If you haven't gotten around to checking out the Chazen Museum of Art's new wing - which opened last October - Compendium 2012 is a great reason to visit. The UW art department's show of faculty work is an object lesson in what a great space can do for the art within it. This show, which happens about every four years and was previously known as the Quadrennial, has never looked better, even despite a number of weak pieces.
The massive gallery on the first floor of the new wing, as well as a second-floor space that offers expansive views of the lobby and outdoors, make good pieces shine a little brighter and smoothes the flaws of lesser ones - a bit of architectural alchemy, if you will.
Because works are self-selected by the artists and there is no overarching theme, it's a grab bag of subjects and styles -- something I enjoy, actually, in both this show and in the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art's similar Triennial.
In Compendium, you'll find work by 34 current art department faculty, staff and affiliates, plus work by a dozen emeritus faculty, ranging from painting and sculpture to video and installation. And while the bulk of Compendium is in the Chazen's new wing, it spills over into the original building, so be sure not to miss that part.
Some of my favorites include painter Fred Stonehouse's construction, Stoney's Tiny Tattoo, a miniature tattoo parlor about the size of a telephone booth. Virtually every surface is covered, outside and in. A neon sign beckons would-be clients, and drawings tacked up inside the booth offer strange visions of possible tattoo designs, from mythical beasts to luchadors to a devil in tighty whities.
Near Stonehouse's work, and compelling in a completely different way, is printmaker Michael Connors' three-part work WATER LOGS, a meditative, elegiac piece about a favorite island spot and the pull of nature.
Leslee Nelson's embroidered textiles from her Memory Cloth series are both accessible and genuinely moving. Stitching in silk thread on family linens, Nelson draws on time-honored folk traditions (think samplers) but tells frank stories about the painful rifts in families and also the possibility for forgiveness and healing.
I was also intrigued by Gail Simpson's sculptural pieces, Illuminated Woods, in which hidden worlds glow gently from sections of actual logs. The blurry but evocative scenes look like rockets, UFOs, birds and other things. Simpson calls to mind both childhood imagination and the woods as a place of escape, and the tiny, living ecosystems that really do exist in decaying logs.
Other highlights include Laurie Beth Clark's installation Ossuary, which takes up a whole room and includes the contributions of more than 100 other artists in a cabinet-of-curiosities-style arrangement. Also not to be missed is a cluster of clever pieces by furniture and sculpture maker Tom Loeser in Paige Court, the center of the Chazen's original building.
While there's much to admire about Compendium, there are weak spots too, such as Derrick Buisch's cluster of small paintings called ERRATA INDEX 21. Buisch's work doesn't seem to evolve much, and this work has little to say.
Douglas Rosenberg's video, Meditation (Mother), a looped close-up of an elderly woman's face with tubes in her nose as she lies in bed, hints at big themes -- death, loss, mortality -- but in a facile way.
It's no surprise, of course, that there are some inconsistencies in a sprawling show featuring nearly 50 artists, but there is enough engaging, original work to make Compendium 2012 well worth a visit.