Museum’s folk art show offers artists working with chicken bones, bottle caps and duck decoys.
The galleries of self-taught and folk art at the Milwaukee Art Museum have in the past gained a reputation as one of the most crowded areas in the place, jam packed with paintings and sculptures made of bottle caps and bones and all manner of materials. The newly opened exhibition Uncommon Folk: Traditions in American Art takes this sensation and expands it a hundred-fold.
Curator Margaret Andera has orchestrated a sprawling exhibition of about 600 pieces, primarily drawn from MAM’s significant holdings which have been built up over the years. This institution’s interest in vernacular art runs deep. The museum acquired what are likely its first self-taught paintings, by Wisconsin artist Anna Louisa Miller, in 1951. Since then, the folk art holdings have embraced a wild variety of items, including duck and fish decoys, walking sticks, and quilts and shop signs.
All this and more is part of the show. Categories such as “Toys,” “Portraits,” and “Carving” instill a sense of organization based on common descriptors. The effect underscores that this is not an exhibition a single theme but more a plunge into the deep end of everything available. There is an exuberance in this abundance, and part of the strategy in this visually dazzling array is to simply give the visitor lots to see. It is, frankly, more than one can take in
during a single visit, so meandering and multiple visits are encouraged. One aspect of the show that is different than more traditional exhibitions is lack of emphasis on didactic materials; there are plenty of stories that could be told, about the makers and where this delightful stuff comes from, but most seem to be saved for another time.
However, the exhibition is punctuated by areas where a single artist is explored in greater depth, such as installations showcasing James Castle (1899-1977) and Eugene von Bruenchenhein (1910-1983). Castle made delicate, still drawings of moody light and shadow, composed of soot on paper and assemblages of packing materials, whatever was readily available. Von Bruenchenhein is represented by fanciful sculptures of chicken bones and metal, as well as his famous photographs of his wife and muse, Marie. In fact, the museum’s collection of nearly all his images have been brought out, a reunion that gives pause in the center of the show.
Another area of note is the gallery showing the ritual objects of the Oddfellows, a fraternal society not unlike the Masons. A small room has been built within the exhibition, inhabited by sculptural figures and curious implements such as staffs and a papier-mâché human skeleton. A photo panorama decorating the wall adds to the feeling that we have entered a secret place.
Changes are on the horizon for the Milwaukee Art Museum as the permanent collection will close next fall and remain shuttered for a year while the building is renovated and the art reinstalled. Could the expansive spectacle of Uncommon Folk signal a renewed commitment on the part of MAM to showcasing folk and self-taught art? It remains to be seen, but the public display of these deep holdings suggest that this facet of its reputation is newly polished up and shining brightly.
The diversity of objects gathered into the arms of this show aligns with the world of the contemporary art world in the sense that material doesn’t matter; we’ve moved far beyond any restrictive notions that art is only about traditional mediums such as oil paint or bronze. We can think more about the creative spirit that drives humanity to conceive of found objects as fine art, to refashion work clothes as quilts, and to turn utilitarian devices into aesthetic pleasures. In their own ways, these idiosyncratic artists are trying to connect to something deeply human and universal.
Uncommon Folk: Traditions in American Art continues at the Milwaukee Art Museum (700 N. Art Museum Drive) through May 4.
Sight Readings: Wild Space Dance Company
2155 N. Prospect Avenue
Friday and Saturday, 7pm and 8:15pm
Tickets $15 general / $10 students and seniors,
available through UWM Box Office at arts.uwm.edu/ticketing or (414) 229-4308
Wild Space will weave its way through the galleries currently showing the Enacting Acting exhibition (see TCD review), adding a layer of live performance to the visual environment. Work by artist Tom Bamberger and filmmaker Jake Fuller will also be part of the evening.
Rodger Bechtold: The Nature of Things
Jeremy Popelka: Veiled Monuments
Ben Grant: I’ve Got On With It A Little All The Same
233 N. Milwaukee Street
Exhibitions close Saturday, Feb. 1
It is the last weekend to catch the current exhibitions at Tory Folliard Gallery featuring landscapes by Rodger Bechtold, sand cast glass sculptures by Jeremy Popelka, and colorful paintings by Ben Grant.
2341 N. Oakland Avenue
Saturday, Feb. 1 and Sunday, Feb. 2, 6pm-11pm
Home is a comfortable place, especially on chilly days like these. Go out while feel like you’ve stayed in for this exhibition of eighteen artists who come together with performance, photography, painting, and everything in between. Donations will be accepted to benefit The Milwaukee Habitat for Humanity Restore.
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