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Promising Future Seen in Milwaukee's 'Working Legacies'

Jan. 18, 2012
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Today's economic landscape is one of disruption, change and questions. For many places in the Midwest, the disintegration of the manufacturing base that supported communities and supplied jobs makes reinvention a necessity. An exhibition at the Grohmann Museum, "Working Legacies: The Death and (After) Life of Post-Industrial Milwaukee," documents this transformation within the fabric of our city's urban environment.

Organized by photographer and sociologist David Schalliol and historian Michael Carriere, the exhibit is based on photographs showing the juxtaposition of past and present, or outright transformation. There are some images of purely abandoned and decrepit buildings and places, but most have a glimmer of a bright side in the repurposing of past industry. This is also in line with the work of local art group IN:SITE, as noted in a photograph of the old A.O. Smith headquarters. Geometric waves by Paula Schulze cover windows of the silent old brick building, suggesting a sort of interior landscape. It's a visual invitation inside, rather than the repellent shutting out that comes with boarded-up windows.

Seeing Milwaukee through the collective lens of the dozens of pictures on view suggests a lot to feel optimistic about. The chutzpah of many innovative, homegrown businesses are highlighted, such as Sweet Water Organics, Growing Power and the Pabst Brewery complex, among others. The documentary quality of these photographs aids in this sensibility. The point of Schalliol's photographs is not so much the image as a work of art in its own right, but as a signifier of the underlying meaning. The images rarely stray from a sense of directness. If these were portraits of people, the dominant stance would be fully frontal and the likeness captured with extreme clarity.

Transcending pure documentation is a pair of images of coal and salt from the Port of Milwaukee. These man-made mountains are easily visible from the Hoan Bridge, but the photographs take us close and impart a surreal sense of landscape. The image of coal is especially strong. The dark silhouette of a black pile rises sharply, cleaving a delicate purple sky. Light reflects brilliantly off of heavy, earthmoving machinery beneath, and a flash of light like fire suggests trails of headlights over another rise of coal. It's a striking image, strange in the balance of beauty and brawn, in light and color. It's also an apt metaphor for the transformation of the industrial past into a promising future.

"Working Legacies" continues through Feb. 6. Schalliol and Carriere will speak about the exhibition 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 20, at the Grohmann.


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