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Thursday, October 30, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 36.0° F  Overcast
The Paper
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Wisconsin painters Charles Munch and Randall Berndt look at humans vs. nature
Mammals among mammals
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For more photos, click gallery, above.

Charles Munch and Randall Berndt, two artists who have exhibited together before, make for a natural pairing in the current exhibition at Grace Chosy Gallery, which runs through May 28.

Both are respected Wisconsin artists with decades-long careers. More important, both deal with nature-related themes and question the ways in which humans relate to the world around them.

Stylistically, the two are quite different. The brushwork in Berndt's acrylic paintings is relatively loose. The paintings are suffused with an internal, peachy-golden glow, and his sensibilities are capital-R Romantic.

Munch, on the other hand, takes a more graphic approach. His trademark style incorporates bold, simplified forms with thick outlines and flat areas of bright color. The impression his work makes is both immediate and lasting, and in the recent paintings on view here, his ecological ethics have never been more plainly stated.

As Munch told me during a 2009 interview, "We're mammals among mammals. We're not alone; we're very much part of a big family. We can identify with the other members more than we do."

In this show, Munch's Three Animals clearly embodies that view. Three figures - woman, deer, man - stand in a row, directly facing the viewer. The humans are nude, removing them from "civilization" and making their animal-ness plain. The deer's gaze is no less frank or intelligent than the humans'. One senses in Munch's work a profound ethic of equality among animals, both human and nonhuman.

Other Munch paintings possess a little more mystery, such as The Vision, in which a clothed woman sleeping under a pup tent is ringed by a menagerie of creatures (wolf, turtle, squirrel, etc.) while something strange (stardust?) sprinkles down on her head. It's a beguiling fantasy of harmonious coexistence.

Though Munch's work is seemingly simple, it calls to mind diverse references within art: the lushness of Henri Rousseau, the stylization of Chicago Imagist Roger Brown, and even the deep interest in nature and pared-down forms of Georgia O'Keeffe.

Berndt's work seems to be moving in a direction of greater fantasy, even surrealism. In The Honeymooners, a nude woman leads a boat with a rope, but the boat is propped up on supports, and the oar of the man in the boat doesn't reach the water. He's accompanied by two howling dogs, and there are fairy-tale-like elements in the background: a castle, a wizard-like figure, a sunset and waterfall. Like his other paintings and graphite drawings on view here, Berndt's work operates on a mysterious, allegorical level.

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