ersonal interior spaces, intricate textiles, compelling narratives, art history references—these elements are taken to opposite extremes in Flowers by Livija and Lon Michels: Entrances, two side-by-side solo exhibitions at the James Watrous Gallery.
A sense of melancholy permeates Flowers by Livija, a showcase of thirty photographs taken in the 1950s and ’60s that reveal moments in the life of Livija Patikne, a woman who fled Latvia for the United States and died in 2001.
Some images show elements of her home—vases of flowers or framed family photos on a table—while others depict her posing in rooms or in her yard. A few are taken elsewhere, at the gravesite of her first husband.
When she’s included in a photograph, Patikne wears nice clothes and glasses, rarely smiles and never looks directly at the camera. The viewer also takes in the mix of fabrics, oftentimes florals, that she chose for her clothes, drapes, tablecloths and wallpaper.
Patikne sitting alone in the photos, imagery of her husband’s grave and scenes with elements indicating the passage of time—seventeenth century Dutch still life paintings with their slowly decaying flowers and food come to mind—all create a sense of sadness. This seems to be a woman who loved her husband but ultimately spent a good deal of time alone; her beautiful clothes, floral arrangements and interiors feel lonely.
The photographs in the exhibition, which Patikne took as her own private art practice, come from a box of roughly three hundred slides found and given to Milwaukee photographer James Brozek, who shared them with Debra Brehmer, director of Milwaukee’s Portrait Society Gallery.
If Flowers by Livija offers a quiet, conflicted beauty, the adjacent Lon Michels: Entrances is a riot of color, pattern, narrative and messages.
Lodi-based artist Lon Michels creates large-scale acrylic paintings filled with constant pattern. In fourteen paintings, scenes of everyday life—a couple in their living room with Oprah on the TV, for instance—mix with a stylized take on the Last Supper and a trio of small landscapes.
Michels infuses his works with references to art history. In “Modern Day Olympia,” the woman in the living room reclines like the subject of Édouard Manet’s scandalous 1863 painting while Pablo Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” hangs on the wall behind her.
Rounding out the exhibition are six decorated replicas of deer and steer heads, plus ten painted mannequins wearing embellished fur coats—Michels’ patterning taken into three dimensions.
The artist’s bold color and ornate, nonstop surface embellishment are at once chaotic and rhythmic, and his clever references and use of detail make the viewer want to investigate each scene carefully and thoroughly.
Flowers by Livija and Lon Michels: Entrances run through August 19 at the James Watrous Gallery. For more information, visit wisconsinacademy.org.
Photos courtesy of the James Watrous Gallery.