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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Kohler Arts Center Examines the American Story

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Contemporary society too often overlooks the powerful magic of storytelling. On June 21, the John Michael Kohler Arts Center resurrects this art form by presenting provocative objects and images in their new exhibition, "American Story."

A 16,000-square-foot gallery space overflows with the singular stories of 15 artists, several working in Wisconsin, whose lives have fostered an innate impulse to create art. Encompassing histories that reimagine the Vietnam War or Cuban exile, embrace family members with schizophrenia or Down syndrome, or incorporate self-taught or university-trained techniques, the artists draw on their disparate cultural, economic and familial backgrounds through a multitude of art mediums.

The works include cement sculpture, oil on linen, crocheted mandala circles, carved wooden tribal dolls, clay figurines and woven paper and metal. Each artwork showcases how these individuals overcame adversity and retells their American legacy. The exhibition features José Bedia, who uses imagery and symbolism from Cuban culture to relate his social and political sentiments. Lesley Dill merges poetry, weaving, thread and metal in her installations, where a ghostlike foil dress suggests the horrors of combat in Dress of War and Sorrow. Hawkins Bolden, blind since childhood, fashions scarecrow sculptures from reclaimed objects in his marginalized Tennessee neighborhood. Molly Hatch, a participant in the Kohler Arts/Industry Pottery program, places blue and white porcelain in a contemporary context as portrayed in Tete a Tete: Tea for Two. Jack Earl, one of the first Arts/Industry participants, relies on humorous objects in clay that celebrate items right in your own home. David Lenz, a well-known Milwaukeean, paints hyper-realistic landscapes and portraits that illuminate the overlooked in society, as seen in his award-winning Sam and the Perfect World.

This list represents only six of the 15 artists; the other nine-Adolph Vandertie, Xao Yang Lee, Lisa Fifield, Xenobia Bailey, Alison Moritsugu, Vernon Burwell, Yoshiko Kanai, Gregory Van Maanen and Charlie Willeto-present their own extraordinary visions of America. "The stories are inspiring. The art, incredible," says senior curator Leslie Umberger. "This reminds every individual what they're capable of, what's inside themselves."

Beginning June 21, the Kohler Arts Center invites everyone to tell their own legacy and provide additional voices to enrich their surrounding communities. A grand opening celebration on Sunday, June 21, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., will see gallery talks, film screenings, workshops and an ice cream social-and many of the events are free and open to the public. In the weeks ahead, additional programming in theater, performing arts, studio classes and the Sidewalk Stories public art project will focus on this "American Story" theme, which conjures its own particular magic.

Correction: The "American Originals" exhibition at the Milwaukee Art Museum reviewed in last week's Shepherd Express was co-organized by the following: the MAM, The Chipstone Foundation, The Terra Foundation for American Art, The American Decorative Art 1900 Foundation, and The New Britain Museum of American Art.

David Lenz, Sunrise