Art and architecture
- Art City: Favorite art experiences of 2014 | Dec. 31, 2014
I was running late to see some friends, hustling from the newsroom to The Foundation, a little bar in Riverwest. Traffic downtown was snarled. Headlights and brake lights stretched as far as the eye could see in pairs, like strings of holiday lights in red and white.
I fumbled for the news on my car radio and iPhone: Protesters were occupying the highway over the shooting death of Dontre Hamilton. One of my first thoughts: How many artists are there? Sure enough, there were familiar faces in the reports I saw later that night.
That this question came readily to mind is telling, evidence of a question hanging over art just now: What is the role of artists in a time of political and social tumult?
Many artists have been grappling with this question this year.
For better and worse, this also was the year that placemaking went from a buzzword to a reality. with many projects being realized. It also was a time marked by big questions about Milwaukee's skyline and downtown, a significant shift in the nature of the gallery scene and controversy that connected Wisconsin to the larger world. Here is my look at the year in art and architecture, with some forecasting of what's to come in 2015.
Artists of the year
For more than 30 years, Julie Lindemann and John Shimon have explored the unknowable things about our state with a knowing affection, relishing the eccentric moods and imagery of this place.
When Lindemann was diagnosed with cancer in 2012, often needing to stay close to home because of a compromised immune system, the couple took up the subjects that were close at hand: each other, their rootedness in Wisconsin, a sense of mortality and a realization of an inevitable separation. For the first time in a long while, they started to create bodies of work separately.
Together and apart, they are at the height of their artistic powers. This was especially evident in "We Go From Where We Know," a major exhibition at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan but also in shows at the Portrait Society Gallery and a contribution to the Farm/Art DTour.
Runners-up in the category are Special Entertainment (aka Andrew Swant and Bobby Ciraldo ) for finally getting the epic Hamlet A.D.D. to the big screen, Jason Yi. who created a magical mountainous sculpture of wood and tape at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art; Jon Horvath. whose photographic landscapes in a group show at Dean Jensen Gallery seemed to go to a new place; and Tyanna Buie. who created a poignant installation, also at Dean Jensen.
Artists to Watch
Christopher McIntyre 's willfully hopeful spirit had already captured my attention during the "Wisconsin 30" exhibit at the Milwaukee Art Museum. I secretly worried that the world — and art world — would not live up to his expectations. But as the impresario of the "Broken Genius" spoken-word and photography event at the South Milwaukee Performing Arts Center, he proved himself to be a resilient voice worth listening to. The night was an authentic and deeply personal exploration of the urban condition in Milwaukee. McIntyre is my artist to watch in 2015.
There also are artists who are known and accomplished who I predict may surprise us in the coming year, artists who seem to be on the verge of artistic breakthroughs. They include Emily Belknap ; Michael Kautzer. whose indoor plein-air event in a hallway was playfully offbeat; Anja Notanja Sieger. whose ubiquitous work is quietly strengthening; Adam Carr. Milwaukee's neo-John Gurda; and Jenna Knapp.
Art story of the year
It was announced in March that Mary L. Nohl 's art environment, infamous as the "witch's house" to former Wisconsin teenagers the world over, would be dismantled and moved to Sheboygan. After the news broke, debate went from an ugly but ultimately contained skirmish in Fox Point to a broader discussion about art and preservation. Many, myself included. strongly believe it should be preserved right where it is.
Runners-up include Michelle Grabner 's big year. Grabner, an important figure in Milwaukee's art community despite her Illinois residency, was one of the curators for the Whitney Biennial and gave rise to not one but two art-world controversies. Grabner has created an alternative art world complete with forms of influence that exist inside and outside of the art world proper. Her high-profile projects offered an opportunity for outsiders to analyze this alternative — and very Midwestern — way of being an artist. Sadly, this didn't really pan out. Also, the grand openings for both the Brenner Brewing Co. . a brewery designed to support Milwaukee artists, and The Pitch Project . artist studios and a gallery space next door, was one of the most positive stories of the year.
Art controversy of the year
When New York Times art critic Ken Johnson effectively called Grabner a dull soccer mom in a review of a solo show, it spawned heated debates about sexism and provincialism. This raucous dialogue was right up there with being personally called, affectionately I think, a "hillbilly" art critic by Walter Robinson. a New York critic. Behind much of the expected, if necessary, dialogue about authenticity and why one shouldn't call a Midwesterner a hillbilly, were some quieter, subtler threads about Midwesterness that I appreciated. Debra Brehmer. in an essay for Hyperallergic. tied these themes smartly to the plight of Mary Nohl. Grabner was also at the heart of another controversy about race and a work she included in the Whitney Biennial by a fictional black artist created by a privileged, white male artist. Carolina Miranda. an art critic for the Los Angeles Times, may be the one writer who dug in and brought real insight to the issue.
Architecture story of the year
The plan for a new downtown sports arena seems like a foregone conclusion, spurring much speculation about downtown sites and what buildings might or might not be knocked down to make way for it. One thing is missing from the discussion thus far, though: design. What kind of arena can we expect? Who are the best architects for the job? What design ideas matter most? What will it mean if we get a gleaming arena while other cultural amenities deteriorate? This will be a consuming story of the new year.
Runner-up in this category is the near-disaster on the lakefront, the proposed new atrium to the Milwaukee Art Museum. The initial design, painfully banal, inspired me to recommend the museum not expand at all. After some public pressure, a more palatable design solution was found. Other big news included the ill-named Couture moving forward and expectation about the new Northwestern Mutual tower.
Speaking of Santiago Calatrava. the architect who made his U.S. debut in Milwaukee, this was the year that the rest of the world came to terms with what is well known here: that ballooning budgets and construction snafus are part of the unwritten Calatrava contract. If only they had asked us! The New York Times did a deep and unflattering investigation into the now nearly $4 billion World Trade Center Transportation Hub and Fast Company asked if he's the most hated architect on the planet. Harsh. So, what's the cliffhanger? Well, the New York train station, the most ambitious thing Calatrava has ever done and one of the costliest stations ever built, will open next year. Will it open without complications? Will genius trump bravado?
Urban design story of the year
Behind an all-smiles ribbon-cutting for an east side swing park lurked a controversy about how the work of an internationally recognized architect got bulldozed and clashing ideas about how public spaces are designed over time. This story about one, tiny spot and how La Dallman's Media Garden was destroyed has huge implications for a city that is enamored with the idea of placemaking and winging it way too much when it comes to urban design.
Urban design forecast
The story to watch for 2015 is what happens to the design of public spaces on Milwaukee's lakefront and what's being called the Lakefront Gateway Plaza, given the context of major developments such as the Couture and Northwestern Mutual towers, the Milwaukee Art Museum and War Memorial projects, and city, county and state roadway projects. Watch that space.
Best museum show
Alec Soth has singular voice, one you have to lean in to hear. His photographic projects are a celebration of unexpected human nobilities and the American landscape. The work is wonderfully offbeat, literary in spirit, understated and precise. The first traveling survey of his work at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art is my pick for best museum show of the year in Wisconsin.
Runners-up in this category include, for various reasons: "45 North" at the Thelma Center
for the Arts in Fond du Lac, the Kandinsky show at the Milwaukee Art Museum, "Stitching History" at the Jewish Museum, the Alfred Leslie exhibit at the Haggerty Museum of Art and "Arts/Industry" at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan.
Out-of-state picks for great museum shows this year include Sigmar Polke at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Whitney Biennial . if for no other reason than for all of the great dialogue it generated, and the hallucinatory James Ensor and "The City Lost and Found" shows at the Art Institute of Chicago. The latter is an insightful look at the forces that shaped American cities, a show that is timely to, among other things, today's race-related struggles.
Worst museum show
The "Uncommon Folk" show was perhaps the worst curated show I've seen at the Milwaukee Art Museum in my nearly 15 years of art viewing here. As Art City contributor Diane M. Bacha pointed out in her review. the show celebrated the museum's foresight in collecting visionary, folk and self-taught art. But the willfully cheerful presentation had a flattening effect that did a gross injustice to much of the work, some of which, like Edgar Tolson's "Fall of Man," is deadly serious.
Runner-up in this category is "Postcards From America," a gutsy project the Milwaukee Art Museum should be complimented for taking on. Pairing an ongoing, informal exploration of place with a more formal museum presentation just didn't work, though. There were undeniably strong bodies of work but, ultimately, too many clichés. Bringing the work of these photographers together made the predictable views by these accomplished outsiders even more apparent. My advice to these Magnum heavyweights: Go back to your self-funded, indie, road-tripping mode and regain the experimental spirit of your cross-country project.
Best gallery shows
A quick note about the gallery scene: It's changing. We are losing some of the more venerable commercial galleries in Milwaukee and seeing the strengthening of more experimental artist-run spaces such as Usable Space. Ski Club. Comb. The Pitch Project. Present Works. the Netherlands and the brand-new Stockholm. Nonprofits such as Inova and the Lynden Sculpture Garden are playing a greater role in supporting individual artist projects.
Of the scores of gallery shows in 2014, some that stood out for me included: "Preservatif" at Stockholm, which included provocative work by several artists working with nearly expired French condoms; Janet Werner's gorgeous grotesques . paintings of women both beautiful and ruined, at the Portrait Society Gallery; the seemingly simple, abstract, landscape-like paintings of Flora Klein. whose work was up at Ski Club and Green Gallery West simultaneously; Tyanna Buie 's haunting show at Dean Jensen; Tom Uttech's ninth solo show at Tory Folliard; the Leo Saul Berk show at Inova; and Romano Johnson 's epic, saintly celebrities at Portrait Society. I also was quite taken with Sonja Thomsen 's explorations of light and space at Dean Jensen; Gavin Brown at the Green Gallery, the "LEJOS" show featuring a collective of female artists from Argentina at Dean Jensen; "Temple" at Sensorium ; Greg Klassen 's spectacular accidental art tapestry at Walker's Point Center for the Arts; "Some Nights When Nothing Happens" at Usable Space, Swim Team at The Netherlands and Ben Grant 's paintings at Tory Folliard.
Best placemaking projects
The recorded voices of isolated seniors in Milwaukee brought to life as part of a performance inside the atrium at City Hall moved me in a way I didn't expect. "Islands of Milwaukee" was a rare public art project that had lasting impact. For me, it was the best placemaking project of the year.
Right up there with it, though, was the "Farm/Art DTour," a fascinating marriage of culture and agriculture that transforms the Wisconsin landscape into a medium in its own right. Art, so often sequestered to gallery and museum spaces, seemed liberated here, in its native state, bearing witness. Runner-up: "Listening to Mitchell," which reflected on the dense layers of culture on Milwaukee's south side.
The NEWaukee Night Markets. which attempted to inspire downtown revitalization, were certainly fun. I'll give them that. The Wednesday nights out on Wisconsin Ave. included open-air markets, food trucks, performances, music and twinkle lights that made the whole thing look fantastic on Instagram. The live radio show on a couch on the street, a project of Ayzha Fine Art. was at times quite smart. But, on the whole, Milwaukee is already pretty accomplished at festival-like events, and this one didn't stand out from what already exists here, particularly given all the ArtPlace cash poured into the project. The two primary art projects that came out of a competitive process at City Hall were essentially non-starters, too. My sense is there were lessons learned.
Art has become the primary mode of expression and documentation for political protest around the world, from Hong Kong's Umbrella Revolution to American protests against police violence.
You know something's up when WNYC art critic Deborah Solomon dubs images of "die-ins" staged in reaction to police violence and posted to Twitter among the best art of 2014. Similarly, New York Times film writer A.O. Scott has been asking questions about art-and-politics, including an essay about whether art is up to the task.
One of America's most beloved designers, Milton Glaser. known for his cheery "I Love New York" symbol, created an image for a dying planet this year, the New Yorker cut right to the heart of what's happened in Ferguson with its memorable broken St. Louis Arch cover and Kara Walker broke into three dimensions with a massive sculpture of racial stereotypes. Part mammy, part blaxploitation starlet, Walker's "Marvelous Sugar Baby" in a defunct sugar refinery was one of the most meaningful art experiences I had this year.
Here in Milwaukee, there are many artists who are keenly aware of the role art can play. Nicolas Lampert. an expert on political art history, is working on a poster about racial inequality that he hopes will permeate Milwaukee's urban landscape. The now familiar Lite Brite-like signs of the Overpass Light Brigade are a regular presence at the protests related to the death of Dontre Hamilton. CultureJam at the Hide House last summer featured an array of biting critique, including Jeff Redmon 's print of Gov. Scott Walker and Elias Vallejo 's 15-foot "Freedom Tower," a comment on the state of surveillance. Tyanna Buie created one of the most simple and haunting images of the year: a broken, dangling swing. It was a meditation on race and the unsafe urban experience for children.
Favorite moments in 2014
A bunch of potters invaded Milwaukee early in the year for a conference. The keynote speaker was Chicago artist Theaster Gates. who talked about the formation of his artistic practice, one that's lead to great successes in recent years. He talked about how important the Chipstone Foundation project at the Milwaukee Art Museum was for him and Dave the Potter. In brief, he talked about how he endeavored to bring all of the things that he loves and values — listening to gospel music in the studio, time to make art, improving his own neighborhood, a sense of community, and so on — together into a single, whole way of being an artist. It was incredibly inspiring to me. And let us not forget walking the ground at the Lynden Sculpture Garden for the roving performances of the Trisha Brown Dance Company. having it reach culmination, with dancers floating across Peg Bradley's pond as the Wisconsin weather moved in. That was lovely. Searching for memorials, or urban shrines. created for the victims of shooting deaths in Milwaukee, with Jessicanne Celeste Contreras Skierski and Art City contributor Shelleen Greene was also one of the more memorable and poignant moments of the year. Finally, I found "Banksy Takes New York" a film that recently premiered on HBO (produced by Milwaukeean Jack Turner), to be a revelation. While delightful and wry on the surface, like a grittier Jeremy Deller, the brilliance of Banksy is to get at how we live today. The audience is itself his medium. The subject: the inevitability of insane behavior in our time. The whole of the art world is implicated, critics, art tourists, collectors, dealers and onlookers.
The book we'll all be reading
With some of the change I've described in mind, I predict the book we'll all be talking about in a matter of weeks is "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class," by Scott Timberg (Yale University Press, Jan. 13). Described as the "first analysis of our current culture from the bottom up" by Dana Gioia, poet and former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, it attempts to explain why social and political change hits especially close to home for artists, architects, writers, books sellers and indie musicians.
Mary Louise Schumacher is the Journal Sentinel's art and architecture critic. Follow her on Twitter (@artcity), Facebook (www.facebook.com/artcity) and Instagram (marylouises). Email her at email@example.com.
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