Interview with Alec Regan of American Fantasy Classics

American Fantasy Classics is a team of four individuals – Brittany Ellenz, Liza Pflughoft, Alec Regan, and Oliver Sweet – who collaborate with contemporary artists on projects as diverse as building sculptural installations from digital patterns, curating group shows, and delivering personalized floral invitations.  The collaborative nature of the project effectively complicates the singularity of “author” and challenges the transparency of “fabricator.”  I sat down with Regan to talk about the mystique, attitude, and aesthetics of American Fantasy Classics.

Stephen Strupp: I want to ask you about the name “American Fantasy Classics” but I don’t want to ruin the mystery.

Alec Regan: Well, that is the best part about it right?  That it seems really specific but it’s also kind of mysterious?  It’s crafted to be exactly what it is.  Seriously, Oliver and I took six months to carefully craft that name.  We came up with a few different names, added little bits to it, took little bits off, and finally settled on that.

It’s supposed to evoke references to all that pulp fiction and Dungeons and Dragons kind of world, boyhood… these different worlds of craft-oriented stuff and science fiction.  I think science fiction is a big proto for AFC even if it doesn’t show up a ton in the work.  And also there’s these sort of driving ideas that seem to be important to AFC that may not necessarily show up in the work but it’s part of an attitude that we think about a lot.  It also has to do with a lot of what we are attracted to coming from Oliver’s taste and choices.

SS: Is the attitude something you guys talk about?

Album art for "s/t c6" by HD Boys on Talisman Tapes

AR: Yeah, it definitely is.  Once you move away from following a commercial gallery model you realize you get to inject some of your own style into the project.  We don’t have to be neutral like a gallery tends to have to be.  But since there’s four people then you say, “OK, should we keep it consistent?” – because each of us have our own personal style.  I know my personal work and Brittany’s personal work is a lot different than what we are trying to do as a group.  So we had to pick and define a few things.  A lot of the aesthetic we use is sort of coming off the end of a style that Oliver has used quite a bit.  He has this tape label called Talisman Tapes and also something else called Technosnake Tapes, which is much more mysterious, and I think a lot of the visual stuff that goes with that sort of started us on a train of thought that AFC picks up on.

SS: Would you say the project is mysterious to the four of you even as participants?

AR: I wouldn’t use the word ‘mysterious.’  I like that it can look that way to other people and hope that it does a lot times.  For us I wouldn’t say it’s mysterious, it’s more like we are really open for it to go in whatever direction it ends up going, and a lot of time that it’s going to depend on who we work with.  We are keeping it wide open, really nebulous, so that it can take whatever shape it happens to need to take. I think a great example of that is when we worked with Paul Druecke delivering flowers and acted as sort of agents of him and made these faux flower delivery uniforms that were also American Fantasy Classics uniforms. That’s a great example of us being open to letting the project go wherever it can go and also Paul being really observant about the project.  That was Paul’s idea and it made so much sense and was valuable to both of our separate projects as well as the project we collaborated on.  It helped define what the group can be, helped open that up.  Because once you start delivering flowers in fake uniforms you start to realize there’s not a lot that you couldn’t do.

So for us it’s not a mystery, because a mystery kind of suggests that there is an answer that’s just obscured for you, whereas we are right at the edge of it constantly looking out, exploring what it could be.

American Fantasy Classics will be featured from February 11th through March 3rd in MIAD’s “New Exchanges: Evolving Visual Ideas and Forms” exhibition. 


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Wisconsin Triennial

A path through the Wisconsin Triennial

By Ashley Janke

Taking place once every three years, and thinning out a pool of 480 applicants to 40, the Wisconsin Triennial is considered the most prestigious juried show to come out of the state. Around 18 months in advance, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA) sends out a ‘call for artists’ asking for uploaded images and videos. The only application requirement is living as a full time resident of Wisconsin. The three curators then venture out on a statewide trip to visit a selection of artists’ studios. Narrowing down a vast assortment of artists, whose eligibility rests only in their residency, presents the jurors with a massive array of media, concepts, and ages. Once the artists are chosen MMoCA offers the public a condensed perception of the direction the Wisconsin arts community is moving toward.

Having no intentional common element to pull the show together, besides region, few preconceived notions are formed before entering, but many questions arise. Knowing no theme exists among them, is it fair to attempt to umbrella such a meticulously chosen group of work? If a theme arises, is it fair to elaborate on it knowing there are no thoughtful intentions behind it? And with no common thread, how can the curator present a fluid show and still do justice to each individual piece? What approach will the curator take to pull the viewer along so each piece is equally represented among the others?

Entering the pointy faced three story building I am immediately presented with a choice between two entry ways to the exhibition. The path on the right leads to three inch thick slabs of glass stacked two inches apart to form a stair way. They ascend to the second floor past windows extending from the base to the upper limit of the building. To the left, three cement steps rise to glass doors surrounded by a glass wall, through which the exhibition is already visible.  The visibility draws me to it as my first point of access and I wonder why the curator chose the work here, to most likely be seen first. A clean white arrangement of piping consumes a good third of the window pane. I recognize it as an installation from MIAD’s own Jason Yi. It is quintessential work of which I am familiar.  The piece is large, sterile, monochromatic, and heavily process orientated. Each section of tubing links with another in a massive tangled web. The common hardware connects in intercut intersections, which remind me of the way a master welder would join metal. I picture Yi repetitiously piecing it all together, meditatively, one by one. Rhythm in process. Why should this piece go here? Because of its starkness? Because it leaves so much open? Two elements any Joe Shmoe can relate to are technical skill and work ethic. The time element in this piece is not only visible but recognized immediately. However, the content and material are more abstracted. Those rudiments together form a common interest between the general and art community. If this is the entrance point where is the exit? What piece will pull the viewer through to the end and where will it be placed? What form will it take?

I leave base level and climb the stairway to the second level. There are no glass walls here, only glass doors, the solid space of the walls acts as another surface to present work. The stairwell shows assorted photographs by MIAD’s Sonja Thomsen ranging from landscape to figurative. The size of these images vary but none exceed a width of five inches. The inside of the doorway is showcased by a floor to ceiling, patterned, colorful triangle by Eduardo Villanueva, one of two sight-specific pieces in the show. The piece is barely notable upon entry considering it is almost completely flat against the wall and is immediately behind the viewer. However, it works as the perfect lure to guide the viewer back through the near 100-yard room. The wall facing the door on the opposite side of the room is filled with an array of square little shiny images or sculptures, they are too far for me to make out. The way the colors of the objects lead between yellows and blues draw me in and continuously pull me across the space to observe what they are made of. Within feet, I am surprised with myself for not recognizing the objects sooner. Polaroids, ten years and a day of them, by Milwaukee’s Marc Tasman. The idea is not a new one. In 2006, Noah Kalina posted a YouTube animation of himself in six years in photographs called Everyday. His piece received national attention including being shown on VH1, written up in the New York Times, and spoofed on by an episode of the Simpsons. How is this any different or innovative? I am not sure if the concept of it exceeds previous demonstrations of self-evolution through photographs, however, this is not only self-evolution, it is the evolution of media. With in the ten years of him beginning his piece, Polaroid film went from being a few dollars a pack in 2000, to virtually extinct in department stores, and needing to be purchased off eBay for around 50 dollars. This piece calls attention to the extinction and evolution of modern media.

Marc Tasman’s Ten Years and One Day acts a resolving piece, taking to extreme the element of time as a widely accepted manifestation of artwork, and tying back with Yi’s time consuming process-oriented work in the beginning of the show. I am now at the very end of the show, left with the final task of turning around to re-expose myself to the many other works which make up the meal of the exhibition.  Now finished I can see that I have been lead from a beginning to an end, seemingly without a pattern or distinct path, but with a well guided hand by placement.

Words in art: Wisconsin Triennial

Stephen Strupp

A common thread connecting several pieces featured in the 2010 Wisconsin Triennial is the use of text. Text is used in a range of ways, from communicating information to deconstructing information. The function of text in some pieces is immediately clear: in the work of Gina Litherland and Warrington Colescott, the title or caption is inscribed on the piece itself. In Colescott’s work, text even appears in the form of a speech bubble. The role of text in pieces by Richard Knight and Derrick Buisch is less clear; the fragmented words and individual letters seem to create more confusion than they resolve.

In Richard Knight’s drawings, fragments of phrases and words are interjected between pencil scribbles and smears of color. A jumble of symbols and shapes, some representational and some abstract work their way into the ambiguous space as well. In this case, words appear as additional shapes and marks rather than information. “AS IS”, a mixed media piece on paper, contains the title on the piece itself. However, unlike Colescott’s and Litherland’s work, here the title is enveloped within the piece rather than being isolated on the same surface. In “AS IS”, the block letters of the title are scrawled over a patch of green and interrupted with a crude boxy shape. In some places the letters are covered by other lines and washes. Compared to pieces in which the title is secluded to its own distinct area, where the artist has deliberately made or found space for the title, it appears that Knight may have just created the mess and found the title within it. It might be just as logical for the piece to be titled “Glove” (one recognizable object depicted in the piece), but since a phrase (AS IS) appears, it is most immediately logical to name the piece after it. In other words, the title seems to have emerged along with the shapes and lines rather than as separately as a precursor or reaction to the image. In his book titled “Writing on the Wall: Word and Image in Modern Art”, Simon Morley describes the Symbolists’ use of text in art during the late 19th century as a way to “appeal not so much to perception as to the faculty of memory – a faculty that could be accessed equally through the visual or the verbal” (27). Richard Knight’s use of text may reflect something like this, memory or a thought process that isn’t necessarily rational. The fragments of ideas, words and symbols are all part of the randomness that takes place within thinking.

Derrick Buisch incorporates letters into his paintings in a similarly fragmented, but tidier way. In “I Am the Sea (Ocean Chart)”, rippling lines surround symbols that appear to be based on scientific charts as well as plain block letters outlined in red. In the upper left corner the word “ON” appears and in the bottom right, “OR”. Like Knight’s “AS IS”, these words don’t provide enough information themselves to describe anything independently. They become more of shapes, empty of meaning. The title Buisch has given this painting raises more questions about how the letters play into the idea of an “Ocean Chart.” The way the letters are written in bold capital letters gives them a feeling of being related to signs or maybe the name written on a boat. Both of these are examples of writing that is meant to communicate something simple as clearly as possible. However, as they appear on this painting, they are kind of doing the opposite. They share the space with similarly unexplained fragments of diagrams, all relating to communicating information, but in this situation, isolated from their conventional function, they become something different. Perhaps they are simply aesthetic. The letters could be interpreted through their orientation on the picture plane and their content within the painting. “ON” appears to be floating on a wave, while “OR” is written on a diagonal axis, as if it is sinking. The words could be visual embodiments of the behaviors of a boat.

In these pieces by Knight and Buisch, the text serves a function hardly different than or more obvious than any other mark. In works by Gina Litherland and Warrington Colescott, the function of the text as caption is easier to understand; it is a brief summary of the image. Since these artists have chosen to place the title on the same level as the image, the title is integral, physically inseparable.

In Gina Litherland’s paintings, titles are sometimes disguised, showing up on the edge of a table or written in the dirt. This is a method more akin to the way text was incorporated into paintings during the Renaissance, when naturalism was more of a priority. As Simon Morley points out, “the quest for verisimilitude or naturalism placed strict limitations on the possibility of incorporating words into pictures” (14). If an artist wanted to include an inscription within a painting, it had to fit into the illusionary three-dimensional space. Another element of this logic was the theoretical discrimination between media – visual arts, literary arts, etc. The reasoning was that we use the sense of “taste” to appreciate a painting or sculpture, which is a sense and therefore intuitive, unlike the conceptual interpretation of words (16). Because of this, Litherland’s technique of inscribing titles on paintings has a sort of antiquing effect. However, her paintings present an interesting way of navigating the discrepancy between word and image, because the titles don’t always offer a clear explanation. The title may describe the image, as in “Don Juan in the Wilderness,” in which the title even seems to reinforce the official nature of the painting, but the way that it sets up the expectation that the viewer be familiar with Don Juan and his adventure into the woods makes it confusing. The cacophony of symbols and associations through the painting only makes matters worse. In this sense, the implied explanation of the title becomes an ironic understatement, perhaps saying something about expectations and complexity.

In Warrington Colescott’s drawings, the titles appear more as detailed comic-book captions, explaining the action taking place within the frame. Unlike Litherland’s titles, these don’t fit in to the illusionistic space created by Colescott. Rather, they are written flat on the picture plane, wedged in where there is room between characters. The captions also actually do clearly connect to their images, doing the viewer the service of explaining briefly what is going on. In this sense, the text is strictly functional. In “Lewis and Clark: Jefferson and Sacagawea Mourn the Death of Merriwether Lewis (In a New Orleans Dance Hall)”, the title squeezed into the space between a man’s shoulder and the edge of the paper makes it clear that this information is vital. Without it, the significance of the man covering his eyes and the woman weeping above a room full of people partying while a man aims a pistol into his mouth wouldn’t be connected to history in such a specific way. With this information, we see that Colescott is using text to play with the idea of recorded history. By taking liberties with the retelling of historical events, Colescott is bringing up issues of what Americans know about their country’s history, and how complete and accurate the picture really is.

It’s interesting to note that the textual information provided with the work in the Triennial is very minimal. There are no artist statements or statements written about the artists by the curators. The cards beside each work only divulge the artist’s name and the title. This could be a sign that a work of art’s capacity to be self-contained, title and all, is becoming more valuable. Since the Internet makes all the information in the world available for free to those with access to a computer, the ability of a piece to stand alone, free of context or background, might be a distinguishing factor. The signage certainly reflects the artist’s control over how much information is given and how much is withheld. The 2010 Wisconsin Triennial is on view at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art through August 15th.

Science and art: The Wisconsin Triennial

By Erin Hill

The Wisconsin Triennial is a statewide juried show, organized by the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. The show features a variety of work from forty-six contemporary Wisconsin artists and includes various medias. The only strong connection between all of the work is the artists’ relationship with Wisconsin and their application to participate in the show. The themes of the work vary immensely along with the way the artists’ approach their subject. Some artists, such as Curtis Whaley, use a more subtle approach, while others, like video artist Bruce Charlesworth, use louder, more in your face tactics, and then of course there is Marc Tasman, who seems to balance between overwhelming and subtle.

Curtis Whaley’s body of work, Index 01, subtly presents a powerful message. He has several pieces in the show, and each one shows some sort of chart or graph, in an aesthetically pleasing, pattern like way. Under each presentation of facts and evidence, in small type, is an explanation of what the graph stands for. One of the graphs is slightly humorous, and pokes fun at the boring aspects of the movie, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The graph features Button’s real age against the age he appears to be, and shows how when the two meet up, the movie gets incredibly boring. Whaley’s other work that is displayed is more dark and serious. His piece Golden Gate Suicide shows a simple line drawing of the recognizable Golden Gate Bridge. Underneath the bridge, in a pattern of gray, is a series of bodies that appear to be falling. The gray bodies go on and on for a majority of the page, but then, in the last line, the bodies suddenly turn green. The bodies are simple and are drawn in the same manner as the figures that appear on the doors of bathrooms and on road signs. The work is not powerful or visually interesting, until you read the small text underneath the falling bodies. The text explains that the figures are the 1,240 people who have tried to commit suicide by jumping off this nationally recognized landmark. The green figures represent the few who managed to survive. The work is not in your face, but rather the artist makes the viewer look closely to figure out what he is trying to say. The falling bodies are not gruesome or individual, making the work anonymous and hard to relate to, but this idea of all the figures being the same fits with the idea of them just being a graph or statistic. By showing it in a graph or pictorial form, and by making it not overwhelmingly obvious, the viewer becomes more engaged with the work. This clinical anonymity actually makes the encounter with the piece more emotional or sad. These people are forgotten as individuals and turned into statistics, yet at the same time, these people could be anyone. Whaley’s pieces are playful and simple at first, nothing more than a graph or pattern of images. Yet once you take a closer look and actually engage in the piece, it becomes evident that the piece is not at all playful or simple, but a serious, pictorial representation of something much more thought provoking than one expected. Curtis Whaley’s pieces show that sometimes, subtle approaches are more effective than loud and obvious works, because it is not what the viewer expects when first approaching the piece. Whaley’s Index 01 also shows that art cannot always be understood with just a simple glance. It requires that the viewer to actually take a moment to engage with the piece.

Bruce Charlesworth’s video installation, Love Disorder, is definitely the opposite of subtle and quiet, but it also has an interesting way of engaging the viewer. Located in a blocked off room right across from Whaley’s work, it is a video projection of the artist’s face, yet as a viewer it is not obvious that it is the artist. This wall-sized face could be anyone. When you walk into the room, the video greets you, and compliments you, even says he loves you. He then invites the viewer to come closer, almost coercing and tricking the viewer to approach him. As you move forward, the man inside the screen gets irritated, and begins shouting, telling you to get away and get out of his space. The inviting, gracious man is gone and replaced with a claustrophobic, angry man who wants nothing to do with you. This face, that is in reality just a projection, makes the viewer feel like they are really interacting with someone. The face insults the viewer, yet as you back away, offended by the words he just belted at you, he suddenly returns to the sad, yet gentle personality trapped in a screen who just wants some company, and begins to beg for you to come back to him. “Wait, don’t go…. I love you,” he calls out as you back away. It is amazing that this face, this projection, can toy with the viewer’s emotions and make us actually feel bad for leaving, yet also make us feel agitated and offended for coming too close.

On the wall outside Charlesworth’s trapped, mood swinging portrait, is another self portrait, yet in this case, it is clear that it is the artist, and unlike Love Disorder, the viewer is welcomed by the portrait and actually able to get to know the artist. The work is Ten Years and One Day Every Day on Polaroids, and it is an incredibly large series of Polaroids by Marc Tasman. The installation features almost five thousand Polaroid photographs of the artist’s face over a ten year period. Tasman’s installation is overwhelming in the sense of scale. It takes up a large wall and continues on and on. The viewer has to look up to the top of the wall to get a sense of how many there are. The installation is huge and overwhelming, because it is impossible to look at every single Polaroid. Yet at the same time, the installation is subtle. The images document the aging of the artist over a ten year period, so the viewer cannot immediately see the affects of aging, but has to journey through the installation in order to grasp how the artist has changed. The exciting thing about the images and the period they cover is they not only show the changes in the artist’s physical appearance, but also document the changes and growth of his artistic ability. The older pictures at the top simply focus on the artist’s face, not showing any of his personality or setting. As the images go on, and time passes, it becomes clear that Tasman has started to show off his personality, including different facial features. He starts taking pictures in different areas, sometimes even with other people. With these changes, the piece no longer become a series primarily about the effect of time on the physical appearance, but it becomes a documentation of his life, and a way for the viewer to get to know and understand the artist. Although the presentation of the final piece is overpowering in scale, the individual Polaroids offer an intimate view of the artist’s life.

When looking at the Madison Triennial, it becomes clear that Wisconsin art cannot be easily defined, but rather each individual has a different mode of displaying his or her ideas. The show is a mixture between loud and quiet, two-dimensional and three dimensional, and shows the variety of work produced in Wisconsin, while still feeling cohesive.

One could pinpoint a few trends, however. Whaley’s work represents a broader interest in utilizing scientific methods of data analysis, creating an equal bond between art and science. Charlesworth’s new media piece re-examines the power of the portrait, once it becomes an interactive video stream, and Tasman’s work combines the two approaches. He uses a scientific or sociological cataloging to re-define the ideas of the self portrait.

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Aloft vs. Iron Horse – Hotel Comparison

Iron Horse versus Aloft Hotels

By Stephen Strupp

The massive, heavy-duty awning suspended over the entrance to the Iron Horse Hotel gives the feel of entering into some kind of stronghold. Located at 500 West Florida Street, the hotel’s external appearance is Spartan; a solid red brick cube with black window frames and concrete trimming. The no-frills look is appropriate to the building’s history and the area’s history. Over 100 years old, and originally a bedding factory, it is one of many warehouse buildings in the area situated near the Menomonee River Valley railroad yard. The hotel shows an effort to maintain a level of authenticity, but the flawless brick façade and perfect windows prevent it from blending in with the neighboring warehouses.

If the Iron Horse represents an effort to look appropriate to its surroundings without blending in, the Aloft Hotel, located at 1230 Old World Third Street, appears to have no interest in its area, and is instead making an effort to create a vision of the future rather than a reflection of the past. However, the degree to which the Aloft’s facilities are really advanced is open for debate. The building’s exterior is actually plain for the most part – a taupe-colored box with some wood panel detailing and rows of rectangular windows. The only thing keeping the hotel from looking like a regular office building is the plasticky electric-blue wave mounted on the roof, which bears the silver “aloft” insignia. The awning hovering over the entrance uses the same rolling shape and beckons guests to pass through the neon pink laser decal adorned automatic doors into the lobby.

At the Iron Horse Hotel there are no automatic doors; you ascend the front steps, take the handle, and pull the door open. You are made aware of the solidity of the materials the hotel is composed of. Inside, the lobby is dark, lit by candles and dim incandescent bulb chandeliers. Sounds of smooth jazz and lite rock float down from hidden speakers. The interior structure looks less polished than the exterior; the exposed 300-year-old pine beams and original Cream City brick have a broken in solidity, like a trusty leather jacket. Speaking of leather, there’s plenty of it in this lobby. The chairs and sofas are all either antiques or custom-made, and all covered in satiny cowhide. The infatuation with leather is no coincidence given that the Harley-Davidson Museum is located down the street. After all, the Iron Horse bills itself as the “country’s only boutique hotel geared toward motorcycle enthusiasts” (The Iron Horse Hotel). The rooms even feature “custom hooks for hanging heavy leathers” according to the Iron Horse website. The lounge area is packed with furniture, to the point that it is almost an obstacle course to get from one side to the other. In addition to the abundant leather seating, there are display cases and tables full of antique knick-knacks. Old gears and other parts from the building’s original machinery are presented as objects of interest. The decoration pays homage to the “center of modern manufacturing” that Milwaukee was in the late 19th century (Wisconsin Historical Society).

In the Aloft lobby, you are hit with intense blues, greens, oranges, and pinks, covering the sleek furniture and emanating from neon lights. The exposed chrome of the ventilation system on the ceiling reflects the saturated hues. The calmer charcoal shaded couches and chairs along with softer light provided by box lanterns almost balance the sugar-rush, but balance doesn’t seem to be the goal here. This is a space-age candy land escape from reality. It’s all about energy and fun, techno music and glossy finish – not easy listening and rustic Cream City brick. While the Iron Horse Hotel wants you to feel how old and tough it is, Aloft wants you see how new and sleek it is. It has no use for history – it’s about the fast-paced present day. A high-speed marquee near the elevator lists off news about popular TV shows and professional sports. Aloft is meant to feel youthful – board games such as Sorry!, Hungry Hungry Hippos, and Candy Land are for sale along with the traditional hotel commodities of toothbrushes, pain relievers, etc. The floor of the elevator features soft tiles filled with a blue liquid that reacts to pressure, inviting guests to play as they ascend to their rooms. The hallways are plain, with dark gray carpet and walls. The light fixtures are covered in striped fabric enclosures that diffuse the light through beach towel colors. The rooms feature standard amenities; packaged coffee and snacks rest on the shelf above the lock box. Above the bed’s headboard there is a photographic print of animal fur. The magnified image of black and white fine hairs adds an element of intricacy to the room, though the photographer is unnamed and the images are used in every Aloft hotel room around the world. The only original artworks in the hotel are a few paintings by a Racine artist that fit in with the vivid color scheme in the lobby.

The Iron Horse puts special emphasis on selecting artworks by local artists, almost to the point that the localness takes precedence over the work itself. An American Flag painted on jeans, industrial aluminum sculptures, and murals of beautiful women all fit into the masculine motorcycle rider dream of freedom, ruggedness, and babes. In the context of the boutique hotel, these principles are subdued to fit into the unobtrusive role of decoration.

The hotel’s faithfulness to the time period of its origin is especially relevant considering that the Harley-Davidson Motor Company was incorporated in 1907, the same year that the building was commissioned (Harley-Davidson). The historical context becomes national in the guestroom hallways, with animal-print carpet recalling a motif popular in the early 1900s when many Americans shared a romantic fascination with the safari inspired by former president Theodore Roosevelt’s 1909-1910 expedition to East Africa (Theodore Roosevelt Association). This is one of the few elements in which the line between paying homage to history and recreating history is blurred. It could be intentionally confusing, to create a sense of timelessness. The LCD flat screen TVs, state of the art bathroom fixtures, and Keurig coffee makers that grace each room provide all the luxuries that guests (even road warriors) demand from a boutique hotel. At the same time, the exposed Cream City brick, turn of the century antiques, and vintage stylistic details are reminders that history is all around us.

For better or for worse, historical context is ignored by the Aloft Hotel. It may be that the people at Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc. are not interested in the background of the areas they build their hotels in, or it could be a result of the way the creators perceive the patrons they cater to. They may underestimate the level of engagement their guests are willing to have with history. Maybe the mass-produced Aloft Hotels will create their own history and be remembered in the future as the style of the 2000’s. Or maybe Aloft is a passing trend that isn’t quite significant or innovative enough to stick in anyone’s memory.

Works Cited

The Iron Horse Hotel. “For the Rider”. 2010.” target=”_blank”>>

Harley-Davidson. “1900s”. 2010.” target=”_blank”>>

Theodore Roosevelt Association. “Early Post Presidential Years”. 2010.” target=”_blank”>>

Wisconsin Historical Society. “The Rise of Skilled Manufacturing”. 2010.” target=”_blank”>>

Function and form/Beauty and depth

Natalie LeRoy

What is one to consider more beneficial? Function and form or beauty and depth? Like the two sides to a coin, each is not without the other, but one often from opposites. Two of the most recent establishments in Downtown Milwaukee parallel these. One, a highly anticipated luxury hotel, the first independent boutique in the United States (Novaceck). The other, a mid-level chain aimed at younger business travelers across the nation.  Ultimately, the goal is to sleep in both establishments, but each approach it from a different side of the coin. The Aloft is welcoming, with an internet café atmosphere to serve clientele needs, while the boutique hotel creates dark lounges with striking artwork and service. The two hotels are hardly comparable; the ultimately visionary environment of the Iron Horse Hotel concours the strange offspring or the W Hotel Chain, the Aloft Hotel. Both aim to be cultural destinations of Milwaukee with vastly different public images and intentions.

The service industry, a feature of developed nations, employs eighty percent of the United States (‘Industry’). Found in every incorporated town in the country, the public interacts with service workers on a daily basis when they spend money. Collectively, the service industry lives or dies on public opinion (or the weight of their wallets) but as individual satellites of entrepreneurship they operate under directives from philosophies, management, owners, and employees. The chain of command far reaching or direct shapes the way a customer is to perceive the business whether through advertisement, environment, products carried, or targeted demographic. Sheltering travelers has been a business since humans gained the ability to travel great distances and pay for a room rather than camping out. Hotels are the modern derivative of this, and they have created a culture meant to welcome and comfort the traveler corporately run or no. Boutique hotels are a smaller group usually owned independently that are reaching to create a singular experience of a stay. Banking on personalization of stays within the establishment, unique decor and premise or location, and the impressions they make upon the patron; each is crafted to portray an environment.

The Iron Horse Hotel located at 500 W. Florida Street is Milwaukee’s finest example of a boutique hotel in the city. Located in the Historic Fifth Ward, once known for its industrial climate, the antiquated mattress factory of Berger Bedding Company has been transformed into a fashionably vintage and part baroque idea of industrial art fused with an exceptional guest experience. The Iron Horse, aptly named in conjunction with the term for Harley
Davidson’s Motorcyles, is ‘recognized by Condé Nast Traveler for their 2009 Hot List and the Tablet10 top hotels (Downtown) the Hotel is vastly different from any chain’.  (Downtown)  Upon entering the dark interior, one is greeted with valet, doorman, front desk and a vast foyer filled with various antiques left over from the turn of the century. Strategic lighting, local artwork by Cindy Lesky, Amber Van Galder, and Charles Dwyer as well as Customized chandeliers and furniture complete the vision of Bridgette Breitenbach of Breitenbach-Weiss, the designer who mastered the project. Although not initially tied to the Harley Davidson Company, the idea of using thematic related decor is a great pairing with the city’s best known company and its industrial past. There are hundred year old leather chairs, fixtures from factories and churches all over the U.S.; antique motorcycles and engine parts litter the lobby. Rooms are laid out with magazines of the guest’s interests, and customized according to stay. Although slightly smaller, they are spacious and well organized. Large photographs and stenciling by Charles Dwyer of local women fill a wall adjacent to accent the Cream City Brick. The furnishings are lavish, horsehair benches, dark woods and lush carpet are sure to win over any customer.  The hotel’s manager is quoted to summarize it in key words as “Comfortable, stylish, masculine and slightly industrial.” The amenities are not the only compliments to the hotel however, it’s bars and restaurants Branded, The Yard, Smyth, and the Library, are among the best in the Midwest, and are each tailored to specific tastes from French  to biker moderne. In all, it is an impressive achievement and is a welcome addition to the city’s landscape.

In contrast, the Aloft Hotel located at 1230 Old World Third Street is the perfunctory business travelers alternative to the Holiday Inn and Best Western. The W  Hotel empire has drifted from their original motif of a hybrid boutique and upscale hotel to a sleek, bright chain mostly likely conceived by a design team based on statistical medians of color and ideas of what ‘classy’ is. It reads of pop cultural enticement; showy and a bit-cock eyed, the IKEA for one to sleep in. That is not without the benefits of color and pattern, but the cooler palette and neon acrylic accents beget Lisa Frank as inspiration. A pool and workout room flank the inner foyer, a brightly lit front desk greets you alongside a small dinette area, as well as work stations and couches. It is clean and sharp, but misses the comfort of just a few monotonous couches and tables; there is something harsh about it. Through the lobby an open courtyard filled with oversize couches and benches punctuated by oversize cushions and pillows for the guest to overlook the river. An indoor outdoor fireplace is a sweet touch and creates a cozier area in the corner.  Just beyond the fireplace indoors is WXYZ, a small neon lit bar, serves interesting drinks, and has nice reviews.  The rooms, like Iron Horse, are on the small size. No luxury items per say, but soft colors, and modern fixtures are appeasing. There is impressiveness about the hotel however; it makes a grand statement for changing the way we think about hotel chains, service, and small amenities. At affordable prices and alternatives to older chains, if one is looking for sleep and an enjoyable atmosphere it is something to consider.

So which is a more commendable venture? The Iron Horse, for its design and singular environment? Or the Aloft, a preliminary stand against larger, older hotel chains monopoly on the affordable stay? That all depends on what one seeks to attain from a hotel stay; full-service and a one-of-a-kind establishment, or comfort, cleanliness, and a few differences from the Best Western.  Strictly from a design standpoint, Iron Horse has a much more interesting premise and is an incredible effort to project the owner’s vision. It has historical artifacts, city ties, art infused rooms, and a collection of places to fine dine or just drink. Aloft lacks by mass producing what they believe consumers wanted by adding cheap tricks.  Mass appeal however, is taken by Aloft. The hotel is much more child and family friendly, affordable and should be a lucrative venture, despite its northern location and slow start. The W’s wayward child is not without promise. The Iron Horse Hotel experience is not one all are willing to try despite its art house culture, perhaps after just talking room rates. Although born of the same industry, both have chosen their demographic and side of design or function, now competing on different planes.

“Industry Statistics Sampler: NAICS 5613.” Census Bureau Home Page. 2002. Web. 26 July 2010. <

Downtown Milwaukee Hotels :: The Iron Horse Hotel, Boutique Hotel in Downtown Milwaukee. Web. 27 July 2010. <>.

Novacheck, Lou. “Accommodation News and Review: The Iron Horse Hotel – Blogcritics Culture.” Blogcritics – News Reviews and Opinion. 1 May 2008. Web. 27 July 2010. <>.

“Aloft Milwaukee Hotels: Aloft Milwaukee Downtown – Hotel Rooms at Alofthotels.” Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide – Hotel Reservations with Best Rates, Guaranteed. Web. 27 July 2010. <>.

Rough, Rustic and Rich vs Hip, Yuppie and Target

By Collin Schipper

Milwaukee has the ability to brag about a number of unique, delightful and different hotels. The Pfister and the Ambassador, both close to a century old, offer the guest art on the walls, lush and regal architecture, antique furniture, and many amenities to create a whole experience for anyone staying there. The County Clare Guesthouse offers a very different stay for the guest, creating an Irish country cottage like environment in the heart of downtown, offering a bed and breakfast touch, along with an Irish pub. The Iron Horse Hotel and the Aloft hotels, Milwaukee’s two newest boutique hotels, offer the guest something completely different, both from what other fine hotels in the area have to offer, and from each other as well.

The Aloft hotel is somewhat of an enigma. It stands downtown along the river-walk, accessible to many of the popular Water Street bars and entertainment of downtown Milwaukee. From the outside, it screams to be looked at, with a large, bright blue swooping roofline above a red brick and white exterior; the name in large letters readable from the highway. At the entrance to the building is a valet stand, like many a finer hotel, but, while there were two people working that day that I could see, no one ever came to open the door for me or welcome me in.

The grand entrance room is fairly impressive, and will take the viewers breath away, but that may not be a positive thing. The colors and styling of the room are definitely loud. Bright pastels in pink, brown, green and yellow cover every inch of open space, with striped patterns dominating every flat horizontal and vertical surface. Club music streams from the speakers in the ceiling, but quietly, at elevator music volumes. The center of the room opens out into a nice little seating area, with fairly comfortable chairs in front of a flashy fireplace, which overlook the bar and the outdoor courtyard. The bar has the look of a swank nightclub, with frosted glass shelves, under-lit by green and blue neon lights, supporting an array of alcohols behind a sleek black bar, while next to that, a pink pool table sits below paintings by a local artist. Many of the forms are nicely designed, staying as modern as possible, with circles repeating and sinuous lines are found all throughout the building. Few of the walls contain corners, the edges rounding. The service desk itself is a large circular desk, sat underneath a circular light, with a hole cut in the roof above that looks like a deep depth unless the light catches the ductwork right. On the desk, as well as many other places in the hotel, large glass vases contain designs of fruit, but it does not look as if it’s expected to be eaten. Most of the room has high ceilings, with wood faux ceilings put in place, creating curves and leading the eye around the room, breaking up the space a little more. The designers edged on the popular industrial loft style that is found many places throughout the city, leaving high ceilings and exposed ductwork. For some reason, the feeling isn’t quite right, with the duct work a shiny chrome, set against inset lighting in the ceiling and all the bright colors.

The rooms themselves are quite small, with little room to maneuver. At around $160 a night, I’ve stayed in Red Roofs with far greater space and options, so the location and the styling are definitely the selling points. The rooms have large soft beds, set against interesting headboards, and each room has a flat screen lcd television with multimedia connection. The bathrooms are nicely appointed, with a decent sized shower, and very stylish and interesting sinks outside the bathing area.

Aloft is a chain hotel, though they fall under the boutique name with a small number of rooms, and because they strive to create a different experience from the average hotel. They seek to provide a space for the young business person on the go, coming into town for business, and hitting the clubs at night. Each Aloft is similar, so the experience of the guest is something they know before hand, and the pricing is at the high end of business travel.

The Iron Horse Hotel is an entirely different beast. Entering, the doors were flung open by two friendly and talkative valet/receptionists. The space inside was like no hotel I’ve ever seen before. The lighting is low, and the smell is of antique wood and leather, but not a stale smell. It was masculine but inviting, well worn but not old. Straight ahead is a large open space, with large leather couches. Each one was slightly different, but they are tough; put together with large metal rivets that shine against the deep black leather, yet they receive the body nicely, allowing the guest to sink in and enjoy a long conversation. Around the space are hundreds of little antiques, from curio cabinets in deep walnut that display turn of the century train sets and model cars and motorcycles to porcelain bowls laid out on couch tables with wooden sticks that look as if they may have once had some function, but now have a nice aesthetic appeal. On a platform is a new BMW racing bike, set between two display cabinets, that is up to be won in a drawing. Around the corner to the right upon entering is a stylish saloon style bar, with a small restaurant hid in a cozy corner around a slight divide. A hundred year old slate pool table sits to the other side of the bar, adding to the saloon feel, but it doesn’t seem wild, and the bar tender is quite exceptional and enjoyable.

Back to the left is yet another bar area and restaurant, again dimly lit, with high backed leather padded booths. To the very back, behind the elevator entrance, is a library area, filled with books from Matisse to newspapers to the newest motorcycle magazines. Rows of low reading tables have brass office lamps, each one a replica of the other, but a series of very sculptural and stylish lamps. They have a steam-punk aesthetic, as if they are mechanical high tech creations made from gears and simple 19th century materials. The tables have solid metal tops, and carts off to the side have heavy hammered steel drawers and large metal wheels. A very large and inviting fireplace sits in the corner, and appears as though it would be a very relaxing place to sit and read on a cold winter night in.

Upstairs a walkway to the rooms circles the great hall below, offering the viewer access to the custom made wrought iron chandeliers. The carpet is a zebra pattern, echoing the love of big game hunting by Teddy Roosevelt, who was president at the time the building was originally built in 1907. The rooms are large, with standup double showers and custom sinks that are stylish yet functional. The rooms offer large beds, heavy furniture, a table, and a comfortable couch. The walls have murals done by local artist Dwight Dweyer, done in a 1920’s fashion with beautiful Milwaukee models.

The basement to the Iron horse has a gallery area, displaying more work from local Milwaukee artists in a revolving gallery. The space is large and open, displaying the work well. The floors proudly display the original mature fir support beams, which are massive and rustic. Those same pillars are also proudly displayed upstairs, along with the large wood support beams for the roof.

The Iron Horse is a full service hotel, with a number of managers and staff ready and willing to serve the needs of its guests. Sitting right next to the Harley Davidson Museum, it offers clients many amenities specific to the bike riding crowd, with space for riding boots and large, stylish hooks for heavy leather riding jackets and helmets. The aesthetic echoes the classy but road worn look of a motorcycle, both powerful and sleek. They also offer riding tours and other attractions to draw in the motorcycle crowd that Milwaukee is so famous for.

The Aloft and the Iron Horse Hotel both offer unique hotel experiences for their guests, but the approach and demographic are quite different. The Aloft is aimed at young business professionals, straight out of college, with Ikea like styling accented with bright beach style coloring. It targets itself as a nightclub to visit after visiting the local clubs, with a room upstairs. While it is swank, its style has more of the appearance of what older people think the young kids like, which is usually quite far off from what they actually desire, but it does provide a different kind of stay for the guest, and is affordable for a few day business trip. The Iron Horse on the other hand is aiming to be a vacation in an of itself. It is a four diamond hotel, registering on the top ten of almost every hotel guide in the nation, and goes above and beyond just trying to provide a comfy bed for someone who is in and out. Every bit of the hotel is carefully considered, every detail analyzed and explored. Artistic touches grace every square inch of the building, but they are done tastefully, following the theme of the building and all echoing the same rustic, rough, but rich aesthetic found in the structure itself, with it’s exposed cream city brick walls and thick timbers. With prices varying from $250 to $700 for a room per night, the target demographic is quite different from Aloft though, and it is much more of a high profile place or vacation spot.

Class and Crass

By Ashley Janke

Approaching the Iron Horse Hotel, I am forced through road construction and end in a detoured place, seemingly away from the downtown area. The definition of a boutique hotel is a non-corporate hotel with a hosting capacity of 200 or less. The Iron Horse fits that definition, but uniquely considers the Harley Davidson motor cycle crowd a primary audience.

What is the Harley crowd? Bikers? Leather coated and detailed with studs? Sweat glistening as it beads and streams down massive tattooed biceps? These are all stereotypes, but the gearing towards an audience is the enhancement of stereotypes and gender specific generalizations. From reading other reviews and statements, I am aware that the Iron Horse specifically aims at a masculine atmosphere. Being a female, and a non-Harley owner, what am I expected to gather from this environment? How will I relate to an atmosphere that hosts no consideration for my placement within it?

I reach the building by bike (the non motorized kind) and am already recognized as being out of place. The valet asks me to place my bike on the side of the building as though it would distract from the first impression of an actual customer, and I am sure they may be right. Although semi-disguised by the raw environment of the abandoned warehouses, and factories, there is a notable difference about this six-story, red clay brick building. If the line of simmering Harley motorcycles does not draw attention to this structure, then the twelve foot awning made from large individual planks of finished wood, supported by cast iron beams, must. At this point I remember the cost of a Harley bike, and question what type of person indulges themselves in buying such an expensive impracticality. Immediately I am answered by the very presence of the group standing in front of me — A crowd of formally dressed men. Each man wears black dress pants with a pressed crease, still visible down the center of the leg, dress shirts only visible by the collar as they are covered by black sport jackets. They bear dark sunglasses on their faces, too reflective to tell if they are looking at each other or the 5’6” woman wearing a cobalt jersey skirt and stained cloth shoes, approaching them. Wait. These are not the leather clothed tattooed covered men I imagined. Their dress looks to be representative of moderately wealthy business men.

I saunter past them to pull back the heavy weighted doors. Moving into the first entrance way, I am confronted by the smell famously related with new cars, fresh leather. I pull back the second door and am overwhelmed by a second stronger smell. It is deep and complex. Expensive men’s cologne; It reminds me of Hollister stores which are known for spraying their signature perfume into air ducts. The environment of the lobby slowly focuses as my eyes adjust to the dim indirect lighting of candle lit tables and artificially simulated candle chandeliers. The first objects I am presented with are vibrant granny smith apples that glow in contrast to the hazy night gray couch that backs them, and the deep mahogany table they are placed on. The couch is low and embellished with buttons that cover the back. There is a single cushion decorated with embroidered pillows. The corners and edges are accented with the expected studs but are unrepentantly tactful. My perception of this exquisite piece of furniture is it has been costume made for the space and it does not stand-alone. Eclectic items of furniture clutter the lounge, each specifically detailed and considered.

As I take a seat in one of the velvet chairs to further take in my environment, I notice a slight lightheadedness, undoubtedly from the strong perfume, or maybe the burning oil candles sitting in front of me. I look over my right shoulder and notice the perfect alignment of the apples with the fully stocked bar. A theme of intoxication arises whether it is from the smell and surroundings, the customer’s alcoholic consumption, or the witches’ apple spell over Snow White. I begin to consider this must be what a villain’s lounge would be like and shake my head at my own foolish thought.

I look to the left and notice two ten foot display cases on either side of the elevated red Harley motorcycle. Within the glass show case cabinets, items vary from a two foot painted wooden horse, to a toy locomotive train, to a transparent glass vase filled with rusted screws and railroad nails, to wooden casino chips. A similar array of objects are placed on surrounding low coffee tables, and higher set stands. The stands are made from raw iron legs and heavily varnished slabs of wood. Massive oak columns, original to the 1907 building, divide the spacing of the furniture. I feel as though I am in a chamber. Looking over my shoulder, I am presented with the most iconic piece in the hotel, an American Flag made only from blue jean pants. This is not the thuggish building I expected. I would coin it as soave, smooth, and even classy. My final justification of this realization is that pool games are free, but a mixed drink hovers around $15 dollars.

The ALoft Hotel is a completely different experience. They advertise themselves as a “Hip” hotel aiming at younger adults, and hold around the same number of guests as Iron Horse. It is placed conveniently in the middle of the city and when I turn back I see the cityscape of Milwaukee framed justly. The outside walls of the building are flat tan and generic. The height is tall to match the surroundings of the down town area. It is unmistakable, considering the logo is spelled out huge on all sides.

In the front of the building, valets are dressed in high chroma blue polo’s with a white printed ALoft logo in the corner right and large printed letters spell out V-A-L-E-T on the back. The door guys talk amongst each other and do not utter a word as I walk through the motion censored doors. Upon entering I cough as I inhaul my first whiff of a scent I can personally only classify as stench. It smells like cheap body spray from the dollar store. It is a zingy smell with no full consistency. I wonder to myself if all hotels spray perfume in their air ducts.

The ceiling is lower than the Iron Horse and changes between covered and exposed vents and pipes. The places that are covered are made from poorly simulated maple, which seems to be one of the only consistent themes in the building. Lights switch between frosted plastic boxes coming out from cutout places in the “wood” covers, multi colored striped nylon fabric which looks as though it was taken from a seventies lawn chair and stretched over a light box, and a few track lights.

As I move forward, I am immediately confronted with the largest accent of the lobby, a massive circular reception desk in the middle left of the entranceway, suggesting that they are there to serve the customer, even though there was no receptionist within the desk.

I look for a place to sit, consider my surroundings and notice that the only common element of design is that it looks as if they went to Target and bought out their furniture department. Upon finding a seat, I am not surprised to discover that they are fake leather chairs and looking down at the fake wooden table my suspicions are confirmed that the flickering inside of the frosted glasses are fake candles.

Glancing around I notice abstract paintings consisting of dull out of the tube colors like “purple” and maybe a thalo blue, printed on stretched canvas. Similar images are printed on the throw pillows. Art for the sake of decoration. I feel insulted as an artist, that my lifestyle is being exploited in such a cold manner.

Flat screen TVs are scattered around the lounge, but their sound is covered by the DJ remixes blasting over the loudspeakers. I question how the bartender across from me in the neon lit bar can work in this atmosphere all night. It reminds me of what a Nickelodeon “pre-teen” environment would be, and confirm this hypothesis when I walk into the elevators and notice gel gridded floors. They are supposed to simulate the game Dance Dance Revolution but reminded me of the 90’s gel shoes fad. I wonder who the designers actually thought they were appealing to as I notice that it is eight in the evening and have not seen a single person besides the staff in the half an hour I have spent here.

Concerning the evident cheapness of the ALoft setting, especially compared to the Iron Horse, I expect the room rates to be accordingly inexpensive.  But a room at the A Loft is $130. The Iron Horse Hotel can be only $90 a night on off-season, but rates vary and are usually upward from $160.  Even in pricing, these two hotels are little of what I expected.  One aims towards my age group and misses it entirely, the other gears towards a general sophisticated audience, and makes those present appreciative that they are considered as such.  To design a place is to be entirely aware of how the space is formed and the messages which develop out of it.  Every wall color, object placement, smell, or lighting fixture is absorbed by the viewer whether they are aware or not.  Because of this the designer must be conscious of every element which is added to a room and what story it tells, and it should tell.  The objective of any hotel is to make the customer feel comfortable enough in the space that they spend money to stay there.  I would pay to spend a night at Iron Horse, and I live in Milwaukee.  ALoft, however, I would pay to leave.


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Santiago Calatrava’s Quadracci Pavilion: 13 views

This week, we toured Santiago Calatrava’s addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum, which is getting close to being 10 years old. The 142,000 square foot structure was the first major Calatrava project to be built in the United States. Museum docent Jonas Karvelis led us through the building, as well as the Dan Kiley designed gardens, and into the original 1957 Eero Saarinen structure. Staying true to the Gnaw focus of “generating new (forms) of art writing” we decided to approach our architectural essays like a Surrealist game of Exquisite Corpse, with each writer contributing one short focused essay about one aspect of the building. Each essay was to  thematically wrap around one word. What follows is a stack of essays, each directed by a one word heading. The essays  form the vertical body of the “exquisite corpse.” Coincidentally, this month’s issue of Art Forum is also dedicated to examining the changing face of the new museum.












Art Ship


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