Tuesday, February 25, 2014

MOWA to My People

Why the heck would anyone go to West Bend, Wisconsin?

I can give you a reason. Besides the fact that there's a pretty awesome Goodwill, there is also a great little museum called The Museum of Wisconsin Art (MOWA). I tried to find this museum in December and my GPS led me astray. I now know it's because MOWA moved locations in April of 2013 to a swanky new building that I'm sure will be added to Wisconsin's list of boastworthy architecture (if not to Google Maps). Perched on the river in downtown West Bend, it swanks in modern geometrical elegance.

The whiteness and use of windows are slightly reminiscent of MAM's Calatrava, but pared down to meet the needs of a more modest West Bend. Luckily I went on a sunny day and the design of architect Jim Fields had its full effect on me as I moved throughout the space.

Currently on view is the Wisconsin Artists Biennal, a judged competition open to applicants statewide. This year the exhibition includes 53 pieces of art by Wisconsin artists selected by judge Molly Zuckerman-Hartung (this is one of the coolest artist websites I've seen, be sure to check it out). "Each piece has a story; come join us for the conversation." No problem, MOWA. What I found to be intriguing about this exhibition was the way I reacted to not only the artwork, but to the hometown of the artist in combination with the work. I found myself saying, "How could an artist from ______ make a piece like that?" It was as if I was looking for a characteristic of that town in the person's art. Which is why it was incredibly jarring when I saw something I never thought I'd see: a Menomonee Falls artist.

Bruce Humphries, Hand Cranked Sound Machine, 2013

If I imagine the kind of art that I think would come out of Menomonee Falls, this is not what it looks like. Seeing the name "Menomonee Falls" on the wall made me feel kind of exposed, as if other people in the gallery would make assumptions about my hometown based on this piece. I don't think of Menomonee Falls as a place that typically fosters artists, but I guess if it yielded me, Bruce, a handful of teachers, and a couple other people I know who went on to study art in college, then maybe there is a force lurking in the quiet suburban neighborhoods that supports artistic life after all. This town ain't big enough for the both of us, Bruce!

Next, another artist living close to home.

Janet Roberts, Earth Angel, 2013

Roberts hails from Brookfield, a place that I actually just recently referred to as "worse than Menomonee Falls." But I love this painting! The text on the woman's tattoo reads: "Rockabilly Girl." I looked it up and could only find one tattoo place in Brookfield, Lakeside Tattoo. I wonder if this is where rockabilly girl got her tat...

Speaking of tattoos (as if I haven't done enough of that lately...), another cool piece.

Brent Crabb, True Love, 2013

Crabb resides in Green Bay. I found a short bio on a website called Inkdrop Arthaus that reads, I studied commercial art in La Crosse, WI. I then went on to study drafting and mechanical design in Green Bay, WI. I have done illustration and logo work, renderings for developers and real-estate companies, numerous commission drawings, and worked many years as a monument layout artist. The site also has several pages of Crabb's superb graphite drawings. It appears that he draws what he sees in front of him rather than what he sees in his head, which makes me wonder if "True Love" was an event that he observed in real time at some tattoo parlor in Green Bay. 

The next piece was done by a Madison artist, one of many in the show.

Lee Ann Kleeman, Still Life with Bugs, 2012

The work is made from pieces of stitched fabric, a play on a traditional still life. Oddly enough, out of anything in the show, this piece reminds me the most of the place it came from. But that's because the Madison I know is a cute little white house of a family member that I usually stay with when I visit. To others Madison might be a place where they had the worst hangover of their lives, or visited the capitol building, or went to college. In that case, this piece may not seem very Madison at all. 

I'll compare my experience at MOWA to listening to music made by people that I'm friends with. It's hard to think of it as something to listen to casually and get into because for me it's almost a bit awkward to hear my friends being expressive. It felt the same way at this exhibition. When I look at art at other museums, I guess I don't really care where the artists are from. But this time it was personal. 

One last thing I liked about MOWA was that they had an open collections storage, which is a concept that was introduced to me recently.

Other institutions like The Brooklyn Museum have been implementing this tool for awhile now. Students, scholars, and the general public can gain a sneak peek at what the museum has in storage and they don't even have to make an appointment or special trip to the basement to do it. This is actually the only open storage space in an art museum in Wisconsin. MOWA is ahead of its peers in this respect at going above and beyond to create a unique museum experience.

One thing I will say, if you do take a trip over to West Bend, make sure you've got at least $12 in your pocket. The museum charges a $12 entry fee that makes you a member of the museum which you can then enter at no charge for a year. I understand that by doing this it gives people an incentive to visit the museum again, but I feel like the institution itself is enough reason to visit more than once in a year. You've got the powa, MOWA. Use it! Also, I really could have used that extra cash to go to Goodwill afterwards...

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