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Saturday, September 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 72.0° F  Light Rain
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Object lessons
The UW art faculty show their stuff
Gralnick creates a 'genuine forgery.'
Gralnick creates a 'genuine forgery.'

The new show at the UW's Chazen Museum of Art doesn't really have a name, other than the merely functional "Art Department Faculty Exhibition." This recurring show was once called the Quadrennial, a name that didn't exactly roll off the tongue either, and is no longer accurate since the museum is not adhering to a strict every-four-years schedule.

It's a shame that the museum doesn't name this show with a bit more pizzazz since, while it has its humdrum moments, there is also a good measure of engaging, high-quality work. With over 50 artists working in a range of mediums, the show has the freewheeling feel of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art's Triennial. In this case, however, all artists are affiliated with the UW art department as current or emeritus faculty, or as faculty in related departments.

A number of artists deal with issues both personal and political in engaging, offbeat ways. Leslee Nelson, inspired by South African embroideries, has stitched upon tea towels and linen napkins passed down through her family. While acknowledging that her struggles are rooted in an essentially privileged existence - rather than the shellshock of an entire nation - Nelson gives her personal narratives of childhood disappointment, marriage, divorce and other life experiences a welcome intimacy and humor.

Nelson works in a simple, "nave" style recalling folk textiles. By not grasping for Grand Statements in her work, Nelson really does have something to say. Her heartfelt approach, devoid of self-conscious irony, is disarming.

Metalsmith Lisa Gralnick deals with broader social issues. Through a multi-year project called "The Gold Standard," Gralnick examines the value society places on this precious material. Here, she presents what she dubs "genuine forgeries, fictionalized historicized curiosities." A faux military medal emblazoned with the words "Arbeit Macht Frei" - a slogan found on concentration camp gates - calls to mind the Nazis' theft of their victims' personal property, from family jewelry to gold dental fillings, both of which are visually referenced in the piece. Gralnick's work is a good example of how fine-art metalsmithing can be just as conceptually dense as painting or sculpture.

Not all work that attempts to engage with history is as successful; emeritus professor William Weege's jab at President Bush comes off as an easy shot (against a deserving target, it must be said). In Weege's inkjet print, as Bush struts in the infamous flight suit below the words "Mission Accomplished," Earth burns in the background. There is nothing here that is particularly original visually or politically.

While it's difficult to sum up a show this large, it is well worth seeing. One might have hoped, though, that the show was installed in a more coherent way; there doesn't seem to be any attempt to group work by theme, medium or other organizing principle, nor is it immediately obvious to museum-goers that the show is on all three levels of the Chazen. There is also some unnecessary overlap with pieces that were shown less than a year ago in MMoCA's Triennial.

Nonetheless, this is a welcome chance to see what the UW faculty are up to as they educate and influence the next generation of artists.

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