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
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.