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There is a growing body of research and hands-on work in the area of art-making, neighborhood development and community engagement.  In that vein, I wanted to share a story from Madison's 77 Square (by my journalistic compadre Lindsay Christians) about an innovative street art camp for teens.

The camp, run by Drew Garza and Scott Pauli (who have a local design business, Art & Sons) and co-conceptualized with Phil Busse, teaches kids cutting-edge skills in computer-aided graphic design, yet also uses old-fashioned paste-up techniques on the sides of local buildings.

At the same time the kids are building technical skills, they're expressing themselves and engaging with thorny social issues like racism and environmental damage--issues raised by the teens themselves, not foisted on them by adults.  As one of the kids quoted says, "Don't be scared. Just show yourself, be yourself."  To encourage people to seek out these works, an art "scavenger hunt" was organized.

The article, with accompanying video, is definitely worth a read.  Hats off to Busse, Garza and Pauli for designing such an intriguing program for teens, and to the City of Madison for helping support it through a BLINK! grant (small grants for temporary art projects).
August 19, 2011 9:37 AM | | Comments (1)

L.A., you're in for a treat.  Madison-based artist Jennifer Angus is currently exhibiting at the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles.  Angus' show, "All Creatures Great and Small," runs through Sept. 11, 2011.  Her main medium?  Bugs, and lots of 'em.

Angus is one of a number of Wisconsin artists doing intriguing work that bridges art, science and the natural world (others include Martha Glowacki, whose long-running installation at the Milwaukee Art Museum, "Loca Miraculi / Rooms of Wonder," is a must-see.)

Angus, who teaches textile design at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is fascinated by patterns and the cultural meanings they convey.  As she told me in a 2007 interview for Isthmus, "Pattern is a sophisticated, wordless language which we understand regardless of learning or awareness."

Her unusual medium is beautiful, colorful, and walks a fine line between mesmerizing and repellent (at least for many of us raised in bug-phobic cultures).  She re-uses her specimens from one installation for the next.  This was my favorite quote from our chat:  "The bugs are very individual. I'll be putting a weevil on the wall [during an installation], and I'll be like, 'I remember you!'"

And here's an interview done with Angus by the Museum of Art and Design in New York in conjunction with the 2010 exhibition "Dead or Alive":

If you're near L.A., don't miss her show.

June 28, 2011 12:57 PM |

Certain exhibitions have a way of staying with you for years, either through the sheer strength of the work, its interaction with your own life or psyche, or some confluence of the two.

A handful of shows have resonated with me so much that they have literally changed the course of my life.  One of those was in 1988 at the Milwaukee Art Museum.  I no longer recall the exact title, but it was a show of work by Milwaukee outsider artist Eugene von Bruenchenhein (1910-1983) that had been organized by the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wis.  It was deeply weird, visually provocative, and psychologically indelible.

At the time, I was a teenager from a small Michigan city who treasured sporadic visits to the museum while visiting my grandparents in Milwaukee.  As corny as it sounds, looking at this work helped me know that I wanted to look at, think about, and write about art in some way for the rest of my life, whether I did so professionally or informally.

It's hard to believe that Milwaukee show was 23 years ago.  Since that time, the standing of von Bruenchenhein (often referred to simply as "EVB") and outsider art have come a long way.  (In fact, as Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel art critic Mary Louise Schumacher astutely points out in her 2010 piece on EVB's changing fortunes, the term "outsider art" may no longer be the best moniker, since it overemphasizes biography at the expense of formal qualities.  "More than ever," wrote Schumacher, "his work stands on its own.")  A major exhibition of EVB's work remains on view at the American Folk Art Museum in New York through Oct. 9, 2011.

I've had occasion to think of EVB again since he was posthumously awarded a Wisconsin Visual Art Lifetime Achievement Award (WVALAA) this month.  The awards program is a joint venture of the Museum of Wisconsin Art, Wisconsin Visual Artists, and the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters.

Aside from EVB, two more of the eight honorees were outsider artists (the late Fred Smith, whose "Concrete Park" is in Phillips, Wis.) and Tom Every, better known as Dr. Evermor, who still regales visitors at his fantastical, scrap-metal "Forevertron" near Baraboo.

I don't know what it is about Wisconsin, but the legacy of outsider and self-taught artists runs deep here.  That legacy continues to be a source of delight and wonder to Wisconsin residents, and it's one for which I, quite personally, will always be grateful.  Von Bruenchenhein's art bore into my imagination at a time when I was most receptive to it, and it helped ignite a wider-ranging, lifelong interest in art and visual culture.

May 25, 2011 3:12 PM | | Comments (1)
Dave Hickey at the Nasher Museum of Art, Duke University (Jan. 14, 2010)

I was highly anticipating this lecture from Dave Hickey-- writer, freelance art and cultural critic, and MacArthur Fellowship winner among his many claims to fame. (As with any discussion of Warhol, the concept of fame itself played an important part throughout the evening.)   I had seen Dave speak one time before, in conjunction with his Beau Monde biennial at SITE Santa Fe, so I was eager to draw a comparison between the two talks.

But to be honest, I mostly went for the fun of just hanging out--for a short while and in a large crowd--in Hickey's presence. This was, I knew, the best place to enjoy his patented irreverence for certain aspects of life, his deft ability to pontificate on the intellectual underpinnings of American culture and democracy, and also where I could hopefully catch a brief joyride in the critical musings which, in the title essay of his collection "Air Guitar," he describes as "flurries of silent sympathetic gestures with nothing at their heart but the memory of the music."

Not many "rock star" art critics swing through the Raleigh-Durham area, so when it happens, ya gotta go.  As a participant in the endeavor of criticism myself,  I must admit a deep regard for Dave's writing, his cultural essays and "Art Issues" pieces in particular, for their accessibility, range and, like them or not, his compelling critiques.
January 15, 2010 11:08 AM |
At long last, Madison, Wis., is poised to get a new central library branch.  Although the current building dates only to 1965, it's a pretty bleak, worn space.  I'm glad to see the city move ahead with this, especially in a tough economy.

But there's one aspect of the planning that's uncertain and quite troubling.  A mural by the regionalist Aaron Bohrod, a former WPA artist whose work was also featured in the pages of Life, Time and Look magazines, is in danger.  It's unclear if and how it will be preserved when the existing library is demolished.

For details, see Jay Rath's Nov. 13 article in Isthmus, "Will the Aaron Bohrod mural at the downtown Madison library survive?"  As Jay notes, a John Steuart Curry work elsewhere in town (on the UW campus) is being preserved amid construction.  Curry's gig as artist-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (in the College of Agriculture, no less) was the first time any university had set up such an arrangement.

It would be a great shame if, as Madison moves ahead with one worthy cultural goal, it lets another one--preserving our heritage--fall by the wayside.

Update added Dec. 2:

The Wisconsin State Journal reported last week that the city has hired a conservator to study ways the mural might be preserved.  For details, see Dean Mosiman's article from Nov. 26.
November 17, 2009 3:22 PM | | Comments (2)
Lecture at the Nasher Museum of Art
October 27, 2009

 He was affable, humorous and generally seemed like an all around great guy.  Not exactly the typical description you might expect to hear of an artist's lecture in a formal academic setting like a university museum. But then again I'm talking about Fred Wilson, an artist who thrives on the unexpected, and whose lecture I attended this evening at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University.  I believe it is no small part of Wilson's success as an artist that he is a likable and engaging character.  This good-naturedness allows him easier access to a rather privileged world he loves to tinker with, the inner workings of museum culture, in order to produce work that reframes, rethinks and challenges the status quo.

 Wilson's work explores curatorial practice itself and often relies solely on existing artworks in museum collections as subject matter which he rearranges and displays in unconventional and compelling ways.  Working in this manner allows him to produce startling exhibitions which provoke and confound our expectations of museums, their role as cultural arbiters, and their interpretation and presentation of artworks themselves.  This working method has in fact become Wilson's main methodology especially since his exhibition "Mining the Museum" at the Maryland Historical Society in 1992 - a breakthrough event he concedes changed his life forevermore afterwards.   After this landmark show, recontextualizing works of art (and in turn our interpretations of them) through bold curatorial juxtaposition became Wilson's signature.  Just one look at the well known image from "Mining' of Wilson's display of slave shackles and elaborate silver tea goblets together in the same display case is really all you need to start reconsidering the notions of historical accuracy, authenticity, and truth.  History is written by the winners as they say.

In the years since "Mining the Museum" Wilson has gone on to produce other provocative displays in museum and galleries worldwide. Representing the U.S. in the 2003 Venice Biennale afforded an opportunity for international cultural exploration and Wilson fittingly explored how the Moorish culture and Africans exerted and continues to play such a large part in the cultural life of Venice.  His large ebony chandelier entitled "Speak of Me as I Am" became a metaphorical exploration of Africans' impact on the culture of this particular city through one of their rich traditions- glassblowing.  His large chandelier was rich in form and seductive in its understatement of its medium.

 Wilson spoke of how he loves the idea of bringing two differing things together to produce a third thing - namely some unexpected concept or rethinking of the work itself - and this notion is one that continues to drive much of his artistic production.  His work reflects his own perspective of course so his reworkings of museum collections still provide a highly personal take on history and how it's been told- a fact the artist readily acknowledges.  Yet he does it with such gripping force that it has the effect of stopping you in your tracks.

The fundamental core of Fred Wilson's art is the idea that historical accuracy and representation are not all they are cracked up to be.  There's more than one way to organize a show he tells us.  And in that telling, Wilson's art explores not only how strongly museums impact and shape our cultural view but more importantly how we consider and understand ourselves.

Fred Wilson, "Mining the Museum"  Maryland Historical Society, 1992

Fred Wilson, "Speak of Me as I Am" from the Venice Biennale, 2003
courtesy PBS, Art:21 and PaceWildenstein, New York

October 27, 2009 11:08 PM | | Comments (1)

As it wound down its run towards its final weekend, the group show entitled "The Conquerors" at Artspace seemed to be crying out for a final close look. So I was more than happy to oblige. 

Co-curated by Raleigh's own Paul Friedrich of Onion Monster fame and Lia Newman of Artspace, the show presents five nationally known artists prominent in the field of 'zine illustration and the Lowbrow style of painting.  This style, finally edging its way eastward from its '80's West Coast origins, is a funky amalgam of the bawdiness of underground comic graphics, hot-rod car culture and the ever scintillating aesthetics of punk rock all rolled into one.  It also throws in a unique incorporation of certain elements of traditional painting subject matter filtered through a streetwise sensibility.  It is worth noting that almost all the artists in the show are also crossovers, having achieved success in much larger media outlets producing graphic work in television, music and national publications.  

Mark Bodnar wins the Tim Burton award for his figures set in generic, yet seriously strange landscapes.  Bodnar's subjects are typically involved in a kooky and mysterious contemplation of their next move in any given scene all the while casting a wary eye about with Betty Boop-like beepers. His observations stand as an eccentric looking glass into a world in which your own emotions take flight couched in disowned, unloved cartoon characters trying to find their own place in the world.

Mari Inukai's paintings are sumptuous in their technique and direct expressive qualities.  Her underlying sense of sentiment and desire stand like beacons to ground her painterly figures in a realm which seems as influenced by Vermeer and John Currin as Manga and Anime.  I felt mesmerized by her tactile paint handling and strong emotive yearnings.

Bonnie Brenda Scott produced "Reactor" a large mural which dominates a full wall in the gallery.  The work is composed of writhing figures rendered in cerebellum-like matter that wind their amoeba shapes across the wall's expanse in a flurry of orange, pink, and blue.  Smoke like shapes flutter up above and her shapes seem at once to be menacing and contemplative as if engaged in some weird conversation to which we are not fully privy.

Bill McRight sticks to black and white imagery exhibiting a loose amalgamation of monsters hanging out and doing scary beasty things. They also cavort a little though and also do things like ride motorcycles.  He purposefully leaves the work a bit vague so that you're forced to fill in the blanks. Yet the strong graphic presence of his pieces (probably the boldest in the show) propels you into a dialogue that leaves you feeling like the work is always going to somehow win the battle on its own terms.

Liz McGrath has the only sculptures in the show exhibiting a trio of flying bunnies elongated in mid-leap (ala Barry Flanagan style) though hers are clothed in odd, hand-stitched, quasi military uniforms. She also has a pair of boxed relief works which depict an elephant and a mosquito in an elaborate ceramic framed and velvet lined animal reliquary. They stand out like some sort of carnival sideshow attraction at once mystically repellent yet so elaborately crafted that they command attention.   

The Conquerors at Artspace
September 4 -
October 24, 2009




October 23, 2009 12:07 PM |

Picasso and the Allure of Language

Nasher Museum at Duke University

August 20, 2009 - January 3, 2010

I will be the first to admit that I approached this show with caution and also a bit of trepidation.  The thought crossed my mind that the jig was up and it's just that our museum-going selves haven't caught on as yet.  I mean, can there really be that much more to be said in a Picasso exhibition that hasn't been said already?  The blockbuster shows, of which there have of course been many, have effectively worked over the terrain of Picasso as artistic genius to the point of exhaustion, but "Picasso and the Allure of Language" the current show at the Nasher Museum at Duke proves there is still fertile territory to be plumbed.  This show's perspective takes a beguiling multi-faceted approach with the primary aim of exploring the role and influence of language and writing in Picasso's work.


Organized by the Yale University Art Gallery in conjunction with Yale's Beinecke Library and support from the Nasher, the show displays manuscripts, letters, book projects, catalogues, and poetry both from Picasso himself (I have to admit I didn't know he had written such a large amount of poetry) and his contemporaries such as Georges Braque and particularly writer Gertrude Stein.  Surprisingly, fewer paintings are on hand than might be expected though the show includes a multitude of prints, drawings, and various illustrated book editions. There are also archetypal cubist-style Picassos included that were either created on newsprint or utilized newspapers as source/ subject material such as the work "Pedestal Table with Guitar and Sheet Music" from 1920.  One of the more intriguing works is entitled "Dice, Packet of Cigarettes, and Visiting-Card" from 1914  in which the artist remade one of Gertrude Stein's and Alice Stoklas's calling cards (left at Picasso's door when they called on him in his absence) into a collage work itself regifted by the artist and left at Stein's and Stoklas's door shortly afterwards.


It is a natural that this show emanates from Yale in that the literary influence of Gertrude Stein on Picasso's work can be directly traced from and supported by the Beinecke Library's vast archive of her writings.  An early benefactor of Picasso, collector of his work and his primary patron during the crucial formative cubist years of 1905-1914, Stein was a larger than life expatriate figure with an enormous influence in Parisian artistic life of the time.  The real heart of the show lies in precisely her particular literary lineage and influence and it becomes apparent that the impact of writers and poets upon early 20th century visual artists cannot be underestimated.  This literary influence which, as shown here is always a strong undercurrent in Picasso's work, is unfortunately often overshadowed by the sheer bravura of his artworks themselves (as well as his mythic persona and larger than life reputation.)


It is to the show's benefit that it possesses such strong multi-media appeal (a snazzy touch-screen video display with digitally turning manuscript pages kept many viewers' rapt attention while I visited the show)  and is quite interdisciplinary in nature.  In this sense, it is in keeping with our media enthralled age to a degree and yet also able to strike some common ground with appeal for lovers of the visual image, the written word and the printed page- vintage bibliophiles, art fans, and Twitterers alike. 

While the chronology of the show is vast - exhibited work spans across Picasso's life from age 19 to his 87th year - the intimate feel of the show in the Nasher's gallery gives it the feel of a retrospective in miniature form.  One in fact will likely leave feeling a bit dazzled by it all... but also refreshed.


(author's special thanks to Thornton Wilder for his suggestion to Stein to donate her literary archive to Yale in the first place.  Who knows how much longer we would have had to wait before some intrepid scholar would have tracked down these literary linkages otherwise?) 


(image courtesy the Nasher Museum of Art, Duke University)
October 18, 2009 8:38 PM |

Street art has an image problem.  This is of course nothing new.  The spirit of renegade vandalism is inherent to the medium, just ask any graffiti artist.  Often an integral part of the street artist's palette- right alongside the can of spray paint and a stencil or two - is a concern for tweaking the status quo.  Or to put it more bluntly, it helps to have a loose, freethinking state of mind to ponder: "How much can I get away with here?"  It is a case of the freedom of artistic license bumping up against the boundaries of civic obedience and property rights laws.  The more covert and riskier the work, (skirting the borders of the law especially) then the more street cred is bestowed on the entire undertaking if it's pulled off successfully.  This is very important stuff for an art form that occurs outside of the system of art gallery and museum contexts.   


Back on May 30th of 2009, Joseph Carnevale, a 22 year old history major at NC State University, garnered more such urban acceptability than he probably imagined that day.  Earlier that morning he had an idea for a street sculpture created from ubiquitous orange and white traffic barrels (numerous around the NCSU campus right now due to major street construction along Hillsborough Street bordering campus) and as he put it to the News & Observer newspaper, "it kind of grew in my head, until it was something I had to do."  And do he definitely did.  After pilfering a few barrels from a local construction site, he sawed, snipped, and reassembled them into a startling, larger than life visage of a 10' tall figure standing alongside the construction zone and making a gesture with an outstretched 'arm' seen as either (a) pointing traffic to the adjoining lane to avoid the construction zone or (b) extending a thumb as if hitchhiking. The "Monster's" moment of streetscape glory was brief however as by the next morning, Raleigh police had already dismantled and removed the work and embarked on a search for the perpetrator/artist.  Their break in the case came through investigation of NCSU's student newspaper the Technician whose reportage on the Monster made mention of Carnevale's website.  Quicker than you can say 'traffic safety' his anonymity was undone.  Carnevale was arrested and now faces a court date in July for misdemeanor charges of larceny and property damage.  The case is now entering testy territory.  While the construction company has asked to drop charges (grateful for the plentiful publicity they have received for the piddly cost of a few plastic barrels) Raleigh police are having none of it and plan to continue to pursue prosecution.


The story has extended beyond that initial Technician piece and has been reported in the local Raleigh based News & Observer, at blogs such as, and now extends out to the national media including the Associated Press and MSNBC.   The largest impact is probably being felt online where web chatter is popping up in favor of the Barrel Monster and Carnevale.  Three separate Facebook groups alone have already been established with rapid daily growth over the past couple of weeks and the tweets are already flying as well.  

I see all of this as a healthy dialogue for the city.  It is well known that Raleigh has a tenuous history with public art and while this story is centered in the university community of NCSU, it in fact provides a tremendous opportunity for discussion and discourse about the role art in the public realm can play in the Triangle area's metropolitan life.  While public art with any hope for official sanction and embrace by the civic powers that be cannot justifiably operate outside established legal boundaries, Carnevale's barrel monster shows that artistic ambition, originality, and consequence should not be discounted or underestimated when undertaken solely by personal initiative.  It is, if nothing else, a learning opportunity for the city.   


Related stories:


June 18, 2009 9:17 PM | | Comments (1)
revealedbeauty.jpg*Playboy*, the magazine, used to say something, because it used to say something about the female body, something that was erotic, not just sexual. What's the difference? Erotic, in my mind, is fleeting, ineffable, hard to pin down, tantalizingly elusive, and pleasurable for it. Sexual is fine, but it's concrete. The difference between them, you might say, is the difference between faith and knowledge. *Playboy* these days, as [Molly Young rightly describes it]( in this insightful essay for *N1BR*, the online book review of the annual *n+1* magazine: "*Playboy* ceases to be about the erotic everyday encounter. Flesh and blood women turn to images; the "girl next door" becomes distinctly mediated."
The bunnies were always mediated, of course, but something about the earlier photographs made you forget the medium and feel as though you were staring straight into the eyes of a luscious partner. Enthusiastic photoshopping has aided the transformation. Gone are the freckles and downy arm hairs of the predecessors. Breasts are surgically standardized; gym routines and spray tans produce identically toned and tinted bodies. Girls of all ethnicities blend together into one latte-colored woman, and the result looks computer-generated. When you try to imagine how the models might feel and smell, things like rubber come to mind.
I happened to read Young's piece before [interviewing Ed Coyle](, a photographer of [black-and-white nudes]( here in Charleston who loves women the way Hugh Hefner loves women. The difference is that Coyle's nudes do not blend together into "one latte-colored woman." Coyle's nudes are of course mediated through his lens and his eye, but they are not blurred into a composite ideal of sensual femininity. Instead, he seeks out what makes an individual women distinct (most of them in their 30s and 40s, many of them having borne children) and therefore what makes her beautiful. Beauty is in the freckles and curves and appearance of comfort. It was charming to discuss the craft of man so clearly enamored of women, especially older women, he says, who "get it," but also so clearly in love with the discovery of their beauty.
March 17, 2009 9:08 AM | | Comments (1)

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