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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Rooting Local Talent

Art Review

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  Hotcakes’ last hurrah is this year’s “Third MARN Mentors Show,” highlighting the outcome of a year-long collaboration between established local artists and those just getting their feet wet. The MARN Mentors program is supposed to encourage new talent to stay in Milwaukee, so it’s hard to ignore the incongruity: There’s a stark contrast between work born of such a hopeful concept and Hotcakes’ liquidation sale atmosphere. There’s nothing to buy here anymore, except the art; all the t-shirts are gone and the shelves are empty. The space itself has an echo you only hear after everything’s been packed up and the furniture is on the moving van. That’s not to say owner Mike Brenner is actually hightailing it out of town; he’s not. His focus on his role as MARN’s executive director has increased in recent months and so, in spite of closing his gallery because of what he sees as a lack of support for local arts, Brenner will continue his efforts to lift up the art community in Milwaukee, as he’s done for years, Bronze Fonz or no.

  The show, of course, is not about Mike Brenner, or Hotcakes, or the Bronze Fonz—but you can’t entirely separate the backstory from the art on the walls. It takes a minute to get oriented, to settle in and shake off the feeling that something is missing. Once that’s accomplished, though, the intention of the MARN Mentors show comes through.

While ordinarily cohesiveness is an asset to any gallery show, here it’s the breadth of work that is striking. Joe Ventress (mentee under photographer Robert Smith) shows vivid black and white portraits of people given labels like Punk or Black/Death/Crust Metal. They stare across the room at Kamryn Boelk’s sculpture Buyproduct, a weaving made of plastic shopping bags. Between them stand two Richard Taylor sculptures, on loan from Tory Folliard Gallery. Taylor is Boelk’s mentor, and while each artist’s work is wildly different from the other in both intent and execution, you can’t help imagining how the two may have informed each other over the past year.

While some of the work is clearly less professional, more often it’s a tough call—at first look—to distinguish the mentors from the mentees. That’s not an insult to the mentors, but a compliment to the program. Mentors choose the artists they will work with, and provide regular critiques, obviously to a good end. And besides, the mentees are no slouches; Della Wells, a nationally known contemporary folk artist with a page full of credits to her name, was not a mentor but an arts administration mentee working with MIAD’s Josie Osborne. Both artists’ work is on display.

The Third MARN Mentors Show is a small but hopeful peek at the vibrant work of active artists right here in Milwaukee, collaborating and uplifting one another. It’s also proof, even as he shutters the windows on Hotcakes Gallery, that Mike Brenner’s passion is well-placed: Milwaukee has some amazing talent, and we need to keep these people in town. Let’s hope someone is paying attention.

The “Third MARN Mentors Show” runs through May 24 at Hotcakes Gallery, 3379 N. Pierce St.