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Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2012

The Mysterious World of Fred Stonehouse

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In the world according to Fred Stonehouse, many creatures cry. Yet look closer; none of them seem overtly distressed. It is the mystery of Stonehouse. Enter the space of his ornately framed paintings and you are beguiled and disarmed, befuddled and unsettled.

This is not an English drawing-room caper. Yet perhaps there's a Dorian Gray portrait hovering somewhere, a countenance stricken with moral decay. However, the dark truth lies somewhere in the wilds and now, for the first time in this widely acclaimed artist's career, the location seems clear yet still murky -- the misty moors of Horicon Marsh, near his home in south central Wisconsin. This is a deliberate statement of regional focus in Marschmeister at the Tory Folliard Gallery (233 N. Milwaukee St.), Stonehouse's first one-man show in his native Milwaukee since 2003. So, follow his flashlight into the fog. See the glistening tears on animals and on the heavily bearded man, in some scenes, who seems less an interloper than a fellow marsh dweller, indeed a self-portrait of sorts, vaguely resembling the artist. Yet Stonehouse's bio portrait is older, grayer, sad without tears.

Likely villains have haunted his paintings in the past – quasi-Nazi types and various goons. Here there are creepy serpents and bats. You sense, amid all the tears, a quiet stoicism to each being's demeanor. The Horicon Marsh emerges and recedes as a motif and metaphor. In the Folliard gallery blog, Stonehouse, describes the marsh as a metaphor for creative process.

A self-described “hood” or motorcycle greaser in his youth, Stonehouse was part of a subculture of cool alienation – think “The Fonze.” But some hoods have a big heart and plenty of smarts. Stonehouse is now a professor of art at UW-Madison and widely exhibited.

Yet the alienation remains in his art, the cruel loneliness of spirit, a profound subject, something that many people live with, at least on some level – perhaps 99 per cent of us? Stonehouse's world looks past the techno-Web world to deeper issues of connection - or disconnect -- with nature and self and others. The marsh's amorphous, slippery slow-down space also describes life as well -- and perhaps life's most mysterious aspect, as Norman Mailer has noted, Time. It flies, yes, but time can also crawl torturously for those many suffering. So the show's most complex piece is called “On the Habits of Manipulating Time,” in which a 26-point weeping buck is labeled “TIME” while several bearded men, naked except for briefs, hover around manipulating crystals. Crystals certainly manipulate visual perception and perhaps allow us to think we are controlling or defying time by refracting our reality. The scene seems a comment on man's habitual arrogance toward nature and the inscrutable forces of Nature. Has the Internet changed that?

In “Dream of the Marsh Diver,” the bearded man surfaces after snagging a fish in his mouth. Two other fish peer dolefully at him, waiting, as if contemplating judgment of him. The man peers back, in self doubt? Who wields the greater power in this moment, the man or the fish? This seems to be a theme Stonehouse is striving towards. It is perhaps Melvillian and this man is something of a cross between Ahab and Starbuck, who longs to stop Ahab's mad pursuit of the whale but ultimately lacks the courage to do so.

Consider also the weight of an admitted influence, Philip Guston's late paintings of stunted men amid their cigarette butts, glassy eyeballs and cloddish boots. Stonehouse's man, by contrast, rises and treks into nature to face it, and his own muddy reflection. He's saddened by what he sees and senses. Is this art “cynical” about these predicaments, as some have suggested? It seems more tragic, in its odd way, yet the artist's dreamlike, neo-primitivist style lets us share a sense of quotidian tragedy (with the fish) rather than rendering it in god-like figures.

So Stonehouse/Starbuck weeps for himself, humanity and nature. “Guston did not care to sink too far into the endless; his need for form was always to check that impulse,” wrote Dore Ashton. Stonehouse also has that need as his spirit wades into the marsh, determined to not to be sucked into its smothering abstraction yet feeling its pull, trolling for its living truths. Ashton also wrote: “…nor had (Guston) ever become cynical about the importance and nobility of art in human history.” Then she quotes Camus: “We must simultaneously serve suffering and beauty.” Stonehouse is doing this. To paraphrase the old African-American spiritual, this art is a balm in Gilead, and in the Horicon Marsh of everyman and woman's soul.

An artist's reception will be held 1-4 pm Saturday ( Jan. 7) with a talk by Stonehouse at
2 pm.