Retrospective: Gallery Night, Summer 2009

Local Trolley Issue 5, Post 4

Originally posted July 27, 2009 on the Sane Artworks Blog, this is a bad-a#$’s version of a Shih Tzu.

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All around Milwaukee you can see physical changes taking place: clean-cut mixed-use developments, fragrant plantings in the boulevards. The streets are even getting paved after ten years of neglect. Some of that same rejuvenating energy is being released on the social scene too. Gallery Night is not a new invention and it’s nice to see creative outlets taking root in Milwaukee.

One of my favorite displays of the night hung not from a wall of Art Asia, but from the shoulder of a stern-looking fellow who looked like a typical renegade with a Harley parked outside. Stereotypes in place, alligator would be expected to cover his feet. Instead one rested gently cradled on his forearm and bicep. Everyone has to have a cause.

The caretaker of the endangered Chinese Alligator had the kind of leeriness emitting from those that think satellite surveillance is being taken of them. Apparently he has been battling the animal rights activist, the extreme ones that do not believe anyone should own pets (especially if they are alligators). Those pretentious fun-suckers! Personally, I am all for docile 45 lbs, 18 year old alligators chilling on Gallery Night with their masters. Wait a minute… this must be one of only several handfuls of Chinese Alligators left on the planet.

Everything was red. Not Commy red but deep visceral blood red. This relic of a beast fit in perfectly with the ambiance of Art Asia, a trading post of Chinese gifts, furniture, and artifacts. Minus the crowd hovering around reptilian and owner, you may not have noticed the gator’s presence. It was a serene creature, an expression opposite to the one given by the typical bewitching “alligator smile”. The constant glance of this creature lacked menace unlike its relatives, looking almost relieved to feel protected by and outside force other than it’s own wild instinct. I am usually harsh on exotic animal owners, but I think I can let this one slide. My super-cool friend Miranda and I both ended up donating 5 bucks to the cause.

Gallery Night is a quarterly event.

Local Trolley En Route

February 1st is Local Trolley’s birthday! After starting in 2009, as content of Sane Artwork’s Blog, Local Trolley is now toddling from the nest.

Same author, new concept, new space. I thought it best to separate the art I create from the art I consume. Local Trolley’s content will share with you activities, places and events I find note worthy.

To provide some continuity during the transition and commemorate my second anniversary blogging, I will make some retrospective posts that originally appeared on the Sane Artwork’s Blog.

Now look back at these posts on Local Trolley!

Retrospective: Dynerman, Train Project

Retrospective: Levine and Heimerl, Handmade Nation

Retrospective: Levine and Heimerl, Handmade Nation

I really enjoyed the film Handmade Nation, the work of Milwaukee documentarians. The review I authored entitled Manifest Dexterity originally posted February 8, 2009 on Sane Artworks Blog.

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Manifest Dexterity

Wanna stick it to the “the man”? What if I told you that you could do it in the comfort of your own home, on a park lawn, by yourself or with a crew of friends. What if I told you that you could and only reap the rewards of soul-inspiring fulfillment and not the affection of INTERPOL. Sounding unreasonable? The United States premiere of the film Handmade Nation made believers out of a capacity crowd at the Oriental Theatre in Milwaukee.

Judging from the flock of movie-goers you would have thought the Dali Lama was in town. With the theatre’s Buddha statues mounted on the balconies presiding, Handmade Nation written and directed by Faythe Levine and Courtney Heimerl took us on an easy ride through the winding open road of ‘crafting’. HMN covers 19,000 miles worth of perspectives, traveling cross-country to interview crafters in all four corners of the continental US.

If your senses are easily overloaded this is not the film to see. HMN begins with a sentient needle scurrying across the screen, with beady friends and inky playmates, adding to the ever-morphing patchwork quilt and screen-printed background. They say you cant judge a book by its cover, but opening sequences definitely set the tone for great films in the 21st century and HMN‘s doesn’t disappoint.

Know Thyself

What is crafting anyway? Any person engaging in this activity will be reluctant to tell you with any certainty; that would ruin the fun. In different pockets of the US, HMN documentarians asked partakers of the tactile fellowship their thoughts on crafting. Harvesting various answers, a few common threads still ran threw the craft-persons’ responses each unique in the coloring and texture describing their ethics in relation to their preferred craft.

Without prompting, it became apparent that to a crafter our consumer culture is a bother and a bore. Consumerism is impersonal, mass produced, ruthless in its hoarding of resources, and most tragically mind-numbing. Fed up with corporate sales associates ringing-up cloned scarfs and greeting cards incubated on computer screens, the keepers of the crafting code urge you to stop and think before you brandish your magnetized plastic filled with money credits.

Here a distinction must be made. We’re not talking about the crafting that will take you to Michael’s after watching a couple of Martha Stewart episodes and cause you to break out the bedazzle gun. As HMN plays on, it’s clear that transforming reality, by taking a stand against idle fingers and the capitalist big-box, requires commitment to an ethic.

On the most fundamental level the crafter, born through a series of realizations, possesses an intriguing awareness of the relationship between using your hands to interact with the materials around you and the sensation of connectedness to your habitat. This process departs from the traditional artist, likely more concerned with conveying an idea, evoking irony, or a portraying a particular aesthetic. Seeking confirmation of life’s presence, the stimulation of senses provide crafters a motivating catalyst to create. The crafter removes the isolation of modern life by making things and sharing them.

The crafter locates self by eliminating the mysterious origin of objects both novel and utilitarian. Craft-culture rejects all-things paternal and challenges us to not hinder our personal maturation by standing in-line for things we want or need all the time. According to a certain social theorist, people are cooler in uptown Manhattan anyway.

Conservation Bandits

The need to conserve by recreating with the previously used is a renewable theme throughout the film. Rather than staging a workers rally, one with busy hands admits that she buys only pre-owned fabric to make her garments. Before tailoring a class piece of formal wear, another crafter contemplates the implications of cutting into a 50 year-old piece of fabric commenting, “what gives me the right to cut into this fabric?” Doing more than ‘tree-hugging’, a dedicated crafter uses recycled paper as the medium of choice for post cards and such, decreasing demand for felled trees. The principle is one less fiber purchased retail is one less environmentally inconsiderate product that needs to be re-stocked on the shelf.

It’s not coincidental that ‘Do-it-Yourself’ has an activist application. Conservation is kind of like the crafters’ Swiss army knife; it’s a versatile instrument of change. Endearingly, crafters are willing to engage social problems on a level that departs from an annoying issue-mongers’ tendency for screaming, guilt-tripping and proselytizing. Maybe we don’t need another hero, we just need a bunch of tiny creative moments to make change.

The limits of conservation extend beyond physical materials to preservation of ancient methods. In one scene, a young woman teetering light-reflecting safety goggles from her nose, donning a tattered long sleeve sweater with strings dangling from the wrist and a payload of necklaces B.A. Baracas-style, ignites a blue-flamed torch a foot from her face that looks like it could melt a diamond. We soon learn that Tracy Bull of Happy Owl Glassworks is nonchalantly risking her eyebrows to preserve a 2,000 year-old glass-beading technique. Now that is hardcore.

Minute sized paper cutouts of cultural symbols and fauna are carefully whittled with an Xacto blade at the fingertips of Nikki McClure, her works are anthropological manuscripts translating bygone creative eras practiced by Chinese, African, and Middle Eastern cultures, connecting us to what our human ancestors were doing with their energy.

Expressing conservation comes not only with their chosen mediums and techniques, but also with diet. Working from the inside out, for some, tuning-in to the craft wavelength requires the compassion for all living beings expressed through vegan practices. That’s how one participant entered the craft chamber, “just getting together with friends to craft and enjoy good food.” That’s the beauty of it. It’s just that simple.

Causing a Commotion

If human interaction and conservation are not motivation enough, crafting also appeals to the inner renegade rebel in all of us. It was hippy-ness and punk rock for the younger Baby Boomers and grunge for the Gen X-ers. Now since both are well into their thirties, forties and fifties, according to the fist law of thermodynamics, that rebellious energy has to go somewhere, but where? (I’m a young Gen X-er pardon my sarcasm, it is well intended). The recent generations are not immune.

Some of my favorite parts of HMN depict deviant behavior that is decidedly anti-establishment. The proprietor of Anti – Factory stages a public contest to see who could knit the best bootleg of the Burberry pattern. Receiving many demonstrations she is able to construct hand bags that soon become popular. Take that posh name brand!

A posse of Texas knitters take the proverbial cake. With nicknames like Notorious N.I.T and J – Nitty, the group Nitta’ takes crafting guerrilla. When night falls they pile into a compact economy car. Timing the precise opportunity-maximizing-moment they jump out, to stealth-bomb-knit a Technicolor muffler onto a street sign post and vanish into the night. Cleverly mocking municipal bureaucrats and graffiti artists simultaneously with a stab of the knitting needle, the least crafting can do for you is provide some amusement.


Handmade Nation (2009) Trailer, Levine and Heimerl

Thumping Pareto

There is a parallel story to this motion-picture look into an American subculture that adds instead of takes away from our collective wellbeing. One of the film’s makers, Levine, also runs a local Milwaukee outlet called Paper Boat Boutique and Gallery (kind of defunct now), which as recently as January 30th was set to close, nearly unfathomable given the talent and drive of Levine. However, crafting economics defy the conventional wisdom of enterprise enough for an imminent shutdown to make sense.

Presenting an alternative model for business proves a little trickier than selecting the perfect place for a new hem. Shamelessly labor and input intensive, craft-based shops snub the profit-maximizing formula in favor of unconventional antics. If you see a six-foot-tall canvas cuboid resembling a vending machine inching toward you, wildly painted with small pictures on the front and a slot for stuffing in dollar bills, you might think you are on Japanese television, but know that a starving crafter just wants to make ends meet with some of his prints.

Efforts of magnitude replace economies of scale and sweat-equity won’t cut it. Evidenced by a vendor’s ordeal, who while embellishing one of her craft fair displays accidentally staples her index finger, badly, you have to be willing to sign your check in blood. Ensuing film frames capture a friendly neighbor arriving, without cue, to lend some clot-aiding pressure and moral support. The HMN viewer then understands that ink runs thicker than water.

The mend of the crafting community weaves together a closely packed network of individuals devoted to a common bond. HMN confirms that interaction with objects is secondary to the magic that happens when humans decide to appreciate what they agree on. The turnout to last Thursday’s premiere gives an unequivocal testament to this fact. Levine and Heimerl have clearly dedicated their energies to the most deserving places. Smacking the smiles off the big yellow circle-faced end-caps that dominate our consumption habits, Levine’s film makes a strong case for the premium warranted for crafter-made items.

Crafters are giving much of themselves physically and emotionally to carry alternatives to commercial-merchandise. A splurge in Handmade Nation is a tithe that sustains the availability of choices that American’s crave. Their take is not so much gratitude, as just desserts. It’s the only way they can stay afloat. A good amount of the film’s craft fair footage takes place outside. That means you have plenty of time to plan an outing to a craft fair.

Riders of the Storm

Having a group ‘collective unconscious’ definitely does not preclude self-consciousness. Ironically, in the heat of the struggle to remain Indie and commercial-free, the Handmade Nation is aware that their experiment with creativity could turn on the doctor. There is a dark-side. Will the evil empire cunningly find a way to capture one of the last remaining reaches of uncharted market segments? High-end designers and retail executives need to stand down and mind their demographics. Although the odds are stacked against them, the craft guild and its admirers are a fortuitous bunch. It’s up to free thinkers to bestow the social and economic capital that can keep the penny hoarders at bay.

Upcoming screenings of Handmade Nation include stops in New York’s Museum of Art and Design next week, and venues in Toronto, Canada, Barcelona, Spain, Melbourne, Australia, returning to the area at Madison’s Wisconsin Film Festival April 2 – 5, 2009 details TBA. Handmade Nation is also in print! Check here for the latest HMN news.

Retrospective: Waldek Dynerman, Train Project

A post about artist Waldek Dynerman was my first. The original release date was February 1, 2009 on the Sane Artworks Blog.

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Non-Obvious takes on Big History through Little Eyes

In plain view under a curved lamppost with a conical fixture beaming down light, sits an endomorphic body-type mannequin postured upright on a wooden chair at the far end of a 20-foot table; it ominously presides over the diorama scenes intermittently placed over the balance of the wooden surface. The main action of Waldek Dynerman’s Train Project lives here. Curious on lookers begin to meander towards this area like cautious deer fawn at dusk, visibility is low. Me being one of them I decide to keep my distance, the diminutive artistic elements could be sensitive to clumsy eyes or just in case that mannequin decides to stand up I will have a clear path to the exit.

Not having read the description of this event, to my recollection, I am beginning to ask myself why I came. It’s all so random, even creepy. I have seen it before, weird for weird’s sake. I’m from the seminal days of Riddlin prescriptions: ahem, some of us wore mental disturbance like a badge not knowing you could get labeled for it.

A man comes forth subtly, gets the group’s attention with a well placed ‘auuh…’ and reluctantly grants us permission to sit on the floor if we preferred, or otherwise make ourselves comfortable. The gentleman wears a conservative zip-neck sweater that covers an Oxford, and aside from a slightly disheveled bush of hair is markedly non-descriptive; maybe he is the host, definitely not the artist. Expecting Marilyn Manson incarnate to ascend from the concrete floor below, the gentleman, Dynerman to my chagrin, initiates his talk.

Days of Grace

Born 6 years after the end of WWII to a Polish-Jewish father and Christian mother, Dynerman begins recounting the time period of his childhood in post-war Poland and France. “A lot of what we saw on television and in movies was about the war,” as if to understate a great preoccupation of the times, “we used the German words we heard when we played our games.” Sometimes Dynerman was a German soldier exhorting a courageous Pole playmate that defied the order to ‘halt’. Dynerman’s father was a holocaust survivor, doing so with Dynerman’s grandparents by living 18 months without leaving a family friend’s 10 X 10 cellar room. When the ordeal ended, he recounts that his father found none remaining from his former life and eventually moved to Paris where he met his mother before moving to Israel.

The picture slowly comes together during Dynerman’s discussion. The installation features multiple sculptures and miscellaneous tangible elements amply spaced on the walls, floor and on hand-made pedestals. Scanning the installation, heads, malformed torsos and eerily dismembered doll limbs slowly come to focus in the midst of small wooden shelters and platforms. However, small human figurines of laymen, by standers, and soldiers are the stars of this exhibit.

One figurine stands roughly two inches tall and is dwarfed by two quarter pieces of cinder block fused together, to form what looks like a giant high modern building on a European street corner. The figurine lonesomely steps onto a mock curb illuminated by a scaled-down model street lamp. Half-way across the room in the shadow cast behind the large endomorphic mannequin , a crowd of peach colored figurines bunches up when approached by an on coming hoard of evergreen tinted army soldiers with ranks that reach around to the lateral side of the mannequin’s wooden throne.

Is any one watching? Certainly not the mannequin who is content to glare forward, certainly not the fortunate peach figurines that are watching the small LCD displays flickering pretty colors in cozy wood enclosures. He reveals that this work’s subject matter is the holocaust, among other genocides as they have occurred as recently as this year.

Artist in Our Minds

A painter by trade and training Dynerman decided to deviate from his master craft into sculpture, to satisfy his want to delve into a medium with which he was always fascinated. “I always found mannequins interesting,” he utters. While reflecting on his decision not to incorporate several large paintings into to the piece, he wonders into a thought about how he preferred to have a stark white background for the exhibit so that the viewer could “wash their eyes” and refresh their minds before continuing to different parts of the gallery.

His philosophy is consistent and modest. Dynerman’s father and his father before him were tin craftsmen. In ode to his memories, fashioned metal street lights in various scaled-states frequently dot the dusky hall punctuating the tiny dramatic scenes in perpetual suspense. His conversation trickles English with an endearing thick native Polish-speaking accent, “I grew up around a shop so I always liked building things… the things you see here, the pedestals, the table…. are all built by hand…and when I build them I craft them to the extent that they serve the purpose that they are built for and not more.” He’s right staining the woodwork would look contrived.

There is quite a bit of irony here and the use of scale is apparent in the exhibition. Located on the table opposite the seat-perched mannequin is a 3-foot-tall tin model of the Eiffel tower flanked by miniature coniferous trees. Dynerman shares that his father retained his love for Paris, even while in Israel, and constructed the model of the famous structure as a gift to Dynerman. To use the iconic landmark often revered for its invocation of love and freedom as a backdrop for his mini-theatre, is a brilliant twist on reality. “I have no sensible response,” he offers when I asked if there is a deeper meaning to the use of scale in his art. “I think that somehow the viewer may have more empathy [for small doll-like figures],” his tone is somewhat playful when making this remark as if he is omitting something from a secret recipe. I think he has discovered a way to mock human cognition into choosing its own adventure instead of spoon-feeding perceptions.

For Dynerman, by his own admission, simply “painting death” seemed inappropriate. Lucky for us we are able to see Dynerman’s motion picture snap-shot of the human condition projected on the adjacent wall from the point of view of a remote-camera-equipped model train, scurrying on the table behind the omnipotent mannequin, alongside the madness of the evergreen aggressors converging on innocent peach crowds, turning with the track to a straight away with a small mirror positioned like a billboard capturing the face of the mannequin in the reflection, then futilely hustling past a neon blue filament-lit carousel that upon closer examination is housing a series of severed doll feet and legs protruding from the inner cylinder of the amusement park favorite, only to endlessly repeat the circuit as if to take the spectator on a whimsical reoccurring nightmare. If you are paying attention, it is surreal. Train Project is on display at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee Union Gallery from January 26 – February 27, 2009.

Now You’re on the Trolley

Local Trolley blog is the result of a planned schism of the Sane Artworks Blog. Frankly, how long can Artworks stay Sane anyway? Sane Artworks did some quality galloping and finding, so before moving on there will be a retrospective of some of the highlights of the Sane Artworks blog related to events and happenings.

Local Trolley will focus on sights, sounds, tastes, and vibes of Milwaukee primarily. Since local is where you are in the moment, inevitably there will be posts that take you outside of the 414 area code.