I walked away from the Mary L. Nohl Fellowship exhibition wonderfully taken in by the seven artists in the show, winners of the most prestigious award for regional artists, and yet I found the show itself muddled and underwhelming.
The show is the culminating event of the yearlong fellowship, named for the late Fox Point artist who made the prize possible with a bequest at the time of her death in 2001.
The exhibition is effectively a group of seven solo shows and a test of sorts — a gauge of where these artists are in their careers and what they accomplished with the time and resources afforded by the fellowship, which comes with a cash reward of $15,000 for established artists and $5,000 for emerging artists.
The current show marks a decade of the program, which has provided critical and rare support to individual artists, the kind of support that is particularly hard to come by in the region. The majority of Nohl winners have remained tied to the Milwaukee area and contribute to the city’s cultural life, according to Polly Morris, who administers the program for the Bradley Family Foundation.
This show may be a bit clunky in part because many of the artists create socially engaged and at times journalistic work that is better suited to the street or social media platforms than the gallery wall. This creates a genuine curatorial challenge.
Faythe Levine, for instance, moves through the world researching deeply, scavenging for experience and sharing knowledge and impressions generously on a daily basis. She is a curator and artist who works on a scholarly level, producing films, books and exhibitions. But she also implores her audiences to “LOOK,” “READ” and “GO,” sharing her own photographs and the work and ideas of others on Facebook and Instagram.
There is something very dynamic about the flow of knowledge and aesthetics in Levine’s practice, and we are all invited to seek along with her. And all of it, the deep dives into subject matters like sign painters and the in-the-moment observations, add up to something coherent, an ethic that has something to do with a sense of openness, the value of everyday moments, living life on one’s own terms, the beauty of craft and the value of self-defined communities, among other things.
For the Nohl exhibit, Levine shared photographs from an in-progress project to document pioneering, off-the-grid communities across the country, people who for one reason or another commit to a life beyond the reaches of mainstream society, nestled into the Appalachian mountains or drifting on the Mississippi River. Several artists in the Nohl exhibit — and artists in general, for that matter — are sensing and responding to the shortcomings of capitalism these days. Levine manages to be both an outside observer and an insider in her research, and her access strikes me as rare and incredibly valuable at this moment in time.
She is documenting communities that want to remain anonymous, however, which creates a huge formal challenge — the need to describe a human story without faces, at least for now. She rises to the challenge, finding beautiful and telling moments in these handmade, DIY places, the storybook outhouse or a colorfully painted wooden sign that reads “Witch Sex,” the latter referring to the embrace of all sexual orientations in one settlement.
Anyone who has followed Levine on social media will recognize her snapshot-like aesthetic, a kind of visual field notes. But there is something about putting these images into a frame and onto a gallery wall that takes the life out of them, at least for me. I can’t help but wonder if they aren’t better suited to the kind of dynamic narrative Levine creates online than formal, fixed objects worthy of individual contemplation.
Similarly, I absolutely love that Paul Kjelland won the Nohl in large part for founding the Riverwest 24. The out-of-town jurors judged the annual all-night bike ride in Riverwest to be art, with all of its Stations of the Cross-like ritual, performance and animation of public space. Kjelland is also part of a print collective that creates and freely gives away posters and materials to aid social justice movements, the co-curator of “Night School” a public lecture series at the Riverwest Public House and an organizer of ReciproCITY, which he describes as a “mobile experimental cultural and independent media center.”
Like Levine, Kjelland creates a support system for a certain kind of scholarship and activism based on direct experience, community building, the open sharing of knowledge and art. Like Levine, there is a coherent ethic and a bringing together of people who have similar values as well as an interest in artistic activity.
Still, none of the joy of the bike ride and none of the ephemerality and generosity of the print projects seem present in the installation at Inova, which consists mostly of Kjelland’s political posters in frames. Again, part of the power of these posters is the way they exist in the world, a quick, graphic output that fuels real-world resistance against things like mining in the Lake Superior basin and poor living conditions in a super-max prison. Like Levine’s photographs, they don’t stand up to this kind of formal presentation and seem suited to other uses anyway.
By contrast, many of Lois Bielefeld’s photographs do hold up well. Bielefeld creates projects of social and conceptual portraiture and included two bodies of work in the show, one featuring people sitting down to a weeknight dinner, the other featuring Wisconsinites and their handguns.
I found so much humanity in the dinner portraits, whether a group of kids sitting on the floor in front of a TV or a couple sitting close on the same side of the kitchen table. The refrigerator magnets, the celery sticks, the flatware and the family portraits inside the portraits, all become part of these contemporary still lifes, formally beautiful, telling in the details and yet composed from real moments.
Still, some photographs were much stronger than others and the two projects were a lot to take in, crammed onto several separate gallery walls. It’s too much. The installation would have benefited from slicing the number of works in half.
Then there is Brad Fiore, who set up what he calls the Karabekian Center, which consists of reading tables, audio recordings in which people grapple with the meaning and purpose of contemporary art and faux works of real art made by volunteers. I assume the center is named after minimalist painter Rabo Karabekian, who famously caused a spiritual awakening in Kurt Vonnegut in a restaurant. Karabekian, or so the story goes, was accosted by a waitress hurling the cliche my-kid-could-make-that argument only to have the artist make an impassioned and convincing case for art.
Articulating the value of contemporary art seems as relevant as ever today, so Fiore is mining rich territory. One of the more provocative aspects of his project involves taking a filing cabinet filled with art theory books and the faux artworks out onto the street to engage with the public about contemporary art. I confess, I adore this idea, of making the stuff that rattles around in our minds physical and taking it out on the street to see if it has any practical use. For that matter, I like the idea of naming the books that that would be essential and go in the cabinet. Some of these encounters could have been — should have been — fascinating, even if they were abject failures.
But they weren’t. At all. And maddeningly so. I can’t help but wonder if Fiore was more enthralled with the idea of this exercise and how it would play out in the gallery than the actual work of finding a way to forge meaningful dialogue about art with strangers in his neighborhood. Part of the documentation is a photograph of Fiore sitting alone on a Riverwest sidewalk with his heavy cabinet of theory. This seems to sum it up.
Fiore invited me to participate in his project along the way. He asked me to re-create one of the paintings that he used to engage people. He invited me also to come in for an interview that would be used in the exhibition. As a critic, I don’t tend to get involved directly in work that I am in the process of writing about. And yet, Fiore pressed me to confront an ongoing issue in my own work — how to approach art where participation is essential to the experience. I did appreciate that.
I find it amusing and more than a little bit endearing that Fiore was so annoyed when we asked him the very question he poses to complete strangers on the street during a recent episode of Art City Radio (go to min 41:00), a podcast about art and culture. (On a personal note to Brad, Adam and I will find a way to answer that question for you soon enough).
Tyanna Buie, a printmaker and the first black woman to win a Nohl, explores the impermanence of her childhood in the foster care system through a journalistic gathering of information and imagery and a visual packing and unpacking. She fills in some of the blanks of her fragmented family narrative with pop culture. Bill Cosby becomes a stand-in for her dad in large-scale prints that recur on the walls of her space like a nightly rerun of an old show.
Buie is also experimenting with moving off the wall and into space in this show and she did at the “Current Tendencies” show at the Haggerty Museum of Art. An almost life-size ice-cream truck based on a childhood memory of her father sits in the center of the gallery, made from folded paper, fragile and able to collapse, like memory itself. There is a whole lot of energy coming off that truck, a ghost of Dreamsicles past. Still, knowing a bit about Buie’s aspirations, I can’t help but wonder if the installation, as a whole, was as resolved as she had hoped.
I have not had a chance to see any of Danielle Beverly‘s documentaries in their entirety yet, so I am less equipped to comment on her work, but the clips screening at Inova are full of story and enough to make me want to pay close attention to this artist. I was especially intrigued by sequences from her forthcoming film “Old South,” which attempts to chronicle what happens in a historically black neighborhood in Georgia as it confronts the Confederate flag-flying college fraternity that moves into the area. The footage has some run-and-gun roughness that in this case implies a certain constancy — someone who is present, watching, framing and bringing insight — but also some compositional characteristics that are mindful of painting and photography, too.
Colin Matthes’ “Green Mini Demo Derby” was perhaps one of the greater successes of the Nohl show for me. As he often does, Matthes invites us to play. He recruited several local business owners to sponsor a car — toy-size, handmade, wooden, remote-controlled and solar powered — and to compete in his to-the-death, table-top derby. The businesses are those that come to mind when you think “shop local” or “buy green.” The nice, Midwestern outfits like Colectivo Coffee, Brenner Brewing, Sky High Skateshop and the Riverwest Public House.
Milwaukeeans cheered on their beloved brands as they tried to smash each other to bits in the various heats (or the video documentation playing in the gallery). The rules required each driver to crash into another every 30 seconds or be disqualified.
On the one hand, the project is as fun and innocent as a go-cart race. It has a boyishness to it that initially tempted me to dismiss the whole thing until I realized how appropriate that is. Matthes is exploring more sinister ideas about — here’s that theme again — the shortcomings of capitalism. He riffs on familiar and futile games, the stuff of the state fair, the toss-the-ring-like games that wouldn’t exist without terrible odds for most players.
Watching Matthes’ spectacle, I am mindful of the intrinsic human attraction to both collaboration and competition and the ways these things manifest in contemporary life, in communities and for individuals, actively and passively. There is something indulgent and absurd about how all of this plays out in the gallery, a form of participation that doesn’t make much sense — to potent effect.
In the end, I come away from the Nohl Exhibition caring deeply about these seven artists but wondering if the artist-to-curator negotiation that resulted in this show and that is part of the Nohl Fellowship worked as well as it could have. This year, that curatorial work fell to Sara Krajewski, the new director of Inova.
Was there a way to bring more of the dynamic nature of Levine and Kjellend’s practice into the gallery? Did Fiore and Buie need more feedback. Was there discussion about editing Bielefeld’s work? Why is it that the show doesn’t seem as good as the artists in it?
While there is an enormous amount of additional programming around this year’s show that informs the work, the gallery experience is still central. It is perhaps the only way that the community as a whole experiences the value of this incredibly essential prize.
The Mary L. Nohl Exhibit is on view at Inova, 2155 N. Prospect Ave., through Dec. 15.
All images courtesy the artists, Inova and the Bradley Family Foundation.
Article source: http://www.jsonline.com/blogs/entertainment/232984441.html