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Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2012

Eugene Von Bruenchenhein's Cities in the Clouds

Inova/Kenilworth displays otherworldly works

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Dreamy towers of colorful fragments shimmer, and deep-ocean creatures mysteriously flow on the walls of Inova/Kenilworth. The paintings are otherworldly, jewel-toned and unmistakable as the work of Eugene Von Bruenchenhein.

Born in 1910, Von Bruenchenhein spent much of his life in a Milwaukee home near State Fair Park. He painted and sculpted for decades. His wife, Marie, was the muse of his photographs. This exhibition is but a sliver of his career, and offers a look at his early painting, dominated by nature themes such as undersea worlds. These are joined by architectural paintings of the '70s, when Von Bruenchenhein took up the paintbrush again after more than a decade pursuing other artistic mediums.

The later-period paintings shown here fixate on mysterious cities and structures, seeming in part both Balinese temples and muscled American skyscrapers. These visions are woven with Von Bruenchenhein's painterly stipples, creating a surface that speaks like a tapestry. There is a deft manipulation of light, as paint pools in discreet areas of dark, opaque pigment and pale wash. The titles suggest lofty themes, such as Grand Haven's Vast Complex - Steel and Stone and Liberty Complex in the Clouds. These cities in clouds and their titles draw on the physical strength of material structures, but also idealist planes of living.

Von Bruenchenhein died in 1983. By the time he painted these he was a man late in life, and working largely in anonymity. For all of the meticulous paint strokes and luminous color, there is a curious sense of looking from a distance. Many of these magic towers are placed in the center of the composition. They dominate low horizons and rise majestically against blue skies. But they still seem remote, forever in a middle ground that looms tantalizingly, just a little farther. We aspire, but do we ever arrive?

The earlier works of the 1950s and '60s use much of the same color palette, but the artist plunges us deep into a powerful, primordial earth. Under the sea we face multiple eyes and ghostly tentacles of creatures, and haunt landscapes still under creation. Coricum Arrisena August 15, 1955 # 306 stands out among these. Green and blue undulations suggest a murky, swampy place, shot through by powerful, pointy stalactites. The picture opens in the middle, revealing a fiery cavern, a pit to the heart of a steamy earth. This is visionary stuff, and the early paintings are not reticent about the details of Von Bruenchenhein's vivid imagination.

The exhibition is rounded out by a selection of sculptures that also suggest a strong Asian influence. Their intricate patterns create an appetite to see more of these pieces. Other parts of the Von Bruenchenhein oeuvre are absent, such as photography, and delicate thrones and towers orchestrated out of chicken bones. The sculptures are too fragile to be included, but a nod is given in the screening room with a slide show accompanied by recordings made by the artist.

“Eugene Von Bruenchenhein Exhibition” continues through April 1 at Inova/Kenilworth (2155 N. Prospect Ave.).
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