“Forward” A Survey of Wisconsin Art (Plus a Biennial and a Triennial Too)

by Gary John Gresl

The venerable Charles Allis Art Museum is to be commended and thanked profusely for creating the latest state wide Wisconsin juried exhibition. The current show, titled “Forward”, continues thru November 27th, and is a show of high quality and technical skill. Juried opportunities like this are put together only with much effort and planning.

For those paying attention to the regional contemporary art scene in 2005, there were three good opportunities to see the variety of visual art produced in our area. “Forward” at the Allis, the 2005 Wisconsin Artists Biennial at the Anderson in Kenosha, and Sheboygan’s Kohler Eight Counties Triennial, came together in the same calendar year. Each of these drew work from a wide range of artists with a diverse variety of techniques and interests, training and philosophies. Considering that few of us observers can visit all shows each year, these three, each in a different eastern city, provided opportunities for artists and patrons alike.

Curiously and purely by chance, two of these state wide exhibits were juried by separate Curators from the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. “Forward” was screened by Elizabeth Smith, while the Biennial, organized by Wisconsin Painters & Sculptors, was judged by Lynne Warren. The John Michael Kohler’s Triennial was the largest and most diverse of these three exhibits, with a selection process of different nature than the Allis and Anderson shows, while drawing entries only from 8 counties surrounding Sheboygan.

In the three shows there were similarities due to overlapping artists, but there were certainly some differences. The Biennial and Triennial had the initial jurying done by slides while the Allis had the actual work brought in. The Biennial had about 575 entries while “Forward” had around 300 and the Triennial around 700. The Biennial and Triennial allowed submissions of 3D work, and “Forward” was supposed to be exclusively 2D. The Biennial had about 90 works in the show, “Forward” had 54, the Triennial around 200. The need to physically carry work for physically jurying, as with the Allis in Milwaukee, likely may have prevented some artists living further from the city from participating.

It must be noted that the type of selection process will always produce somewhat different results, depending on whether choices are made thru slides or by seeing the actual work. Having the work physically present will eliminate guessing caused by the failure of slides to represent the work well. However, the sheer weight of numbers being entered into a show dictates whether it is practical to allow actual physical jurying at a venue.

Note that the John Michael Kohler’s Eight Counties Triennial had to change to a slide selection process due to the huge number of pieces being entered in former years. That institution went from around 1,200 pieces being carried in for the 2002 Triennial, to about 700 entries by slides for the 2005 show. This particular case suggests that when it is necessary to prepare slides, some number of artists will choose not to participate. Creating slides, sending them, following the guidelines and then waiting for a response, all present problems for an unknown percentage of artists.

Now…to the nature of “Forward”. It seems pretty clear that the tendencies of the juror, Elizabeth Smith, are seen in this show. An over all impression exists of crispness, of balance, of centered well ordered cool study. There are more than 20 pieces out of the 54 that utilize photos and/or digital means, adding to a sense of clarity and distinct images. There are no oil or acrylic drips on large canvases, no running of watercolors…little or no elements of chance inclusions. This seems like a “tight” show, but one of clear quality in images and execution. The juror made note in her statement that perhaps the venue itself, the historical context of the Allis house, may have had some influence on her selections. Obviously the smaller size of the venue dictated how many pieces could be accepted.

To call this show a “survey” might be a bit of a stretch. For example, while landscape painting is an important part of this state’s production, no painted landscapes made their way into “Forward”. It can also be noted that there was an absence of self taught and Outsiders as well…and little or no floral, wildlife/animal and more extreme conceptual pieces. It must again be noted that the size of the venue certainly forced some of these out of the show.

In comparison, the 2005 Biennial, chosen by Lynn Warren thru slides, had a wider range of techniques, including larger works and some showing chance elements and less controlled means to an end. There was a wider range of quality as well, in good part due to the slide selection process rather than a physical jurying. Of course there were numerous 3D works in the Biennial and Triennial also adding to a more diverse selection. The Kohler venue, being the largest site with the highest number of entries and selections, was the most broad although it drew from only 8 localized counties.

Those of us who care about visual art in our local cultures must contribute to and support these juried exhibitions thru participation and/or patronage. These opportunities can draw us together, inform and enrich us, encourage us to make more and better art, educate the public, and instill a bit of pride in our communities.

Toward that ongoing process, many of us hope that the Charles Allis staff can see that “Forward” will manifest itself again.

The Charles Allis Art Museum is located at 1801 No. Prospect, Milwaukee.  Hours are Wed. - Sun. 1 to 5.  Ph. 414-278-8295,