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Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Life’s Work of a Muskego Artist

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The unknown artist who labors in obscurity unto death, only to be discovered afterward, has long been a clich. In the case of Richard Mouw (1910-2001), the clich inched toward reality last winter when the director of Milwaukee’s Landmarks Gallery, Mary Manion, stood in the shivering cold of an unheated shed where the artist’s family had stored his life’s work. It was as if the contents of Mouw’s basement had been gathered up and deposited in stacks against the shed’s cement walls.

Not everything discovered by the gallery owner that day was excellent. Some pieces appeared unfinished, some were more like practice exercises, while others stood as fine examples of Midwest Regionalism, the prevailing style in the heart- land before World War II and for some years after. At least until now, little has been written about the painter. An X-ray technician by trade, Mouw and his wife settled in Muskego in 1945. He is remembered as a friendly neighbor, a helpful man who occasionally gave art lessons to Muskego children. Little if anything is known about the inspiration for his art or his artistic aspirations.

Mouw exhibited in several group shows in Milwaukee and elsewhere over the years but never appears to have pursued painting as a career. The body of work on display at Landmarks Gallery represents the largest exhibition of Mouw’s art to date with 100 oil paintings on Masonite, canvas and board. They stretch across a wide horizon of styles. One or two of the Impressionistic landscapes mimic Monet. A sinister cabal of baldheads bent over a card game suggests Grosz.

Mouw dabbled in Pointillism to render the fleeting colors of autumn in the Midwest. He painted naive elongated figures going about ordinary tasks and still lifes arranged around the same setting of table and chair. Most interesting are nocturnal street scenes under bare winter trees lit by a pale lunar disc and glorious sunny scenes of rolling Wisconsin farmland dotted with familiar red barns.

The paintings of Richard Mouw are on display March 8-April 6 at Landmarks Gallery, 231 N. 76th St., (414) 453-1620.