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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Artists Find ‘Uncommon Ground’ at Kohler Arts Center

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Whether viewed from afar in the halls of the prestigious 55th Venice Biennale International Contemporary Art Exhibition in Italy, where two Milwaukee artists from the Kohler Arts Center Collection are currently on display, or just up the road 60 miles from Milwaukee in Sheboygan, the Kohler stands as a beacon of conservation and innovation guided by the vision of Founding Director Ruth Kohler. The Kohler’s pioneering decision to collect and conserve “vernacular environment art” (better known as outsider, self-taught or visionary artists) represents a leading force in the growing recognition accorded to this at-risk artist group.

As a further mark of its distinction, Biennale curator Massimiliano Gioni selected 30 Eugene Von Bruenchenhein (1910-1983) photographic prints and 24 hand-carved shadow boxes of Levi Fisher Ames (1843-1923), both Milwaukee artists in the Kohler Collection, for inclusion in the 55th Venice Biennale’s centerpiece exhibition, “The Encyclopedic Palace.”

In choosing to include works of such artists in this most important art world venue, Gioni intends to question which artists should be considered “insiders” or “outsiders.” In short, he is calling for inclusiveness in considering the selection of artists based on the merits and interest of the work rather than a previous assumption that only art by school-trained artists warrants consideration. This move is in keeping with a current development among scholars to focus on aesthetics in the world of everyday life where self-taught artists exercise their creativity.

As it happens, this showing of “outsider artists” in Venice is a history-making precedent enjoying world attention among serious art viewers and the public. Moreover, visitors to the Biennale will find the expressions of imagination in these works easily comparable, often superior to much of so-called “insider” art. If you plan to travel, this exhibition, along with scores of other artists’ works, are on view in the Giardini Gardens and the Arsenale, alongside a multitude of other exhibition sites throughout Venice until Nov. 24.

The distance to Sheboygan is shorter, but also offers rewarding experiences. Awaiting visitors at the Kohler through Sept. 22, the “Uncommon Ground” exhibition features abundant testimony to innovation. “Uncommon Ground” features commissioned works by artists from around the U.S., including John Grade, Lauren Fensterstock, Wade Kavanaugh, Stephen B. Nguyen, Kate MacDowell and Carolyn Ottmers.

Artists were asked to reflect on ideas in Aldo Leopold’s book Sand County Almanac. Like the Wisconsin ecologist, the artists observed the changing roles of select elements from the natural world and drew inspiration accordingly. For example, Grade’s Capacitor, a 40-by-20-by-40-foot sculpture of coil, responds to outside changes of wind and temperature through a system of censors. Kavanaugh and Nguyen’s Rush to Rest explores the shifting forms of dunes and ice formations of the nearby Lake Michigan landscape. Fensterstock considers European and Japanese garden designs using cut paper forms and rendering plan forms seemingly drenched in black charcoal.

Through these and the works of the other artists, the spaces of the Kohler are transformed into an environment that is elegant and disturbing. Virtuosity, technological innovation and imagination come together to produce experiences that challenge visitors to think about the environment in new ways, both sobering and exhilarating. Such moments are rare in visits to any art museum today.