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Tuesday, Aug. 12, 2008

Welcome Home, Charles

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   Many people haven't heard the name of Charles Thwaites, a Wisconsin artist who was born in Milwaukee in 1904 and graduated from the city's Layton School of Art during the 1920s. However, they may be familiar with his work: Thwaites was one of America's foremost portrait painters before moving to New Mexico in the '50s. The Museum of Wisconsin Art's exhibition "Charles Thwaites: A Retrospective" displays works from a successful career that spanned half a century, connecting Thwaites, who died in 2002, to his former home.

  The retrospective presents Thwaites' artwork from in the 1930s onward, including numerous pieces recovered from a Santa Fe warehouse. Torso (1935), a dry oil on paper, displays Thwaites' command of the human figure, sketched in shaded charcoals and ebonies. The exhibit goes on to feature each of the artist's styles, from regional realism to abstraction, with his exquisite portraiture, expressed through media such as oil, acrylic, encaustic, egg tempura and printmaking. The retrospective acknowledges Thwaites' ability to visualize and render his chosen subjects through two diverse approaches, abstraction and the more formal realistic style.

  Shown in a small gallery adjacent to the main exhibit is the artist's "Taos Modern" style, developed after traveling to the Southwest in the 1940s. His angular, stylized portrayal of ponies cavorting in winter, Horses in the Snow (1951), contains brush marks of egg tempura in stone grays, warm sepias and porcelain-toned neutrals. Delving into structural geometric form and color blocking, the painting borders on abstraction yet depicts the playfulness of animals on a frigid landscape. A serigraph titled Strawberry Corn Motif (1965) combines the appealing abstract composition of black and red strawberries scattered amid golden grain fields in a simplified yet surprisingly contemporary image.

  Thwaites' expertise and precision finds remarkable resonance in a timeless study of character, Taos Indian (1957), a profile of an elderly Native American that exudes quiet dignity. The painting displays Thwaites' mastery of portraiture, capturing personality and ethnicity in one fell swoop.

  While Thwaites may have left the American art world without any revolutionary contributions, his career and legacy deserves attention. His awards and juried appearances at venues including New York's Metropolitan Museum and Chicago's Art Institute occurred alongside better-remembered artists such as Grant Wood, Georgia O'Keeffe and Edward Hopper. His retrospective at the Museum of Wisconsin Art, continuing through Sept. 7, returns a previously esteemed and exceptional artist to a prominent place in Wisconsin's art heritage.

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