Wisconsin's People on the Land
Through May 20, James Watrous Gallery in the Overture Center
Someone in the newspaper biz once said to me that Midwesterners play it safe because of their rural roots. 'You know, farmers plant the same thing every year because it's what they know,' she said dismissively. Luckily for her, my Midwestern gentility helped me stifle a rhetorical but well-deserved question: 'Lady, are you nuts?'
Farming ' especially of the small, family-run kind ' is a high-wire act. Few occupations entail such financial and physical risk, and such constant labor. I've never farmed a day in my life, but my family roots include both dairy farming and the raising of chickens, hogs and beef cattle in Dodge County. My mother learned to drive behind the wheel of a tractor at age 11. So it is that I approached the Watrous Gallery's new exhibition, 'Wisconsin's People on the Land,' with an interest that was equal parts artistic and personal.
While the featured artists ' painter David Lenz, and photographers Tom Jones and the duo of J. Shimon & J. Lindemann ' document a way of life that is increasingly threatened, the tenor of the show is not a woe-is-farming bummer. On the contrary, this exceptional show exudes a love for the agricultural way of life that, for the viewer, is thrilling.
With several works by each artist, the show is like three mini-exhibitions in one. Lenz's paintings in particular are knockouts. His work here documents Sauk County farmers Erv and Mercedes Wagner in a style that is nearly photorealistic; one must stand very closely to see his meticulous brushwork. 'Thistles' captures the pair against a rolling vista of trees, cows, a dirt road, a farm dog and a red barn in the distance. Lenz's expansive, well-structured compositions integrate the Wagners with the world around them. Their wary, intelligent gazes reflect friendliness mixed with a dash of reserve ' the viewer has little doubt that Lenz has captured something essential about his friends.
In 'Last Light: Portrait of Ervin Walter Wagner,' the husband is set against a vast twilight sky with the moon beginning to reveal itself. Small details ' gnarled hands, a coffee drip on his shirt, the silhouette of a tobacco tin in his shirt pocket ' capture the working farmer. Yet the use of his full name in the title, in addition to sharp attention to physical detail, marks this as a loving portrait, not the simplified presentation of an archetypal 'farmer.'
Tom Jones photographs his Ho-Chunk family and community members, including his mother and late grandfather. Several photographs reveal the mingling of traditional ways with contemporary life, such as 'JoAnn Jones and Aneesha Decorah Picking Milkweed,' in which the younger woman goes about her task while sporting headphones and a Discman in her pocket. 'Choka with Tobacco' is a close-up of Jones' grandfather's hands holding green tobacco leaves. The elderly man's hands ' like the hands of Erv Wagner in Lenz's paintings ' are the sign of a lifetime of work, a lifetime of living.
Shimon & Lindemann, while well known for quirky, unexpected portraits of young people in the Manitowoc area, are represented here with fascinating, multi-part panoramas of working Wisconsin farms.
The Watrous Gallery's exhibition, under the umbrella of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, is the visual-art component of a much larger initiative called 'The Future of Farming and Rural Life in Wisconsin,' which culminates in a May conference (for more information, see www.wisconsinacademy.org).
Once again, the Watrous Gallery has affirmed its reputation as a place where strong contemporary art thoughtfully engages with the wider world.