Amongst Uncommon Folks with Margaret Andera, Curator at the Milwaukee Art Museum
Blogmaster General is a mixed bag. The gig is not without its headaches; be they figurative (e.g. the tedium of transcription) or literal (usu. induced by computer screen staring). But tallied up, the perks far surpass the pains. Case in point: before the official opening of “Uncommon Folks: Traditions in American Art” at the Milwaukee Art Museum, I took a stroll through the exhibition with its curator, Margaret Andera. From the hundreds of items I asked Margaret to choose four of her favorites and to spend a few minutes giving the curatorial rundown on each work. I herewith share the fruits of my “labors.”
Tyler Friedman: Included among the nearly 600 objects of “Uncommon Folk” is a quilt from 1800, all manner of hunting decoys, hand-carved walking sticks, a papier-mâché human skeleton, soot drawings that put the ‘char’ in ‘chiaroscuro’… What can a designation such as “folk art” possibly mean when it accommodates such variety?
Margaret Andera: The title “Uncommon Folk” is a sort of play on the idea that all these objects are “folk art.” The Milwaukee Art Museum technically calls this body of works our “folk and self-taught collection.” As you delve into this exhibit you’ll see that the labels are incredibly problematic. What one person refers to as ‘folk art,’ another person may refer to as ‘outsider art,’ which has a whole other set of connotations. So, the title “Uncommon Folk” is really supposed to present the artists as just folks.
There was a scholar who once said to me, “there is no more folk art because there are no more folks.” In other words, there are no more people who live in these small, isolated communities where art traditions are kept apart from outside influence. Other people argue that there are no more folks because the world has become so much smaller with computers and the Internet. They argue that you can’t but avoid being influenced by the outside world.
I think that as long as we are focused on these names there will always be outliers. I prefer to talk about the creators of these works simply as artists. Some of these artists are working in long-standing traditions, other are working according to their own personal visions. I guess I don’t want to get hung up on labels.
TF: As you pointed out, in lieu of “folk art,” this unwieldy aesthetic ethos is often subdued with labels such as ‘self-taught art’ and ‘outsider art’. But it seems to me that the exhibition’s subtitle – “Traditions in American Art” – rejects the suggestion that these artists are pariah. What is the role of tradition in “Uncommon Folk”?
MA: That is a wonderful way to put it. That’s exactly what the exhibition is doing. These are traditions that – whether or not the art establishment wants to acknowledge them – are still art-making traditions within the big picture of American art. The fact that so many of the artists in this exhibition were ‘discovered’ by artists within the established art world is revealing. Trained artists are looking at these ‘folk’ artists and being influenced by the way they ignore certain rules. Conversely, some of the ‘self-taught’ artists may not have been going to museums, but they would see a work of art in the newspaper, for example, and that would influence them.
So, yes, the point of this exhibition is to say that carving, whitling, tramp art, etcetera are also traditions in American art making that span generations, centuries even. These forms are still practiced in certain areas.
TF: Lovely. Well, with that, shall we take a look at a few of the pieces?
MA: This is a crazy quilt. “Crazy quilt” is the name of the design, and as soon as you see the design you know why. The technique is called “piecing,” where you take separate pieces of material – all sorts of colors and designs – and piece them together to make a new cumulative design. And it’s called a “crazy quilt” because…well, the design is somewhat crazy! There doesn’t seem to be a general organizing structure. But I would urge you to stand in front of this quilt for a little while, because you discover that there are in fact organizing principles.
When you would put it on the bed you didn’t have to find which side was top or bottom. Look, for instance, at the frogs. You can see that all the frogs are facing down. But if you look at the flowers – the flowers are upside down when the frogs are right side up. So it didn’t matter what direction it was facing. That’s just one of the structural patterns.
The other interesting thing about this quilt is that we really haven’t shown it. I think it has only been shown once in the last ten or fifteen years. It’s from 1883, which is remarkable given how vibrant the colors still are. The red silks are still deep and beautiful. You really get the overall effect of what these crazy patterns were for, which is to be a barrage of color, almost like a jazz improvisation. And that effect is still present in the quilt. That’s because the MAM has taken really good care of this quilt.
Textiles are difficult things to take care of. They’re big, first of all. To store them you have to roll them on big tubes so that there is no overlap or else the colors will bleed. They have to be stored at particular humidity levels; and, of course, absolutely no light. In the exhibition you’ll notice that the light levels are lower around the quilts. That’s because light beats away at textiles. It’s the same with paper. Over a long time light burns out works on paper too. It’s just like when couch fabric that is exposed to the sun fades. So we’ll only show these textiles for about three months before resting them for a few years.
TF: It’s been installed so as to constitute the hypotenuse of a right triangle. Why is that?
MA: These are called slant boards. It’s used for the oldest quilts in the exhibition. When they are hung from the wall all the weight is supported by the backing and the backing of the older quilts is too fragile to bear the weight. It’s another way of preserving the work while still being able to show it.
MA: This is a section of work devoted to a Milwaukee artist named Eugene von Bruenchenhein who lived in West Allis. He is someone who created his work almost in complete anonymity while he was alive. I actually knew him. When I was working at a small store in West Allis, he and his wife Marie would come in. They were known as the eccentric couple in the neighborhood. No one had any idea that his house was filled with these amazing works of art. And he is interesting in the realm of self-taught artists because while most self-taught artists work in a single medium – they sculpt, or draw, or paint – von Bruenchenhein worked in photography, sculpture, and painting.
He made photographs first. His photos are mostly of his wife Marie, who he was extraordinarily devoted to. The photos have almost a pin-up girl quality, but I think they’re almost more akin to photos from a high fashion magazine. Some of the poses are very artsy. In many photographs Marie is wearing jewelry, or sometimes a crown. In the photos where she is looking back at the camera I can imagine the two of them exchanging these looks of adoration. It’s a lovely thing to see. On display is our entire collection of von Bruencheinhein’s photographs except for one. We have one that he took of the exterior of his house, which didn’t really fit on the wall of photos of Marie.
He moved on from photography to sculpture and painting. There is a wonderful architectural component to all his paintings. Some of the paintings are at first blush very abstract. But if you look at them long enough they begin to look as though they could represent a Gothic cathedral. The line work in his paintings is incredible. He would use brushes that sometimes had only a single hair. If you look closely at some of the paintings you begin to see a back and forth motion that he achieved by using all sorts of non-traditional art making tools, such as a feather.
In my mind the star of the paintings is “H Bomb.” It is one of von Bruenchenhein’s most important paintings. In fact maybe his most important. He kept journals in which he recorded his thoughts and philosophy and he was really influenced by the atomic bomb. It was a motivator for him. The painting is so ominous. And I love how the title of the work is in the upper left hand corner.
As I mentioned, von Bruenchenhein was not using traditional materials. “H Bomb” was painted on very fragile cardboard material. It had some holes in it, but our conservation department was able to patch the wholes and I can no longer even see where the holes once were. They did an unbelievable job.
MA: This is a section devoted to carving. If I’m being honest, the reason I chose to have a section devoted to carving was to show our collection of what is called “tramp art,” which is a horrible, horrible name. The reason it is called “tramp art” was that at some point in the last century there was a folklore that this art was made by tramps – that is, by itinerant men. And of course because the name sounds kind of wild, people liked it and it stuck. The style is sort of the male equivalent of quilting. It would have been a technique that was passed down from father to son or within communities, as is often the case with quilting. The artists would use woods from, say, cigar boxes – ready-made, easily found materials. They would just take their pocketknife and start to carve with a chip-carving technique that slowly but surely would reveal amazing geometric patterns. That’s what you see in our collection.
Depending on their size, the different carvings had different functions. Often times the smaller boxes were used for containing love letters. Usually those pieces have the name of the writer or the beloved on them. In addition to the smaller boxes, we also have a huge, full-scale desk with amazing patterns based on squares and rectangles. In the right lighting it just pops.
MA: Here we are at the very end of the exhibition. What we wanted to do was to have one last “ta-da” moment. You turn the final corner and are struck by an enormous wall of hanging fish decoys. When we decided to do this exhibition, the very first thing I promised myself we would show is this collection of ice-fishing decoys. We’ve had it since, I believe, 1994 and we’ve never shown it! I’m very happy that we were able to incorporate it because the carvings are so beautiful.
Functionally, decoys are a Native American invention. You can see as you look at the wall of fish that some of the decoys tilt downwards. This is because they are all weighted with lead. You would have a decoy on the line and the fisherman would wiggle the decoy so it looked as though it were alive and moving. Then other fish would swim to it – probably predators of whatever type of fish it was.
One of the guys who installed the fish decoys is himself a fisherman and he could tell exactly what type of fish each of the decoys was supposed to be. There had to be a level of realism so the other fish would recognize what it was. The artists needed to recreate the overall form, perhaps some colors that would be consistent, but – I’m not sure how good fishes’ eyesight is and whether they can really pick up on subtle detail. You suspect when looking at the especially beautifully carved and decorated fish that this is above and beyond the function of the object. These are clearly expressions of the artists.
I urge people to stand next to the wall so that the fish are facing you. From that angle you really get a sense of the elegant curve that the backs and fins of the fish have. They are exceptionally beautiful objects.