

After Gallery: a new kind of space between Riverwest, the East Side, Downtown, and Bronzeville

Vaughan Larsen at After Gallery

It is common for a teacher to learn things from his or her students, especially in the fields of contemporary and/or digital art, which are constantly shifting and changing how we think and act, between everyday culture and high- and low-, and those who make, break, and take that culture. Most recently, UWM photo student Vaughan Larsen – an Imagining America fellow, who has taken two participatory art courses with me, and is an all-around fascinating person – has taught me about some of the more interesting goings-on in my home city of Milwaukee (since 2008!). Specifically, he pointed me to After Gallery, where he was showing Peers, his series of public self-portraits exhibited as part of a group show, to celebrate the launch of After Magazine Vol. 4. Yes, that’s a mouthful; and it’s only a fraction of what the folks over at After have been doing since their launch, just five short months ago.

First, let’s talk space and vibe. With the tag line “Art, Community, Collaboration,” After Gallery is a breath of fresh air in terms of how diverse and welcoming of an environment it is. I got there just as things were getting started, 7pm on a Friday, and, although parking on Humboldt just below North isn’t the easiest, it felt neighborly – especially with several signs inviting folks in, and the Barbie cars out front (apparently from a kids’ race a few weeks before). As soon as I entered, Flow Johnson, the gallery owner and director, greeted me with a warm handshake, invited my son to watch movies in the basement, asked me to look around, enjoy the music, and make myself at home. I brought Jack downstairs, where there were kids both sleeping and playing, other artists chatting – the latter immediately introducing themselves to me as Nate and Natalie.

Back upstairs a few minutes later, there was already a crowd, Jack began playing with two dogs in the space, and I started a chat with Darius Smith about After Magazine (we were later joined by their female intern, a student at MIAD whose name escapes me at the moment – if you know it, put it in the comments and I’ll edit!). This is “a submission based artist magazine with a focus on music, art, fashion, lifestyle and social justice. [They] provide a platform for emerging artists, locally and nationwide, and ask them to share how their environment has helped shape their vision.” At $25 it is a bit pricey, but wow, it is beautiful. I bought it both to show support, and just to have it. Flow re-joined the conversation, and handed me some flowers from Flowers for Dreams, a Chicago-based company that donates 35% of its profits to charity. My partner loved them when I got home. Score.

Originally meant to be a group show, only Larsen and Johnson were on display, which was a bit disappointing. But the work was strong. Larsen is somewhat androgynous in his personal style – to the point where I had to ask his preferred pronoun early in our interactions – and takes self-portraits in public places. Rather than either hiding or flashing his identity, Larsen seems to take pride and revel in his and his surroundings’ awkwardness. The images are charming and fun, and make us laugh at ourselves in how we look and see, act and are.

Johnson’s work is a bit more diverse. Drawings and nudes, children making faces… I think he designed the After t-shirts, too. It matches the space: fun, interesting, inviting. His collaboration with Jenna Knapp is especially clever and intriguing, giving me warm fuzzies around how I interact with others, versus how I wish I did. I think on this as the music starts to blare,  a diverse group is having fun, and there’s so much more going on than I had expected when I ventured out earlier in the evening simply to support a student. Zines and chap books, fashion and mixers, games and play. Seriously, check out their web site. If anything, After Gallery may be trying to do too much. Not to say it can’t be all it wants to be – it already is, in how inviting of a space it feels like, in how a middle-aged man like me can arrive with his son early, and others can stay late and party. But rather, with so much programming, it’s a lot to manage, and a lot can go wrong this early on. Which is to say: be forgiving if things are late or imperfect (like… a group show that winds up being a duo!). New art spaces that last in Milwaukee are few and far between, especially run by young people of color, and they deserve our support. Like they say on their web site: it is our space as much as it is theirs.

After Gallery is at 2225 N. Humboldt in River West, and is open every day but Sunday, from noon-7 (later for openings).

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.