Installations and Outstallations

Gary John Gresl: an Assembler

by Eddee Daniel

A small cabinet contains some unlabeled and unidentifiable pickled vegetables and jellied fruits—and dime store Indianhead salt and pepper shakers. But the contents are obscured by the cabinet itself, which is thoroughly encrusted with multi-hued buttons, old Christmas light bulbs, miniature statuary, vintage cameos. It is festooned with hemp, rawhide, feathers, and strings of beadwork. A familiar looking sock puppet monkey hangs ignominiously off to the side. An old enameled tin spoon stands at attention atop it all. It is a commanding gesture, but one left open to interpretation.
Titled “Mnemonic Device, I Remember Grandma,” this is one of the more restrained
and contained assemblages by Gary John Gresl. Some of the more flamboyant installations feature human and animal skulls, stuffed deer with racks of antlers, rifles, feathered arrows, fishing paraphernalia, full-scale farm implements and other machinery. Gresl calls himself “an assembler,” which is an understatement.
Gresl told me that his work is inspired by the environments and people of his youth: “cabins, fishing holes, farms with their dried corn stalks and haylofts, attics and country auctions, and the good unpolished people that were my aunts and uncles, cousins and friends, all Wisconsinites.” But, although the work at a superficial glance appears to be rough and haphazard, his ideas are anything but unpolished.
Gresl counts Robert Rauschenberg and the abstract expressionists among his many influences and considers Franz Kline, “with his huge bold black and white strokes” a favorite. The connection could easily be overlooked, but the relationship is there in the extravagant gestures of thick rope, steel barrel staves, worn wagon wheels, and—yes—antlers and bones.
It will come as no surprise that for several decades Gresl made his living as an antique dealer. In fact, I first met him in his shop in Milwaukee’s Third Ward, a typically dusty and cluttered establishment full of potential treasures. “I chose that occupation for the most part because the objects fascinated me. Handling antiques and collectibles have provided me with opportunities for learning: . . . their design . . . their history . . . their sometimes peculiar and enlightening place in cultures. They bring [to
my sculptures] that sort of multi-layered history with the associations and possibility to create metaphors.”
Gresl’s love of materiality is self-evident in his artwork. The conceptual rigor that lies beneath the encrusted cabinetry takes more effort to appreciate. But it is well worth it.
Gresl supplements his labor-intensive installations with collections of images he calls “Outstallations.” These are interventions in the landscape that become available in the gallery setting through meticulously composed photographs. While I personally find the installations richer in texture, denser with metaphoric possibility, and packing a more powerful emotional punch, I look forward to seeing how this new phase of Gresl’s long career develops.

Eddee Daniel is a Wauwatosa artist, for more of his writing and photography, visit:

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