Expanding like a sponge with access to water, Milwaukee can’t help but ingest all the art it can get its dilated eyes upon. Gallery Night in Milwaukee is truly reaching major event status, even without complete buy-in from all of Milwaukee’s artistic strong holds.
Some of the Light, Blue Ant Gallery, Third Ward
Through the window of the beautiful Shade Shop Building on Milwaukee and St. Paul, black and white projections of President’s faces shine through a black drape. As a passer by you must go in.
Bryan Cera pulled all kind of crap, from all over the place for Some of the Lights, jury rigging an utter bastardization of multi-media consumer electronics, in the devastating can be used to describe a gorgeous person kind of way.
Some of the Light, Bryan Cera
Some computer device sits on a table with a two posable antenna protruding. It has a lime green screen with two half-inch vertical lines at the bottom left and right corners. A section at the top looks like it is ready to keep score. Could this be PONG! No, even better voice controlled PONG!
Those to antenna were actually microphones, calibrated to move the PONG paddles up the side of the screen in proportion the decibel level and length the note held in your voice. The object of the game is to return the ball to your opponent by positioning the paddle with sound. The microphones amplified grunts, hums, and ahhhs used to steady the paddle, absurdly audible.
A face sticks to the wall via illusion. A video projection of Cera is throw on a mold of a face from behind, a video recorded Cera talks in monotone non-sequiturs to whoever stands and stares.
You notice some one on the way to the exit, heading past two square plastic dishes holding water. Inverted cones rise above the dishes, a cord hangs back into each dish. A digitized wail blares out, a you look for a robotic recreation of WALL-E. The person heading for the exit back tracks in front of the dish apparatus, cueing the sound effects.
A motion sensor translates physical activity from objects in its range into audio frequencies. The sound bothers the water in the square dishes enough for a light to reflect shadows of concentric circles on the wall, commonly attributed to droplets returning to their source.
Turning 1 of 4 knobs, sections of face from various Presidents rotate in view. Video projected on black cloth, crown, nose and chin are mixed and matched from assorted portraits of our nation’s past and present Executives.
Dazed and Computed
Bryan Cera, artist and wizkid, may be cast in the real life documentary of TRON, completely accidentally, any day now. Some of the Light was one of Milwaukee’s best done freelance exhibits to date. Wanna see more from Bryan Cera look! O_O
An hour jaunt up I-43 will land you in Sheboygan, WI, a stylish lakeside neighbor with maritime charm. John Michael Kohler (Gilded Age Wisconsin industrialist and famed namesake of fine toilet and faucet fixtures) felt Sheboygan, at population of 15,000, had too many people a decade into the 20th century to have room for his factory. Cuddled by a patch of forest a few miles away, Kohler, WI became the cradle of iron castings, guiding water through America’s homes and beyond.
The Kohler estate stayed active in Sheboygan and opened the John Michael Kohler Art Center 1967. Completely remodeled during the early 2000’s, the JMKAC greets visitors with a reclaimed historic facade of the town’s library, now serving as a gateway into JMKAC’s modest concrete sculpture garden.
Beasts of Burden
In the JMKAC gallery space, Animal Magnetism shows its last artwork selection in the exhibition entitled Animal Instinct: Allegory, Allusion and Anthropomorpism. Animal Instinct suspends tremendous visual interpretations of animals interacting in their natural habitat, with humans and the human imagination. Multiple artistic techniques and styles represented challenge the viewer’s reality often.
Several large John James Audubon encyclopedic depictions of North American wildlife, from the Milwaukee Art Museum collection, highlight the Animal Instinct installation. Although Audubon sat as a foremost anthropologist of his time, his work through today’s lens appears to project human anxiety on his subject matter. With this tendency, Audubon readily cohabits with the mostly impressionist and surrealist presentations currently found at JMKAC.
Animal Instinct also contains selection of excellent contemporary art pieces. Possessing similar affect to Audubon’s, George Boonrujy inks extraordinary illustrated portraits of animals. Rendering them absent of their habitat, Boonrujy, with or without intent, subtly personifies his impressions of animals surviving life. An artist with Wisconsin ties, Gina Litherland overtly weaves animal life into her graphic story telling. Through her chosen medium, improbable interactions with human beings take place that Litherland makes seem mundane.
In the adjacent gallery, Animal Magnetism transitions into the next JMKAC exhibit Hiding Places: Memory in the Arts. In addition to professional artists, Hiding Places notably calls attention to work of self-taught artists considered by medical standards psychologically impaired (or gifted). Capturing the ruminations of artist savants, Hiding Places allows entry into forbidden mental spaces of several contemporary artists.
New York artist William Powhida shares small pencil sketched faces of Everyone [Powihida has] Ever Met from Memory (that [Powhida] Can Remember). You might not care to know the guy that his female roommate brought around that he wanted to beat up, but surely some of the characters sketches that accompany his sketches will provide mild amusement. For ponder, Gregory Blackmon visually gives a Complete Musical Review of the Augmented Triad Chords, along with other illustrated lists of boats, planes, six-legged pests, and pit-bulls.
Several other mental feats, among others, positioned for view are the works of Mark Fox who kept lists of popular cereals and t.v. lineups and attempted to draw, cut and 3-D collage everything that he ever owned. Wisconsin native George Widener devised and meticulously illustrated a method of picking out dates falling on Friday, on which interesting things will happen. A host of additional mind-boggling Widener works address infamous dates in history, all oriented around numbers and thoughts chronicled in tiny penmanship covering every corner of the paper.
The John Michael Kohler Art Center (608 New York Avenue, Sheboygan) is not to be confused with the Kohler Design Center (the toilet museum). However, the Kohler folks made sure the bathrooms at JMKAC were pretty impressive too.
Significant, road construction prevents access to the JMKAC from 6th Street. Gain access to New York Ave from the downtown side, on 7th, where you can park complementary for 2 hours, and 25 cents an hour thereafter.
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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.
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.
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
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.