While there's always a place for art shows with clever themes - like the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art's show last year on evil - I'm a sucker for big, unruly, grab-bag shows that spin off in many directions.
MMoCA's Wisconsin Triennial, its periodic showcase of the best contemporary art being made in Wisconsin, is one of those rewarding mishmashes. Encompassing nearly all media - painting, photography, sculpture, video, ceramics and more - the show pulls together 42 individual artists and two artistic teams from places all across the state.
While there are some links between pieces, like an interest in self-portraiture, the pieces are allowed to exist on their own terms, rather than being shoehorned into a theme.
New features this year include a cell phone tour that allows you to listen to audio clips of artists describing their own work and an exhibition website at mmocatri.org that incorporates a blog, video clips and more.
This 12th version of the Triennial seems a touch heavier on video than in years past, with four pieces ranging from confrontational to meditative. Bruce Charlesworth's Love Disorder, confined in a special red-and-black room of its own, presents the viewer with an enormous face - the Milwaukee artist's own, uncomfortably close up - projected on a screen about 12 feet high.
Sensors in the room gauge your position, and the face reacts accordingly. Far away, it's coy and inviting: "Come closer" and "You can ask me anything," it says. But overstep your bounds and you'll hear a frantic "Get away! That's too close." As you back off, the face becomes apologetic, even a little pleading.
Love Disorder is darkly funny, and viewers get a kick out of seeing how the mercurial, blue-eyed man will react to their next move. It's an interesting exploration into the visual and verbal cues we process, and how we define the crossing of a social or psychological boundary.
If Charlesworth's Love Disorder is literally in your face, the videos of Kitty Huffman and Chele Isaac are alluring in their engagement with the natural world.
Huffman, of Lyndon Station, shows herself in a snowy woodland setting, lying (seemingly nude) on the ground. Deer wander and eventually run through the scene. There's something poetic and weirdly compelling about the lone human figure in this wintry scene, and Huffman considers it a self-portrait.
Madison's Chele Isaac works with water rather than woods in her video installation There Is No Fixing the Drift, which is in the museum's dedicated New Media Gallery. Onscreen images of crashing waves tie in with an aquarium (with more footage of waves at its bottom) and a mysterious figure in a 19th-century-style dress.
In the realm of photography, Hudson's Carl Corey stands out (see sidebar) with large-format color photos of classic Wisconsin taverns. I also liked Sarah Pearl Detweiler's humorous photos, in which the Green Bay artist and her husband adopt various personae (titles like Self-Portraits as Douche Bags give you a sense of where she's headed with this).
Melissa Cooke of Madison is represented by large-scale graphite drawings in which she shows herself at close range in poses that conjure ambiguous, tense narratives (such as It's All Over Your Face, from the series You Know Me Better Than I Know Myself).
With her head turned up and to the side, eyeing us warily, Cooke looks cornered, a bit grimy, but also defiant and resolute. She combines excellent technical skill with an uncanny ability to evoke a storyline.
Sofia Arnold of Viroqua captivates with faux-nave paintings on dark backgrounds that are filled with fantastical creatures and figures. Oshkosh's Tom Berenz paints buildings in collapse, but in a way that is strangely, compellingly neutral. Plenty of blank space in Berenz's oil paintings, combined with a restricted palette in shades like tan, gray and an odd mauve, make us look at these ruined modern buildings in a new way.
Vanishing Point, a 20-foot-high piece by the team known as Actualsize Artworks (Gail Simpson/b> and Aris Georgiades of Stoughton), works well in MMoCA's glass prow. It's part ladder, part optical illusion: The higher you go, the closer together the rungs get, and the sides of the ladder narrow in.
Above the ladder, a lamp with a single exposed bulb sways in a circular motion. The effect - which you can check out from the various landings on MMoCA's glass staircase - is a little dizzying.
Pieces that didn't work as well for me include Milwaukee artist Marc Tasman's Polaroid project, in which he took a daily self-portrait for exactly 10 years and one day. It reminded me too much of the ubiquitous YouTube video in which a young man took a photo of himself every day for six years and then created a five-minute video in which the years fly by. That video has now been viewed over 15 million times and was started only 6 months after Tasman's project, presumably independently.
Tasman's work is, in some ways, very prescient. When he began his low-tech self-portraits in 1999, we weren't yet inundated with people's photos of themselves on Facebook and Flickr. But given the current climate, it feels like it needs an extra twist to make it truly singular.
Another reservation: In terms of media, the show contains very little printmaking and no textiles.
But see for yourself. The Triennial runs through Aug. 15, so you have most of the summer to visit and revisit the work of these artists, 14 of whom live here in Madison. The Triennial is, as always, a great crash course in Wisconsin art.
Martha Glowacki lives near Sauk City in Roxbury, in a wooded area that keeps her close to the natural world. That love of nature is something she learned early, and it's at the core of her work.
Summa (for My Mother) is a form of memorial to her late mother. "My mother had a great impact on both my brother and me, in terms of making us aware of the power of nature," says Glowacki, 59. "After [my parents] retired to Sauk County, she lived way out in the country and was so much a part of that land. So the best way for me to think about her was in terms of cycles of life."
Summa (for My Mother) incorporates materials that would be highly unusual for many other artists, but not for Glowacki. There are cocoons, beetles, cicadas ("a transformation symbol") and deer bones, things mostly collected on Glowacki's property.
Glowacki's other Triennial piece, also structured as a pair of framed shadowboxes, is Lessons from the Book of Secrets. One features a photo of a young man, and the other, a young woman, both from the 1870s or 1880s. The artist found the pair in the same Richland Center antique shop and guesses, from their shared freckles, that they're brother and sister.
Text inside the boy's box comes from a 19th-century guide to taxidermy, with tips on what to bring into the field. The girl's box also carries gendered expectations, but in a more removed way. Her text has an elaborate description of what makes the perfect form for a plant, suggesting an allusion to ideal female beauty as well.
Metalsmith Lisa Gralnick looks at gold in a way that most of us don't. Where some people just see shiny, pretty things, Gralnick sees a complex history.
"One of the beauties of gold," she notes, "is that it is the most infinitely recyclable material on Earth. It's no stretch to say all of the jewelry in jewelry stores now has a little bit of the history of civilization in it. You can melt it down, erase its crimes, and it's reborn in a sort of morally ambivalent object."
Gralnick, a professor in the UW-Madison art department, has spent nearly eight years on a body of work called The Gold Standard. Much of that work is currently on display in Seattle at the Bellevue Arts Museum, so Gralnick created new pieces for the Triennial.
One is a bowl of fruit that has been rendered in plaster. A small section of the piece is covered in gold; the amount of gold corresponds to the dollar value represented by the bowl and fruit she purchased (about $221, she says, since the bowl was custom-made).
The piece resonates on a number of levels: as a still-life object common throughout the history of art; as a ghostly shadow object stripped of its original form; and as a meditation on value, meaning and how we assign them.
Before coming to Wisconsin, Gralnick, 53, was a veteran New Yorker, having spent about 10 years as an independent artist, and then 12 years as head of the art metals program at Parsons School of Design. She joined the UW faculty in 2001.
Gralnick's work incorporates social and political ideas and is challenging in a way that some people won't expect from metalwork. "People expect metalsmiths just to be making pretty things," she chuckles.
Although Carl Corey has lived in Hudson for 16 years, his Chicago upbringing still comes through in his voice. And that Midwestern sensibility is an integral part of his current photography series, Wisconsin Tavern League.
Corey traveled the state visiting a wide range of taverns, from small bars within bowling alleys to opulent temples of kitsch. The three Corey photos in the Wisconsin Triennial are the first time any of this series has been publicly exhibited.
Small-town taverns are an endangered breed, says Corey. "It's very much a part of Wisconsin history and community, and they're going away. These people [the owners] are struggling. I thought it was important to document that."
Corey, 55, attempts to strike up a rapport with his portrait subjects, yet not overdo it and micromanage the shoot. He's drawn to places that are much as they've always been. "A lot of them are places lost in time. I find it interesting that they've survived an onslaught of electronic media, and I don't know how long they can," he says, a touch ruefully.
Yet while Corey chooses his locations carefully, the photographic process is more organic. "I don't put a lot of thought into making a picture. I know what I want to do, I go out and look for it, and it works intuitively for me. I think more when I edit."
While Wisconsin's drinking culture does have its dark side - when use strays into abuse - taverns are also a hallmark of an unpretentious, relaxed local culture. After looking at Carl Corey's masterfully lit photos, you may just want to split a pitcher and shoot some darts.
If you like Corey's work, be sure to catch his solo show at the Wisconsin Academy's James Watrous Gallery - also located within Overture - from June 22 to Aug. 8.