THE JOHN MICHAEL KOHLER ART CENTER...SOMETIMES SUPERHUMAN?

by Gary John Gresl

Recently I and Janet Roberts, my significant other and fellow WP&S member, were returning from the opening reception for several exhibits held in the Kohler Art Center, Sheboygan. The shows included the giant portrait paintings by New Yorker Kehinde Wiley, a huge exhibit of contemporary art made from or associated with lace, the odd photographic work of Japanese artist Yasumasa Morimura, and fascinating recreations in miniature of artist studios by Connecticut artist Joe Fig.

We were once again blown away by what the Kohler Museum and its staff of talented adventurous professionals do. As Janet and I talked, she referred to both the extremely fine work of the artists, as well as the work of the Kohler Museum, and said “Sometimes it seems they are superhuman”.

Janet’s choice of that word was perfect. In terms of size, quality, quantity and sheer effort, other terms just weren’t good enough. Words like obsessive compulsive, dedicated, extreme, exceptional, amazing, extraordinary, and miraculous might work too…but Superhuman seemed most fitting.

Since 1967 the John Michael Kohler Art Center has been amazed and stimulated audiences, including artists. With the guidance and direction provided by Ruth Kohler, the institution has gained international recognition as a vital force in the fields of contemporary and Outsider art forms. It is significant that Ruth this year receives one of the Wisconsin Visual Art Lifetime Achievement Awards. In the past Ruth had already received a Governor’s Award as well as other recognition for her decades of hard work and achievement.

The mission of the JMKAC in part reads as follows:

“The John Michael Kohler Arts Center is a not-for-profit organization established in 1967 for aesthetic and educational purposes. Its mission is to encourage and support innovative explorations in the arts and to foster an exchange between a national community of artists and a broad public that will help realize the power of the arts to inspire and transform our world. The Arts Center serves as laboratory for the creation of new works, nurturer of interdisciplinary initiatives, originator of exhibitions, presenter and producer of performing arts, educator, publisher of critical writings, community builder, and advocate for issues affecting the arts. In essence, JMKAC functions as a catalyst for and explorer of new art forms and new ideas that will impact the lives of both artists and public.”

The exhibits we have seen over the years have been of exceptional nature for many and varied reasons including quality and progressiveness. There is no institution in the state, or anywhere nearby, that has accomplished what the Kohler has been able to do. This is largely a result of the efforts of Ruth Kohler, plain and simple. She has gathered the expertise and talents of professionals, found the funding and support of individuals and foundations, involved her community, and pointed the institution in the direction of the Contemporary, the Newest, the Futuristic.

The exhibits we just viewed included the huge colorful and astounding figure portraits by Kehende Wiley, a New York artist. The magnificent paintings by this relatively young artist are so in demand that there are many dozens of people waiting in line to purchase them. This exhibit closes on May 6th.

Continuing thru May 20th is another knock-out exhibit titled “Laced with History”, a show ranging from contemporary expressions made of the tinniest tatting laces to huge constructions extending a dozen feet or more made of hot glue and electric wire. These contemporary expressions by fine artists from around the world evaporate distinctions between crafts and the finest art expressions.

Also in the Kohler through April 8th is a show by Connecticut artist Joe Fig, consisting of assemblages/constructions of the studios of contemporary artists. These art objects looks like the work of a model maker gone mad, with details of paint brushes and paint cans that can delight and mystify. Besides the constructions there are photographs and paintings by Fig that also show the physical spaces made and occupied by modern artists.

Another exhibit that will prove the Kohler’s advanced ways is the show by Japanese artist Yasumasa Morimura, through April 22. This smaller show consisting of huge odd portraits of the artists incarnated as mystical beings, Frieda Kahlo, and entities and oddities of various sorts, is alone worth the trip to Sheboygan.

There is also the ongoing exhibit of “The Rhinestone Cowboy’s Beautiful Holy Jewel Home”, the changing Arts and Industries gallery, and other displays. The place can amaze.

The day we visited the Kohler there was plenty of community involvement with a jazz band made up of local students, a dance troupe, and a large exhibit associated with March Youth Art Month. One of the most delightful exhibits in the Kohler that day was the free happy expressions called “Preschool Perspectives”. We smiled and smiled as we enjoyed the bold paintings of these young children, and we wondered what we have all lost as we grew old and became the molded adults we are. It reminded me of this quote from the novel, Boy’s Life, by Robert R. McGammon:

“See, this is my opinion: we all start out knowing magic. We are born with whirlwinds, forest fires, and comets inside us. We are born able to sing to birds and read the clouds and see our destiny in grains of sand. But then we get the magic educated right out of our souls. We get it churched out, spanked out, and combed out. We get put on the straight and narrow and told to be responsible. Told to act our age. Told to grow up, for God’s sake.”

I think that the Kohler’s main task is, even without the staff being fully conscious of it, to rekindle the magic in all of us who are willing and unafraid to renew our joy of life thru art making, either as observers or as art makers ourselves. There is still magic in the world. Some superhuman efforts by a museum like the Kohler and the artists it shows can again instill in us some of these moments