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Thursday, Nov. 1, 2012

Strong Hues, Midwest Energy

Lenny Nagler, One of Wisconsin’s Own, at Charles Allis

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Lenny Nagler is the first artist in the new "Wisconsin’s Own" series at the Charles Allis Art Museum—not to be confused with the "Wisconsin Masters" series which, as described by the museum’s admissions agent one recent day, "features dead artists; the Wisconsin’s Own series is by people who are still alive." Good to know.

Nagler has done plenty of exhibiting throughout the Dairyland. He is a native of Oshkosh and retired in 1999 from his profession as a social studies teacher. His painting studies have been primarily on his own, though he has certainly picked up a few pointers from artists along the way. Edward Hopper and Wassily Kandinsky are referenced, and Henri Matisse is honored in a watery portrait. Bright, Fauve-like color abounds, as do compositional strategies of Precisionists like Charles Sheeler. Cubist reincarnations of the world flavor Nagler's work, particularly in more recent pieces.

The exhibition is organized thematically, offering a collective view of landscapes, figures and architectural subjects. Earlier pieces, such as the landscape Flowerfield (1981) and Native American-inspired motifs, feel exploratory in their lightness. There is a keenly Impressionist sensibility which over time deepens into stronger hues and defined contours.  Ireland Bowl (2010) is one more recent example of a punchier treatment, with its green land and blue hills sparked with orange rhythms breaking in staccato highlights.

Hometown Skyline is perhaps the most energetic of these newer works. It is like we sit with Nagler as he surveys buildings, presumably downtown Oshkosh, though in character it becomes like an archetype of any small city. From the dense mass of low-rise structures a tall building reaches into the sky, towering above a pointed church spire. One structure overtakes another, and in the middle of it all a couple of lively green trees billow up, reaching for sun. The layered nature of the work is interesting, and enjoys perhaps a greater sense of tension in the nuanced light, subtle but respirating in a low hum of Midwestern energy.

Nagler’s subjects include portraits, many of which have a sort of vintage quality. They are modern pictures but with an indistinct sense of time, reserving their emphasis for formal elegance. Celebration, however, seems about a New Year's Eve in frolicsome abandon. A cubist mass of martini glass, bodies and what appears to be a sphinx blowing a party whistle all seem to be having quite a good time. And so, for that matter, does Nagler.