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Friday, December 19, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 26.0° F  Overcast
The Daily
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Wisconsin Triennial 2013 offers samples of our state's finest contemporary works
Visual appetizers

Let me start with an art lover's gripe: While Madison is vocal about its enthusiasm for local chefs and bartenders, Wisconsin artists are rarely treated as rock stars. We are justifiably proud of a thriving and varied dining scene, but I wish there were more chances to engage with new work by Wisconsin artists, both for their sake and mine.

Visual artists in Wisconsin grapple with the often-solitary nature of making their work, plus a limited number of venues in which to show it. Viewing art offers the hope of discovering a new and compelling take on the world, the thrill of finding something one hasn't seen before. Luckily, one of the best forums for contemporary Wisconsin art recently opened: the Wisconsin Triennial, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art's survey of leading contemporary artists (through Jan. 4).

As its name indicates, the Triennial is held every three years. To select the 35 individual artists and five pairs featured in the 2013 Triennial, the museum's curatorial team combed through more than 500 submissions and conducted 113 visits to artists' studios around the state. The resulting exhibition features more than 100 works of art in media ranging from photography, painting and sculpture to video installation and performance.

While I have some reservations about this Triennial -- too many familiar names from prior years, the absence of some terrific artists, and light representation of media such as printmaking and textiles -- it is, as always, essential viewing for anyone with even a passing interest in art. With so much to see, I'd be amazed if anyone came away not finding something to admire.

On that note, let me start with some of the Triennial's pleasant surprises: artists whose work I had not encountered elsewhere, but who made an impression. I'd include Receptacle by Michael Beitz, who lives in Oshkosh and teaches at the UW campus there, in this category. A four-legged table and two chairs, all made of basswood, "Receptacle" is immediately arresting due to a strange orifice in the center of the tabletop; the orifice descends to form a grotesque pouch or organ resting on the floor. The fleshy color of the wood adds to the piece's unsettling, anthropomorphic effect. You might say its ancestors include famous dada or surrealist objects like Meret Oppenheim's fur-covered teacup and Man Ray's nail-studded iron. They all provoke the visual jolt of a domestic object subverted.

I also took an immediate liking to Gabriel Pionkowski's work. A recent recipient of an M.A. and M.F.A. from the UW, Pionkowski creates "paintings" that are actually deconstructed, painted and woven canvases. The works share a kind of minimalist focus. I particularly liked one piece in which painted threads hang loosely in a U shape from a wooden frame that recalls a six-pane window. Though it may sound simplistic, there's something intriguing about seeing the wooden support through the veil of the deconstructed canvas, and observing the interplay between curving and straight lines.

While Beitz and Pionkowski were new to me, there is also plenty of strong work by better-known Wisconsin artists, such as Gina Litherland of Cedarburg, a master of creepy, fairytale surrealism. Little Red Cap is her spin on the story of Little Red Riding Hood and the menacing wolf. Here, the wolf seems almost protective of the girl, and she is wary but engaged by him. (A pack of shadowy wolves in the distance still hints at danger, though.) Litherland's paintings are charged with an eerie tension, yet her technical skill as an oil painter gives them an alluring Old Master glow.

Kristy Deetz of De Pere, who teaches at UW-Green Bay, also takes subjects that could be cutesy (assorted fuzzy critters) and develops something far more interesting. What really sets her work apart are her illusionistic "crumpled" backgrounds that reveal other, nearly hidden images. (The works are painted to look as though the canvas is crumpled, though it isn't.) Although the modest scale of Deetz's paintings makes them somewhat hard to find in MMoCA's cavernous main gallery, they are worth a close look.

As for abstract painting, I liked Benjamin Grant's colorful, geometric painting in the museum's State Street gallery, done in acrylic, automotive paint and enamel, which gives it a hard, glossy sheen. Grant plays with the typically 2D nature of painting by having sections of the panel bend forward from the wall, a bit like a folding screen would. Grant's vibrant colors and somewhat unexpected format give his work instant appeal.

Photography, as usual, is also a strong component of the Triennial. Hudson's Carl Corey, who showed work from his "Tavern League" series in the last Triennial, is represented this time by three photos from his portfolio "For Love or Money." While "Tavern League" focused on the proprietors of classic bars -- many of them quirky, small-town watering holes -- "For Love or Money" looks at a broader range of small businesses. The settings here are a shoe store, a barbershop and a familiar place from Madison: Nick's Restaurant, located across from the museum, on State Street.

What appeals to me about Corey's work is its populist spirit. His subjects are not famous people or locations, just everyday people -- male, female, black, white -- in their places of business. Corey's photography is fascinating in the same way everyday life can be fascinating, if you're paying attention. Without veering into hokiness, Corey gets at something essential about the dignity of work and the way family businesses can become part of a community's fabric.

While Paul Baker Prindle, formerly of Milwaukee, also makes large-scale photographs of everyday spaces, his work is utterly different from Corey's in tone. Mundane locations belie horrific acts of anti-gay violence that have occurred there. Unless you have prior knowledge of the places and incidents, the photographs' long titles are the only indicator you would have of their history. While the photos are well composed and interesting in their own right, they are an example of photography, or art-making in general, as an act of witnessing. Prindle's work asks us not to forget these hate crimes, and to acknowledge the sad ordinariness of violence in American life.

As in the last Triennial, video art is significantly represented. Unfortunately, video work is possibly the weakest component of the 2013 exhibition.

Of six artists showing or incorporating video, Madison's Chele Isaac emerges as the strongest. The End of Angels fuses video with music and installation to create an all-encompassing experience. One must peer through a small window into an eerie, dollhouse-like realm she has created. The piece's main drawback is its eight-minute video loop; since only one person can experience the work at a time, by standing on some steps to look through the small portal, it's impractical to watch the whole video while others are waiting. Still, the work is even more immersive and interesting than what I've seen previously from Isaac.

Unfortunately, another video piece installed near Isaac's doesn't fare as well. Justin Bitner's You are not what you have been taught pairs piles of static-emitting cathode-ray televisions with two video screens showing rushing water. The white noise emitted by the old TVs mingles with the white noise from nature -- though, of course, it's nature as mediated by technology. The title of the work comes off as both obvious and cryptic, and the way the work is installed (the museum's responsibility, not the artist's) makes it hard to focus on other works in the main gallery. It's far too loud, and listening to static for an hour or so while trying to view the other pieces becomes grating. It's also not fair to the other artists.

The sound in Madison artist Stephen Hilyard's video piece is handled much better. Not only is it quieter, but it's focused over the viewer's head with a clear plastic shade. The sound is crystal-clear when you're viewing the piece, but not audible when you're trying to look at most of the other work.

Hilyard's video, like some still photos he also has on display in light boxes nearby, plays with notions of the sublime, an old tradition in the arts. (The music one hears, by the composer Beethoven, is a nod to that tradition.) In the video loop, a frumpy tourist, eventually joined by others, watches a majestic waterfall. Hilyard's previous work has involved careful digital manipulation, and this waterfall is no exception; it is too perfect, too regular. Tourists attempt to capture the towering waterfall on their cell phones and cameras, but it seems almost pointless. Our puny consumer technology can't truly record the waterfall's majesty, and technology runs the risk of making us unable to experience what's right in front of us.

While I enjoyed the Triennial as I have in years past, I was left wondering about artists who didn't make the cut. I can think of numerous terrific Wisconsin artists not represented here, but of course I don't know if they chose not to apply or if they were screened out. While there is plenty of good work on display, there are also artists who have been represented in Triennials past who are not necessarily moving in new directions. They may be highly talented, but shouldn't more space be opened up for new artists, or established ones who are doing new things? While I had a mixed reaction to UW professor Lisa Gralnick's piece in this exhibition, I do appreciate how dissimilar it is to her work in the last Triennial, or work she has previously shown at the Chazen Museum. I respect her for pushing her work in new directions.

Despite my quibbles, the newest Triennial is still an important showcase, and a good way to get acquainted with many of our state's artists. With Madison's 25th annual citywide Gallery Night coming up this Friday, Oct. 4, I hope more people will take advantage of the chances we do have to get to know our visual artists.

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