A State of the Arts Celebration at MMoCA
For evidence to shut down the notion that great art happens only on the coasts or in the biggest cities around the world, look no further than the Wisconsin Triennial. That’s because the art in this exhibition, held every three years at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, is fantastic. It’s sophisticated, appealing, incredibly diverse and authentic to a showcase of art made in Wisconsin.
“The work is of such high quality,” says MMoCA curator Rick Axsom, one of four museum staffers who helped curate the show. His team whittled the more than five hundred exhibition applicants down to 113 artists and then paid them all studio visits before settling in on the final forty artists. “This show gives an entrée into contemporary art on the highest level. You want to be brought into 2013? It’s such an educational opportunity.”
These artists range in age, ethnic background, location within Wisconsin and whether they’re established or emerging in their careers. And of course they vary in their preferred medium and subject matter, a fact that’s evident as soon as you see the artwork displayed in the museum’s lobby, ground-floor State Street gallery, second-floor gallery and even its rooftop sculpture garden. There’s looming sculpture that nearly touches the ceiling, photography so vivid it seems to leap off the walls, thought-provoking installations, interactive work and much more.
Despite this diversity, a few themes carry through much of the show, particularly the relationships between humans and the natural world and the role of human existence in the context of the broader environment.
The installation “You are not what you have been taught” by Madison artist Justin Bitner is one example. He clusters vintage televisions in stacks on the ground; while the outdated sets emit static noise, images of falling water are projected onto the walls. Is it static or water—technology or nature—that you hear? It’s hard to distinguish at first.
John Shimon and Julie Lindermann reflect on the passing of time and fragility of human life in a pair of photographs of themselves shot on their organic farm in Manitowoc. In one, Shimon rides a tractor and in the other, Lindermann stands in a cornfield wearing a gown. Both images look like old photographs, almost holographic, creating a ghostly feel.
Madison artist Stephen Hilyard follows a long line of past artists in playing with and questioning the idea of the sublime in nature with his series of chromogenic prints set in lightboxes. Hilyard takes photographs of mountains and manipulates the forms so they’re more pointed, more symmetrical, more extreme—”more perfect.” Boasting extraordinary color and detail, the images are arresting in how initially ideal they seem.
Jason S. Yi of Milwaukee also references art history, putting a decidedly contemporary twist on traditional landscape imagery. He reinterprets natural forms using modern materials, often items used in construction. In “That Hollow Feeling,” he employs bright orange plastic fencing to mold a tall peak that nearly reaches the ceiling. You wouldn’t expect it given the materials, but the organic form is beautiful, with swaths of orange plastic flowing to the floor.
The Wisconsin landscape becomes personal in the hands of Jason Vaughn. When the west coast transplant moved to Madison, he developed a fascination for deer stands, the structures hunters erect in woods across the state. Vaughn sought out stands and then got to know their owners, along the way learning about what those stands represent for families—spending time together, passing down knowledge, nurturing a respect for nature. His three photographs of stands, taken in different locations during various times of the year, read like portraits, with an elegance one wouldn’t necessarily expect for such a rugged subject.
Nearby, visitors find one of the show’s interactive pieces. Ash Kyrie, an Iraq war veteran from Argyle, found himself increasingly frustrated by the discrepancies between media depictions of war and his own experiences on the battlefield. So he spent two years collecting photographs of war from news outlets and chose one to be blown up to a large size and pasted on a wall at the Triennial. He invites viewers to strip pieces of the image off the wall and drop the scraps to the floor. Through this act, viewers help deconstruct the image and also its meaning.
Also interactive is the “Complex 7” installation by Milwaukee artist Lynn Tomaszewski. She’s placed digital sensors on two organic-shaped forms hanging on a wall; those sensors prompt colors and patterns to be added or changed on the forms as viewers approach and examine the work. It’s a fun exploration of cause and effect, of interaction and how different parts of collective systems impact one another.
Many works in the exhibition are moving, such as Tyanna Buie‘s three portraits of children with no faces. The mixed-media prints are the Milwaukee artist’s response to growing up in the foster system, separated from her three siblings. These faceless portraits relay the loss and absence of certain family memories. Another Milwaukee artist, Paul Baker Prindle, meanwhile, showcases a trio of photographs taken at sites where hate crimes against gay and lesbian victims occurred. Details of the murder are described in the titles, but the photographs show what appear to be benign locations—a bridge, house and school playground. That the sites are shot afterward, with no evidence of crimes, as if nothing has happened, gives the photographs a haunting effect.
More quietly moving is an installation by Appleton pair Debby Kupinsky and Craig Clifford. On a wall of small pedestals, they display found and made ceramic objects—tiny birds, cats, figurines, teacups and vessels. A found glazed bird perches near an unglazed copy—or “echo”—that they made. The beautiful collection is surprising in how strongly it stirs emotions in viewers.
“It’s objecthood and nostalgia,” says associate curator Leah Kolb.
“And memory,” Axsom adds.
Nancy Mladenoff of Madison also explores memory, but with a clever wit. Her series of more than twenty small paintings depicts careers of women who lived in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, careers from which they were often marginalized. Carried out in a faux-naïve style, each work is unique and fascinating, showing women in a rock band, scientists, surveyors, animal trainers, a superhero and more. “She’s reclaiming a history that was never written,” Axsom says.
Additional works in the show range from Hudson photographer Carl Corey‘s portraits of family-owned Wisconsin businesses to colorful, interestingly shaped “bricks” made by Kenosha’s Kimberly Greene and scattered across the floor to Madison artist Gabriel Pionkowski painstakingly deconstructed, hand-painted and reconstructed canvases.
And Madison artist Derrick Buisch‘s pop-y, eye-catching work should bring a smile to viewers’ faces. His grid seventy-seven colorful paintings show abstracted objects or icons based on the idea of monsters.
These are only a handful of the works showcased in the Wisconsin Triennial. For a chance to see them all, come to the opening reception tonight at MMoCA or check out the show as it runs from September 21 to January 5. And to learn more, attend one of the related events or dive into the museum’s rich online guide, which features details on all the artists.
Photos courtesy of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.