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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Haitian Fantasy in Milwaukee

Lynden Sculpture Garden displays 'Midwestern Imagination'

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The main salon of the Lynden Sculpture Garden is figuratively filled with Caribbean sea breezes from the new exhibition Haiti and the Midwestern Imagination. Imagination indeed, as layer after layer of fantasy is laid down in these bright, candy-colored canvases.

The artist is Orville Bulman. He was born in Grand Rapids, Mich., in 1904, heir to and eventual president of the Bulman Manufacturing Co., a leading maker of packaging implements. But his heart ultimately sought a reconciliation between the life of a businessman and the calling of a painter. Exhibition curator Polly Morris describes Bulman as a self-made artist, one who had some training and developed ample skill at wielding a paintbrush with articulate contours and colors. His early works have a strong architectural bent, as seen in Green Thumb, which is akin to a chatty Edward Hopper, albeit with a less commanding light.

This piece, an image of urban backdoors and subtle dilapidation, alludes to Bulman's interest in subjects removed from an affluent lifestyle. It is a precursor to what he became most known for: images derived from Haitian motifs. He traveled to Haiti for at least one trip in 1952, a 12-day sojourn that was profoundly informative for his body of work. It was not the first time he explored these types of scenes, but heretofore postcards and travel brochures had provided source material instead of the real deal.

And so what did Bulman come away with? Based on this compact exhibition of 10 pieces, it must be said that the view is selective, yet insightful. As Peg Bradley chose these works, her taste as a collector plays a significant role. Bradley is famous for her love of color, as well as being an astute connoisseur of modern art. These paintings are worlds away from the geometric abstraction at the forefront of American art of the '50s. But Bulman's success—his work was available through commercial prints and even mass-produced items such as needlepoint patterns—is a reminder of alternate artistic currents in postwar culture.

These paintings often emphasize flights of fancy, perhaps more than recorded fact. Narratives are suggested but remain unresolved, as though we are outsiders looking in. It was an age of easy cultural appropriation, and painting abstracted figures of Caribbean women gossiping, carrying baskets on their heads or tending to tiny slips of children was undertaken without inhibition or irony.

Bateau Rapide (Swift Boat)
is characteristic. A bright pink boat skims a luminous green sea, perhaps heading for shore where a tall lemony house stands. On top of the boat cabin, a woman proudly sits in a carriage, which is slightly more than an elegant chair on wheels. She holds a parasol and the reins to a nonplussed donkey. A spindly smokestack exhales puffs flecked with red coal and frothy, impasto water churns below. As with much of Bulman's work, this image seems to be prompted from vision and memory, embellished with a vividly colorful imagination and palette.

Through May 13 at the Lynden Sculpture Garden, 2145 W. Brown Deer Road.

TAGS: Lynden Sculpture Garden, Milwaukee, art, review, Haiti, Midwestern Imagination, Orville Bulman, artist, Edward Hopper, impasto, Peg Bradley