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Arts in Milwaukee

A Public Service Of Milwaukee Artist Resource Network

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Salon III Purview

Salon III

Last year I wrote an article about the disastrous Riverwest fire in Milwaukee for New City, an independent weekly newspaper based in Chicago. There I said that immediacy is to art criticism what combustion is to fire, and in the era of the twenty-four-hour online news cycle, a spark of information can trigger a wildfire of overwhelming emotion. My passionate yet sappy confessional of sorts came as a result of a certain limitation I apparently have as a critic: I’m a slow writer who likes to take his time watching paint dry. Not that I care that much but editors do, and many have pointed out that my fault is “Frankensteinian”. Very few times in my career this so-called limitation has taken a turn for the worst as it did when weeks before the fire I decided to pitch a review of Francoise Gamma’s show at American Fantasy Classics to Artforum. As usual, I took my time pitching the story and the editor took too long to reply to my request. I asked AFC to extend the show in case the publisher agreed to my request, which they politely agreed to do. Then the fire came and destroyed the art. Needless to say a review was never published.

If art has no expiration date, why can’t we just do away with the retrograde idea that there’s a limited window of opportunity in which to allocate a review? Why should critics even pitch reviews anymore when readers can find snippets of our immediate reactions in public spaces like Twitter? Shouldn’t editors publish whatever we give them no matter what or when it is delivered to them? I am fully aware that my seemingly anarchic and childish proposal clashes with the practical realities of the market as well as any kind of fantasies I have regarding responsibility and morality in art criticism and the editorial process. But if we are to discuss morality, let’s not forget that not a single publication outside Milwaukee relayed the tragic news of the Riverwest fire to a wider audience- as if the works lost or the lives affected by it never existed.

One could argue that to coastal America the fire might have seemed like a dim candle. But when compared to the media’s nation-wide reaction to hurricane Sandy’s plummeting of Chelsea, one has to wonder: What made Sandy more newsworthy than Riverwest?  Was it fair to beg nationwide empathy and aid for a powerful gallery district (the one with the largest concentrations of galleries in the world) that could rebuild itself in a matter of weeks?  Why should Milwaukee care for Chelsea when New York never cared for Riverwest? In the end, it was Milwaukee who could have lost an entire scene as a consequence of the fire. These outrageous and unfair contradictions from within the editorial process are pretty much the bread and butter of those working in marginalized art communities. However, my interest is not to designate a guilty party or to whine, but to find out to what extent those contradictions are reinforced by artist’s themselves.

Many years ago I had a conversation with curator and artist Nicholas Frank and some of his cohorts about the Milwaukee scene. I mentioned to Frank that painters in Milwaukee had a certain flair and funky, weird humor that separated them from the rest of nation. When I asked whether this humor was a product of a style or a movement Frank mentioned that they were hoping a foreign critic would show up one day and name it for them. He also said that if it were up to him, he would name the movement “Poopy Paintings.”

Frank’s description seemed vacuous at the time given that poopy is the type of word that interrupts a very intelligent and serious conversation. But his description makes complete sense today since humor is the poster boy for Milwaukee art.  After all, it is spaghetti –based abstractions, sculptural legs simulating easels and ballpoint pen doodle portraits of men in wigs that have been a hit in academic circles and the big market in recent years.

Truth is I have never been able to get Milwaukee’s sense of humor, I find it hermetic. Back then, when I pitched the idea of writing an article about these poopy painters to my editor Walter Robinson over at Artnet, he gave me a tepid green light and said: “Well, silly is better than serious, I suppose -- at least nobody can make you look silly if you do it yourself.”

Needless to say my Frankensteinian limitation prohibited me from analyzing the contradictions of poopy painters back then. However, this time around I get a second chance to ask the right questions: Is self-deprecation a way to leaven the isolation felt from being located in the fringes of the cultural markets? Does assigning one characteristic to the art made in Milwaukee reinforces the idea of provincialism even when significant venues for distribution or appreciation of the medium are readily available through social media? And the most important of all, do poopy painters really exist?

Pedro Vélez

Tyson Reeder and Nicholas Frank (2004)
Photo by Pedro Vélez