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Monday, April 16, 2012

Kohler Arts Center's Magnified Memories

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Through July 8, Sheboygan's John Michael Kohler Arts Center presents “Quiet Accord,” an exhibition of minute scale drawings by Paul Chiappe and Peggy Preheim. Walking through this gallery with magnifying glass in hand (magnifier provided) makes for a unique and meticulous viewing experience. Each piece, while easily mistaken for simple postage stamp imagery from across the room, is actually a work of tremendous detail and thematic subtlety.

Chiappe and Preheim both use pencil and paper, and they almost always surround their subjects with enormous expanses of white space. This creates the effect that their turn-of-the-20th-century figures and objects are floating eerily in midair. The technique plays directly into each artist's interest in nostalgia, memory and emotionally charged re-creations of the past.

Preheim often achieves this by removing her figures entirely from context, so that we may see, for instance, a Victorian doll's head floating alone in the center of its white ground (Bee in the Bonnet), or a man clinging by his fingertips to a thin line of upside-down grass that borders the hand-torn edge of the page (Grass Ceiling).

Chiappe, conversely, makes frequent use of drawing techniques derived from the popular 19th-century form of “spirit photography”—that is, the alteration of photographs so that some figures appear semi-transparent and spectral. This is the case in Untitled 27, a drawing based on a Victorian-era portrait in which several family members' faces have been artfully smudged out.

In terms of subject matter and other connotative concerns, both artists take great interest in the depiction of children, frequently using them as focal points in their drawings. Preheim, however, seems more focused on political and nationalistic concerns from an American point of view, whereas Chiappe often challenges our basic sense of time by working from old newspaper pages from his native Scotland and inserting subtle references to modern pop culture.

While there certainly exists a “quiet accord” of technique and meaning between the two artists, a careful walk through this provocative exhibit is sure to bring each viewer just as deeply into the conversation.