The James Watrous Gallery, tucked on the third floor of the Overture Center, is heading into 2010 with two very strong - and very different - exhibitions.
Typically, the Watrous offers side-by-side solo shows that have a clear affinity with one another (like subject matter or medium). In this case, the two artists - Madison's Michael Velliquette and Milwaukee's Denis Sargent - offer wholly distinct visions.
Velliquette makes cut-paper collages and ceramics that are colorful and playful, possessing the exuberance of childhood. Sargent creates brooding works in an unusual medium: pigmented wax applied to black cotton fabric. And while Velliquette lets us escape into a fantasy world of goofy, grinning beasts and alien-like creatures, Sargent leads us to reflect on current political concerns like the war in Iraq.
While the Watrous Gallery cites some common ground between these artists, such as an interest in world mythologies, I think these shows function more readily as counterpoints to one another. The literal and figurative darkness of Sargent's work is balanced by the uncomplicated joy of Velliquette's, and vice versa.
The first work one encounters upon entering the gallery is Sargent's Means to an End, from 2007. As with his other work, a large piece of black cloth is covered with small, silhouetted images, many of which are repeated. One can make out the familiar and haunting shape of the hooded figured from Abu Ghraib, a machine gun on a tripod, and what appears to be a prisoner menaced by a dog, as well as benign images like dancers and a figure on a bike.
In the center of Means to an End, an oil well is flanked by two derricks. Up above, tiny fighter planes and other military aircraft hover. While the work's title drives home a "no blood for oil"-type message, Sargent's art is much more compelling and layered than bumper-sticker politics. His offbeat medium and distinctive visual style force us to see iconic images in a new way.
In another political work, The Green Zone, the entire black cloth is again filled with silhouettes. Traced or drawn over this is the outline of an Islamic courtyard. Inside the courtyard, the silhouettes are of peaceful things: birds, trees, dancers, golfers, diners. Outside the privileged, protected space, we see the familiar shapes of war planes.
While The Green Zone may sound didactic or simplistic, it, like Means to an End, succeeds largely due to Sargent's novel medium. One must look closely to make out what the tiny silhouettes are doing, as well as the courtyard outline. There's a process of discovery for the viewer, rather than an immediate, blatant statement.
Photos of Sargent's pieces don't do them justice (photos make them appear more like prints on paper rather than wax on fabric), so don't miss your chance to see them in person.
At the other end of the gallery, Velliquette's cut-paper works have a childlike energy but the technical skill of an accomplished artist. Citing everything from "personal deities" to world mythology to psychedelic culture as his sources, Velliquette creates happy, Technicolor works that will appeal to kids and adults alike.
Gugulanna is a grinning, toothy, bear-like critter (except, of course, bears don't have horns) made of cut card stock and glue. Velliquette takes the inherent flatness of paper and turns it into an appealing, three-dimensional work projecting from the wall.
I found Velliquette's ceramics less accomplished, but, as he states, it's a new medium for him. He recently experimented with vitreous china while participating in the John Michael Kohler Arts Center's unusual Arts/Industry program, in which artists create work right in the factories of the Kohler Company, better known for making toilets and sinks.
Whether you want to ponder our country's military entanglements or just shake the winter blahs with raucous color and whimsical creatures, the James Watrous Gallery's current shows are well worth a stop.