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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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.