8 art shows explore issues of identity

From "To be or not to be" to contemporary examples
8 art shows explore issues of identity
The "To be or not to be" page of "First Folio," presented at the Chazen.

In a dimly lit room on the second floor of the Chazen Museum of Art, a single book sits inside a case. A light shines down on it, illuminating six of the most famous words ever written: “To be or not to be.”

This is the centerpiece of “First Folio! The Book that Gave Us Shakespeare,” an exhibition showcasing the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays. The book was published in 1623 and includes several plays that were not published in the Bard’s lifetime. To mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, the book is traveling to all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, and the Chazen is the Wisconsin site.

It’s a powerful experience to see the historic book in person, especially when it sparks contemplation about how influential Shakespeare’s words have been for centuries. A companion show at the Chazen, “Presenting Shakespeare: Posters from Around the World,” does a fantastic job of illustrating that impact.

The show features theatrical posters touting performances of Shakespearean plays around the world from the mid-20th century to the present decade, with a selection of “Hamlet” posters displayed near the First Folio. Bold, dramatic, dark or conceptual, each offers a unique take on Shakespeare’s works and shows how his words and themes continue to be interpreted to this day.

“First Folio” and “Presenting Shakespeare” run through Dec. 11.

Who and Where

“If representational paintings show us how the world looks, could abstract paintings show us how the world feels?” asks Bernadette Witzak.

The Madison artist certainly makes the case in “Paintings Wearing Clothes and Climbing Mountains” on the third floor of the downtown Madison Public Library.

Through dozens of colorful paintings, drawings, screenprints, fabric work and mixed-media pieces, she offers visual perspectives that feel, in turn, familiar, foreign, hopeful, menacing, humorous and triumphant. There’s an inherent joy in seeing how this artist interprets the world–in how she takes in what’s happening around her and how she analyzes and presents her findings to viewers.

Also at the library through the end of the month, “Habitats and Inhabitants” is Chicago artist Nate Otto’s graphic and vivid exploration of densely packed houses and buildings, and “Bearings” sees Madison-based photographer Robert Lundberg documenting rural two-lane highways in the southwestern United States, continuing his interest in the interaction between “wild” and “civilized” spaces.

Expressing Identity

At the Art + Literature Lab, Madison-based artist Rhea Ewing delves into the idea of place, with a specific focus on identity in “Seven Strengths.” Ewing describes her work in this show as “an exploration of seven concepts essential to my survival as a queer person in modern society. The series is a conversation between myself and the natural world as I examine different ways of coexisting and thriving under pressure.” Ewing, whose work was recently featured at Gallery Marzen continues to exhibit incredibly intricate scenes whose detail feels like an invitation for contemplation. “Seven Strengths” continues through Dec. 3.

And at Overture Galleries, Tara Austin and Natalie Kirk probe interpretations of gender to reveal “how cultures characterize nature to embellish sexual expression” in “Diverse Nature: Gender & the Botanic.” Austin unpacks the visual languages of floral patterns in paintings and mixed-media works, while Kirk displays a series of portraits in which male subjects wear feminine clothes. The show is up through Dec. 4.

Portraiture in Focus

In “The Art of Photographic Portraiture” at Madison College’s Gallery 211, five Madison-based artists present personal takes on the genre.

Tom Jones showcases a handful of portraits of members of the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin, a series he has been working on for 18 years. He states that the photographs are “rooted in Ho-Chunk identity,” adding that he has “incorporated the beading of floral designs, which is traditionally used on clothing, directly onto the photograph, in order to give a symbolic representation of our culture.”

Equally striking are four larger-than-life, almost-full-body portraits by Faisal Adbu’Allah, who had a major show at the Chazen Museum of Art this summer. The “social storyteller” artist uses photography to contrast “our ideology of the archetype and the reality of that archetype’s humanity.”

Eric Baillies’ tintype portraits, featured this past spring at Edgewood College evoke the mystery, magic and drama of photography, while Steven T. Rhyner offers hauntingly personal portrayals of faces and Ya Ling-Tsai contemplates female portraiture in the selfie age.

The show runs through Dec. 9.