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Thursday, September 18, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 62.0° F  A Few Clouds
The Paper
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Madison Museum of Contemporary Art celebrates the American collage tradition with A Tumultuous Assembly
A Tumultuous Assembly: The Apparition examines nostalgia with paint-by-number panels.

One man's trash is another man's treasure, as the saying goes. Artists have been working with cast-off materials and found objects for about a century now, beginning with pieces like Marcel Duchamp's inverted bicycle wheel mounted on a wooden stool and Cubist collages incorporating everyday items like newspaper clippings. Collage and found-object art-making became major trends in 20th-century art. For A Tumultuous Assembly (through July 27), the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art focuses on pieces from its permanent collection that were created in the latter half of the century.

Though a small show, A Tumultuous Assembly packs in some major names in modern art, like Louise Nevelson and Robert Rauschenberg. Nevelson's signature style is instantly recognizable, and she's represented by End of the Day XXVIII, a small, wall-mounted piece from 1972. It is painted solid black, assembled from wooden remnants set in what appears to be an old typesetter's tray.

While not as well-known as Rauschenberg or Nevelson, Ray Yoshida's work appealed to me more. The late Chicago artist had a knack for visually sampling from the ultimate pop-culture format, the comic book, to create quirky new non-narratives. In a pair of pieces from the 1960s and one from the 1990s, Yoshida shows precision in the way he slices out and creates new compositions from classic comics.

Don Baum's The Apparition, a small, house-shaped sculpture from 1988, is perhaps my favorite piece in this show. Baum has fashioned an odd little dwelling out of a cutting board and old paint-by-number panels of nostalgic scenes like farm vistas. The images continue even in the house's interior, encouraging the viewer to peek inside its arched opening. Although simple in concept and execution, Baum's piece strikes chords of memory, as many of us did paint-by-numbers as kids. Their simple, happy scenes present an idealized America.

The show has its shortcomings, however. A Tumultuous Assembly borrows its name from a phrase by an Italian Futurist artist. While it's a terrific title, it seems ill-fitting for this exhibition, which emphasizes Americans from the late 20th century. Not only are there no Italian Futurists, but this show does not have the violent, agitated spirit the Futurists advocated. On the contrary, artists like Nevelson and Yoshida created something new and carefully composed from throwaway materials.

The show also lacks the "wow pieces needed to really pull it together. While there are some good works on display, there are also quite a few merely average ones. The museum has had better success with permanent-collection shows focusing on themes rather than specific mediums; for example, a 2009 show on the subject of evil was a fresh idea that allowed for the inclusion of some unexpected works. A Tumultuous Assembly needs more oomph to live up to its name.

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