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Monday, July 28, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 56.0° F  Fair


Laura Dronzek & Katie Musolff: Faces and figures
Two artists take a fresh approach to traditional subjects

Musolff puts her stamp on figurative art.
Musolff puts her stamp on figurative art.
Credit:Katie Musolff
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Portraits and landscapes are two of art's most time-honored subjects, but these days they can also seem out of fashion in the world of contemporary art. The press is usually more consumed with, say, how much investors paid for British artist Damien Hirst's diamond-encrusted skull ($100 million) than delving into the meaning of work that seems "traditional."

But traditional subjects can still be fresh, as two new solo shows at the Wisconsin Academy's James Watrous Gallery demonstrate.

In her statement for the show "Myself and Others," Milwaukee artist Katie Musolff exposes the tension inherent in painting a portrait. She has to choose a direction as a painter and move forward, but not be so inflexible that she can't respond to what she's learning about her portrait sitters, who tend to reveal themselves to her. Musolff's subjects include family members but also acquaintances, like residents of an assisted-living facility or intergenerational daycare program.

One standout is "Ron the Miracle Man," an African American man presumably in his 40s. He sits in a wheelchair, hands curled in toward his body. His face is a marvel: a brilliant, beautiful smile and dancing eyes. He's surrounded by lush green plants. While it may seem corny to say it - and give the false impression that the painting is maudlin, which it is not - there's such a direct, openhearted sense of life to this painting that it is unexpectedly touching.

Musolff's self-portraits, three of which are on view here, are wonderfully direct and reveal, through their blocky planes of color, an eye that has absorbed the lessons of modern masters like Cezanne. In her mid-20s, Musolff is a talented young artist whose career will surely be worth following.

Madison artist Laura Dronzek's animal and landscape paintings also deal with subjects one finds in everyday life, but she suffuses those subjects with a mystical, otherworldly sort of energy. Scale is critical to her work in the show "Birds and Landscapes." These are small, moody, intimate paintings. The dark, antique-looking frames surrounding them don't seem incidental; rather, they add to the sense that these paintings are not quite of our own time, that they've always existed.

Dronzek's surfaces have a burnished, "worked" quality that strongly favors the visible hand of the artist over slick, hyperrealist perfection. Her favored subjects are birds, trees, water and expanses of land. Often, two trees seem to be communing with one another, or a distant one seeking to communicate with a tree in the foreground. Often, the birds and trees seem to be stand-ins for human states and emotions.

Together, Dronzek and Musolff prove that figurative art still holds a place in contemporary art-making.

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