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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

“Interior/Exterior” Finds a Home at Portrait Society Gallery

Art Review

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In 1998, Debra Brehmer curated an exhibition called "Sweeping and Cleaning: Order and Chaos in Domestic Life." Included in the catalog was the following line from Emily Dickinson: "God keep me from what they call households." I like households, however, having lived in approximately 40, some shabby and some splendiferous.

Brehmer continues her pursuit of things domestic in "Interior/Exterior: The Home as Portrait" (through Aug. 14) at the Portrait Society Gallery, located on the fifth floor of the Marshall Building (207 E. Buffalo St.) in the Third Ward. It's open on Gallery Night on July 24, so step right up, come right in and make yourself at home-literally. Gallery B is styled with '50s modernist furnishings, a perfect foil for red walls installed with dazzling plastic plate collages, amazing refrigerator magnets and other beautifully crafted doodads by Madison's late Carolyn Gaska. Her golden years were not spent watching "I Love Lucy" on Me TV. Call it un-schooled trash, if you dare, but this stuff has spirit.

The three painters who replicate home interiors (and exteriors) are all trained to the MFA level and beyond. Of the three, Kay Knight, Ariana Huggett and Keiler Sensenbrenner, it is Knight, a UW-Milwaukee professor of painting, whose work explores the American Dream lived by couples in postwar homes-which is to say, white, middle class, upwardly mobile couples. Beneath the fussy vintage wallpaper overlaid with painterly dwellings, something is starting to rust and rot… The Dream deconstructed, or was it really an American Nightmare? Was Emily Dickinson on to something?

Ah, the stuff we accumulate, perhaps in an attempt to emulate wealth, or to demonstrate we've made our mark in the world. Heaps of stuff, rooms ripe with stuff: ironing boards, computers, chairs, doodads, clutter and nonsense. But somehow the gathering of stuff makes sense. It's dangerous to say, but for many people, "stuff" defines who they are. Study Ariana Huggett's watercolors and oils and see if you agree. I'm not sure what to say about Keiler Sensenbrenner's realist still life paintings and room interiors. They are certainly exquisitely rendered, but left me cold. Perhaps that is Sensenbrenner's point, that objects rendered perfectly are cold and unyielding. Her smashing drawings of animals caught in odd moments (a deer in an interior?) certainly indicate the artist's interest in nature vs. the man-made, but when she carries it over into a realist depiction of an animal figurine, the idea behind her concept becomes foggy. That said, the painterly excellence holds fast, particularly in the small oils of Fred Bell, a last-minute (and the only male) participant.