UW Art Faculty Exhibit at the Chazen Museum

by Doug E. L. Haynes

"Insects" by Nancy Mladenhoff"
Every four years the art faculty of the University of Wisconsin - Madison puts on an exhibition at the Chazen Museum of Art. The Chazen is a glorious art palace with expansive halls that invite the artist to make a big statement. One can only imagine how that glory will be magnified once the addition, which plans to double the size of the museum, is complete. This author was envious of the freedom this venue grants the artists to think big and fill the large spaces.

The current exhibit is worth taking in and will be on view till March 30.

Viewing the faculty show gives a glimpse into what trends in art are ascendant at the UW and what a student might encounter in the way of of an artistic education as they take courses from the faculty at the UW. As might be expected, this show is not very cohesive. A cohesive show would imply that the faculty is all reading from the same page. If that were the case the students would be getting pretty much the same thing in every class. Yet even in the diversity, there are dicernable currents of thought.

The UW faculty has often been described as very political in their approach to art making. This is evident in the works by Jack Damer, Warrington Colescott, Laurie Beth Clark, William Weege and others who choose themes of war and peace, terrorism and the environment. In looking at these works one wonders how much cross fertilization there is among the artists working at the UW. The placement of several bird and insect themed works in the same gallery makes one think that there might be some sharing of ideas back and forth. One might imagine that Nancy Mladenhoff’s large collection of bird and insect drawings next to Kim Cridler’s bird themed sketches and wire vase construct as well as Jenifer Angus’ insect collages are the result of bouncing ideas off of each other.

Another generalization one could make is that the faculty is firmly imbedded in the 20th century. The works in these halls take advantage of all the innovative ways that artists have pushed the boundaries of art making in the past 100 years. We see abstraction, assemblage, conceptual work, and works influenced and created using new technology. Broadly speaking one might observe that these artists rely on color much more than draftsmanship and tend to be much more heady than lyrical. One might ask why a a reviewer might even bother to mention something so obvious as saying this show is a product of the trends of the 20th Century. There is something about seeing the faculty works alongside art that has found a place in the pantheon of art history that emphasizes the modernity of this show and makes one wonder how much of what is seen here is destined for the ages and what will get tossed in the dumpster in due course.
Surely every visitor will have their own opinions about this show, I will venture a few of my own, but only time will tell what is enduring.
(UW Faculty Exhibit continued from page 3)
If I had my say there would be less innovation and more craftsmanship. Surely after a century of pushing the boundaries, art could stand to catch it’s breath and just do something well instead of doing something new. I found myself under whelmed by works that focused more on process than product. I want the work to hit me in the face and pull me in. Only after it does that do I want to bother to read the wall cards that tell me what I am seeing. The tapestries presented by Leslee Nelson in this show were not nearly as visually rich as previous works I have encountered by Nelson. The transpositions of Martin Luther King and pop culture images by Gelsy Verna seemed half baked. The video work by Doug Rosenberg was rambling and unfocused. Having seen a well-taken photograph of the same event by James Gill, which was shown last summer at the Haggerty museum in the Wisconsin Artists Biennial, I was struck by the contrast between the two representations of the same event. Gill’s photo was a much more concise and poignant record of the event. Francis Myers’ video images of Europe are similarly tedious. That work brought back memories from my childhood of being forced to watch vacation slides accompanied by the droning narration of Uncle Wally. On the fourth floor was a video by Stephen Hilyard, which struck me as being rather like a screen saver. If there was one other disappointment I would single out it would be that there were no site filling installations of the sort that make use of the entire Paige court yard space.

Laurie Beth Clarke’s thought piece on the collective remembrance of trauma is a work I felt ambivalent about. This politically themed work is demanding of the viewer, but as a work of visual art it is not very visual. The artifacts in the installation have a staged anthropological feel to them. The heart of the work invites viewers to sit at a terminal and contemplate how trauma is remembered in specific sites around the globe. It looks like one could spend hours. In my brief encounter with the piece, I found myself wondering why the bulk of trauma sites in the world were located in Europe and North America… I did not notice any part of the installation which addressed this, but perhaps I did not dig deep enough.

Having aired my complaints I will move on to mention a few highlights. Be sure to trek up to the fourth floor as I found many favorites there. I was very taken by Tom Loeser’s work. The opposing curves and arresting colors of his “Very Large Bed” make for a dynamic work. I also enjoyed seeing Loeser’s distorted boats. The images imbedded in glass by Steve Feren had a pleasing luminous quality. I also found Lisa Gralnik’s Gold Standard images to be intriguing, especially the golden chastity belt. Finally there was a sculpture up on the fourth floor that could be described as a log vomiting out consumer goods. I enjoyed it and wish, I could credit the artist, but unfortunately I could not find a name card to go with it. Some of the other works worth seeing are Andrew Rubin’s The Gardener, Warrington Colescott’s The Blessings of Peace, The Curse of War and Daniel Ramirez’s La Duquesa #1.

Accompanying the show is a comprehensive catalog documenting the works and the artists. I found the catalog’s system of grouping the faculty into categories irritating, but fortunately the show makes no such distinctions.

All floors of the Chazen are accessible by elevator, so do not let the stairs deter you from seeing any of this show. Perhaps you will not agree with my verdict, but certainly you will find food for thought here.