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Thursday, November 09, 2006

Worthy alternative art transcends pop culture

By MARY LOUISE SCHUMACHER

mschumacher@journalsentinel.com
from JSOnline

Polka dancing in the aisles is not your everyday international art fair occurrence, but then the Milwaukee International Art Fair was not your everyday fair either.It was, in fact, an alternative to even the alternative international art fairs, which have proliferated around the globe, becoming showcases for the "emerging" art that's got the art market revving at a rapid fire pace.

With an unusual blend of sophistication and beer-on-tap, bowling-in-the-basement Milwaukee-ness, the fair was a modest variation on similar fairs like Scope in New York or the Stray Show in Chicago.

The merrymaking in the air at the Falcon Bowl, the Riverwest beer hall and "nest" of the Polish Falcons fraternal organization that served as home to the local show in October, was evidence that the weekend-long event accomplished its goal of being offbeat.

A blithe and jaunty sensuality reigned in much of the art. It is a playful, do-it-yourself aesthetic that has been the mainstay of alternative fairs for some years now.

Artists working in this vein specialize in varying forms of lo-fi mash-ups of pop and high culture.

Just about everywhere at the fair was the ephemeral stuff of a fourth-grade arts-and-craft class - Elmer's glue, glitter, paper, bright acrylic paints, pencils, crayons and cardboard. Everyday objects, like rubber ducks, abounded, too.

A childlike curiosity drives them more than weighty compositional or conceptual choices.

That there is a certain similarity in the overall look of the art seems both a positive and cautionary sign. On the one hand, it means that there is a global conversation going on between emerging artists who are represented by smaller, less commercial spaces and that a movement, of sorts, exists.

On the other hand, that sameness in this particular style of art making raises questions about originality and whether there's much of it to be had in this particular strata of the art world.

I love the idea of wonderfully disarming art, art that uses as a starting point a visual style as universally familiar as the Thanksgiving centerpieces we made from construction paper in elementary school.

But I have to confess, I love the idea more than the reality.

In truth, when artists go to great lengths to shrug off art-world seriousness the art they make is sometimes just that - not serious. Making anti-art can actually get in the way of making art.

I found myself looking for beauty and ideas and often wondering if there were some secret handshake that I was missing.

Perhaps most sad is that this carefree style may have become the antithesis of what it set out to be. It's a style that allows some artists to hide out, so to speak, to avoid the fundamental challenge of making something meaningful, poetic or beautiful. What was certainly daring at some point in the past can now be predictable and even safe.

But this is true of the alternative scene all around the globe, a fault that can hardly be laid at the feet of this particular fair.

In fact, this fair was arguably smarter than many because of its more manageable size. And it had its share of redeeming moments, too.

The two large-scale paintings by Christine Streuli, brought to the fair by Karma International in collaboration with Galleria Mark Muller in Zurich, were certainly among the better works in the show. Streuli does what lots of artists do - but better than many.

In her paintings, she selects imagery from a seemingly endless array of sources. A lattice pattern of a fence. The silhouette of a bird. An antique photo of a can-can dancer. Rorschach ink blots. Expressive dribbles of her own paint.

With electric color, she layers her obviously flat images into quasi-abstract paintings that mysteriously seem to develop depth before your eyes and become lighted from within, like surreal landscapes that might envelop you with a single step forward.

The jumbo eyes in the characters of Eddie Martinez' paintings are sweetly arresting, eyes with inky pupils that have gone wide from some unknown source of bliss.

In "Mr. Garcia McDonald," the figure's hair and beard are plump, blob-shaped swaths of luscious white paint that dominates the petite artwork, created in a naive style. Crammed in around the edges - for landscape and maybe a shoulder or two - are expressive strips of olives, sky blue and reds. Martinez was shown by Zieher Smith in New York.

That Gisela Insuaste has spent a great deal of time in places with visible and dramatic landscapes and is now making art in a pretty flat place - Chicago - makes perfect sense when you look at her art. She creates landscapes that seem a fragile balance between the natural world and the urban and manmade.

In them, flat sheaths of green are propped on giant, toothpick-like stilts, creating an intentionally artificial mountain range. She also creates fantastical bits of urban landscapes on planks of wood, using the wood grain to add a topographical element.

Insuaste's paintings are only hints at her installations, which appear to be her stronger work, but it's still a good introduction to what she does. She was shown by Polvo in Chicago.

Nate Page, a former Milwaukeean, had work up in the Hotcakes Gallery. He uses a technique that falls somewhere between drawing and carving, transforming women's magazines into topographical, sculptural forms. He slices concentric shapes in page after page, drilling down to find and isolate eyes in various advertisements, bring them up to the surface.

Hotel, a Portland, Ore., gallery, had works by Megan Whitmarsh on view. At a distance they look like solid blocks of color with specks of other colors. At close range, the tiny scenes with elves and Eskimos that she's embroidered onto stretched fabrics become visible. There is something very homey about her work, but it is Minimalist and modern in its spareness, too.

ONLINE

To see online videos about the Milwaukee International Art Fair and to see a selection of the art on view there, go to www.jsonline.com/links/artfairvideo.

5 : : : P O L V O : : :: Worthy alternative art transcends pop culture By MARY LOUISE SCHUMACHER mschumacher@journalsentinel.com from JSOnline Polka dancing in the aisles is not your everyday international a...

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