Artist feature: Shane Walsh, Milwaukee-based painter

ROCOCO BEATBOX, Shane Walsh

Shane Walsh is a friend and colleague I used to share an office with, and we’ve even shared a beverage once or twice (OK, twice. Once hot, once cold). He is a teacher and artist I respect greatly as a peer at UWM – he is in Painting and Drawing, while I mostly teach in Digital Studio Practice – and so I feel like this post has been a long time coming (er… well, I only restarted my blog recently, but you know what I mean).

That said, Shane’s work is kind of amazing.

Something often coveted but almost never fully realized in contemporary art – and especially painting – is a balance between abstraction and representation, a way to play out affective tones and modulations, or gestures and resonances on the one hand (think Rothko, Pollock, or Twombly), while still engaging with perfect mimetic copies of the real world on the other. Where and when do you play between easy recognition and subjective internalization? And Walsh’s attempts at this question are smart, funny, and overall, extremely effective.

Shane Walsh, recent work (2017)

What looks like photocopies, or smeared ink, or a photoshop “find edges” filter, or cut outs, or watercolor, or dozens of other media… is always paint. In other words, Walsh is producing what appear to be abstract images in pen and pencil, frivolous gestures with machinery, and / or coded or other media forms; but each is actually painstakingly and perfectly representational: of one medium (actually, several of the aforementioned) by another (paint). The results accomplish a strong and strange duality, where I am moved, first, by the compositions and what they feel like, and then again by their histories: the craftsmanship and irony, the detail with which Shane paints faux frivolity, the performance that is both the painting and Shane’s practice, and overall the core history of Painting’s (yes, it’s a capital “P”) continuous forms, all at once.

Walsh’s newer work is all in black and white, calling even more attention to the early 20th century’s obsession with photographic influence on painting (as material and practice), as well as to early video art, lithography, and “the office,” but his earlier works in the trajectory, too, show a similar old/new, abstract/real, celebration/critique tension that is humorous and charming, while never losing site of how painting is and always will be at the center of every discussion of critical art, contemporary or otherwise. So when Shane paints sculptures, or digital art, or what look like geometric paper landscapes, they are always with a self-reflection on who he is, how he works, and what is at stake in “representation,” or the lack thereof, when working with his medium/discipline.


His newest black and white work, above, feels even more like “traditional” abstract expressionism in its gestures and forms, without some of the grids from his last few shows. But on closer inspection (left), we see what seems like it must be the photoshop line/paint tool, what should be a dry brush, a scraper, paint drippings, ink, watercolor… but all of them are, we learn, laboriously crafted by Walsh – representationally rather than gesturally. These are not performative – e.g. created by an embodied performance – but performances themselves: masks, pretense, a “playing at” of gestures, with paint.

I visited Shane’s studio today, and got to see some of his newest, in-process work (right, and below). Walsh has – after some feedback and constructive critique from several peers – decided to venture back into color, and, with his kind of work, this is much harder than it at first sounds. While the artist wants to continue his exploration of media forms and how they think-and-feel-with-paint, the style he works in, once colorized, could easily be misread as decorative arts, or Pop art, or Typography and graphic design. There is, of course, nothing “wrong” with these genres and movements, but they are not part of Walsh’s inquiry into form, performance, and information, and so… I’ll admit I had a bit of a blast brainstorming around new possibilities of where he might go instead! Could Walsh continue his black and whites, then layer them with construction-paper-like color? Make photocopy-ish paintings, as before, then paint on top like a coloring book, or make them look like splatters and drips? Reference printmaking, like woodcut, litho, or lino “key” blocks, and etched or screened “color” blocks around them? Shane has a lot of work, and far more potential, in front of him. It’s going to be so cool.

What happens in that space between affection and reflection, between what we sense, and how we make sense? How do our media and materials impact meaning-making in our everyday, and overall? Where do we per-form, where is there already form, and how do we in-form each other across these spaces? If what we feel and see is always already a part of who we are and what actions we take (and why), then when do aesthetics become ethics, and what are the implications in that question?

These questions are not idle ones, and Walsh invites us into them with skill, intelligence, beauty, and a bit of fun.

Shane Walsh shows with The Alice Wilds in Milwaukee, and has studio space in Walker’s Point, Milwaukee, and Brooklyn, New York.

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).

Artist Feature: Bryan Cera and Critical Machining

Bryan Cera is a former student of mine (he did both his BFA and MFA with me at UW-Milwaukee), and I couldn’t be prouder. Not that I can honestly take any responsibility for the person and artist Bryan has become – one who far surpassed his teacher long ago; but rather, I am proud to call him a friend and colleague, proud of the hard work he has done, and what he has achieved with it.

Cera was the featured artist at Maker Faire Milwaukee last weekend – the largest Maker Faire in the country – showing off his custom-designed 3D/ceramic printer, and some Daft Punk cosplay, among other things. The former’s main innovations are a vertical shaft worm gear box in order to seriously increase torque, so as to work with standard clay (rather than the over-watery liquid that often doesn’t hold form in most models), and real-time, manual  controls to similarly adjust speed and viscosity as needed. The latter (which gets heaps of Interweb hits), he happily told us, uses an Arduino Nano and addressable RGB LEDs.

But it is not Bryan’s technical innovation nor his open source attitude alone that make me proud. He was always this way, generous and smart, able to figure things out and willing to help others understand them. (See some of Cera’s best tutorial shares here.)

What continues to intrigue and impress me is Cera’s ability to smoothly move between cool pop culture fun, and important questions about how we perform and understand technology, ourselves, and the worlds they together make and change. For him, and for anyone who spends any time with him, art and craft, technology and culture, philosophy and fun, are never far apart – and the stakes in that distance – or the lack thereof – always have consequences.

When I met him, Bryan was making traditional art and going through school on the one hand, playing with technology and his sense of humor on the other. He didn’t see these two lives as connected until he was pushed to explore his fun and geeky side in his (home) work. What initially came out was various versions of Supercontroller – a full-body, interactive interface for Super Mario Brothers. Delightfully fun, we grab coins and jump over (or on top of) turtles to rack up points; this piece’s various iterations also begin to show how digital realms do not enhance our behaviors: they actually limit them in how we must face the screen and interact. Pung – the title a cross between the 80s game Pong and the word sung (like singing) – sees us control the up/down paddles of the classic table tennis arcade game with our voices. Here microphones stick out like robot arms from the screen, and gallery-goers sing and scream into their controllers in order to make it go. It’s a hilarious amplification (literally!) of the weird things we do to make our technologies function (watch the video!), between play, performance, and habit.

These two works embarked Cera on a journey around precisely the tensions between such things. One breakthrough open-source piece that got a lot of attention was Glove One: a fully functional phone you wear on your hand. Though a lot of folks really loved it – you dial on your fingers, do the classic “call me” gesture to speak and listen with your thumb and pinky, hang up by slamming your fist – there was a much funnier, and more critical, joke to the entire gesture. You see, there’s this great hand-phone you can use with natural movements and that looks super cool… and all you have to do is give up all other uses of your hand. You can’t do anything else. Pick things up, hold hands with your partner, wipe – none of it is a go. And Cera’s argument is that we often give up just so much when we adopt our new tech toys. Even when our phones are not there, for example, when we try to shut down and shut off, we feel the phantoms ringing in our pockets, pulling away our attention and our time…

ARAI: Arm For Artistic Inquiry (pronounced array) goes in another direction, but explores similar concepts. We constantly hear how robots are going to outperform us, steal our jobs, become more human. One core argument for this future is so that we humans can spend more time doing important things… What if, Cera asks, we made a robot more human, by having it do the things that humans would actually do in that free time? So… he made a robot that procrastinates. I kid you not. ARAI constantly opens the fridge, peers in, then closes it. It surfs Facebook for pictures of cats. It stares at magazines but does not read them. Ironically, says Cera, the more human the robot becomes, the more useless it is to us. Scary, funny, something to think with… He talks about it brilliantly in the TEDx talk above.

I’m super excited to see what’s next from Bryan Cera. Now an Assistant Professor of Craft and Emerging Media in the Media Arts Department at the Alberta College of Art and Design (that’s a mouthful of awesome right there), he seems to be playing out how more general materials think and act, and how they may change our media, alongside and within them. His beautiful Video Crystals, for example, shape moving images into moving sculptures, and he is in the process of imagining ceramic robots.

Good job, Bryan. Thank you for your work.

Wednesday Sept 27: Morehshin Allahyari at UWM

Morehshin Allahyari is an Iranian artist who moved to the US ten years ago, and produces work across Internet art, video and installation, sculpture, writing, and other forms, all of which explore, she says,  the political, social, and cultural contradictions we face every day.

Two of Allahyari’s recent and most well-known works are The 3D Additivist Cookbook (with Daniel Rourke), and Material Speculation: ISIS. The former is a book of 3d .obj and .stl files, critical and fictional texts, templates, recipes, (im)practical designs and methodologies from over 100 world-leading artists, activists and theorists.

And it is absolutely free.

Download The 3D Additivist Cookbook here, or torrent (yes, a completely legal bit torrent!) the archive here.

Material Speculation is a reconstruction of 12 selected (original) artifacts (statues from the Roman period city of Hatra and Assyrian artifacts from Nineveh) that were destroyed by ISIS in 2015. Allahyari 3D modeled and 3D printed these forms, creating, in the artists words “a practical and political possibility for artifact archival, while also proposing 3D printing technology as a tool both for resistance and documentation. It intends to use 3D printing as a process for repairing history and memory.” She includes a flash drive and a memory card inside the body of each 3D printed object, making each a kind of time capsule with images, maps, pdf files, and videos gathered on the artifacts and sites that were destroyed.

She is also a friend: generous and fun, smart and friendly, I highly recommend you try to make it to her talk this week, September 27, 2017 here in Milwaukee.

Artists Now! lectures take place every Wednesday at 7:30 pm in the Arts Center Lecture Hall on the UWM campus. They are always free and open to the public.

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.