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Camelot or Spamalot?

Reflections on Milwaukee’s art scene

Dec. 12, 2012
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Put “The” in front of “Milwaukee Art Scene” and it takes on a new glow, but what (and where) is this golden place?

In the 1980s, was it in Walker’s Point, along with Art Muscle magazine and the new Walker’s Point Center for the Arts, where performance artist Karen Finley stripped and drenched herself in syrup and feathers? Was that the beating heart of “The Milwaukee Art Scene” hot, and then not, when couples split and artists searched for the next big thing?

Perhaps the Scene was in the brick building in Brewer’s Hill known as “The Fortress,” where artists ate Ramen and labored in maze-like spaces. From the south-facing windows, the view was splendid. North in Riverwest, two terrific galleries opened: the Wright Street Gallery (Kent Mueller’s baby), and Hermetic Gallery, the tiny space piloted by Nicholas Frank. He mounted excellent exhibitions at UW-Milwaukee’s Inova before moving to the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, where he is a visiting faculty member in the Integrated Studio Arts Program.

“Milwaukee is a marginal scene, and gains and loses from that position. We regularly lose good imagination to those scenes capable of providing more of what they seek (which could simply be like-minded people, or attention, or money). But what happens here is characterized by our inattention to attention, or commerce, or traditional ambition. Things here have a distinctive ‘Milwaukee’ feel, and people from other places recognize that,” Nicholas Frank says.

Seekers of Camelot danced and drank at Café Melange in the Wisconsin Hotel, where poets spouted on Monday nights and artists hung art. It was our cobbled together Downtown art scene. Sure, we had the Dean Jensen and Michael Lord Galleries, and the brilliant Russell Bowman guided the Milwaukee Art Museum. The Third Ward was still a kid.

Enter artist Jimmy Von Milwaukee, a self-baptized star who hilariously held openings in dim alleys or closets carpeted in lime green shag. His Leo Feldman Galleries, Inc. a moveable feast for a Warhol fifteen, was unlike any since. He was living at the Norman on Wisconsin Avenue when it was gutted by fire in 1991. Four people died, along with his cat (Larry), named after JVM’s UWM art professor, Laurence Rathsack. He says there were no “avant-garde” artists. “The people at the Norman dressed poor because they were poor. After the fire, the Norman residents received free used clothes. Someone said, “How nice everyone from the Norman looked after the fire.”

In 1992, UWM mounted an exhibition of Laurie Bembenek’s paintings produced while she was in prison. The curious gathered. The show shot itself in the foot.

The road to Camelot is paved with adjectives (stunning! gorgeous!) beckoning readers to pursue the Holy Grail of art. Experienced gallery-goers have their druthers (Green Gallery East, Lynden and Inova are brainy, others funky fun), but generally, fledglings go with the Gallery Night & Day flow. One well-known artist/gallerist, who has run numerous galleries, declined to define “The Scene,” claiming burn-out from attempting to answer the question. A local painter recently groused on Facebook, “There are too many artists making too much art.”

Debra Brehmer, owner of Portrait Society Gallery, thinks of the gallery as a social environment. “When people come, they occupy the space and become part of its content along with the works of art. Human connectedness: that’s the heart and soul of it,” she says.

A year ago, Dawn and Joe Mader leased a generous gallery space at 915 Milwaukee Ave. in South Milwaukee. It’s a gamble and they’re surviving by offering art workshops and classes. Plus, the South Milwaukee Performing Arts Center is only a few blocks west, which is a positive sign. Studio 915 Gallery and Atelier is sandwiched between the Chicago and Milwaukee scenes, but art is many things to many people. To Vietnam veteran Robert Griffey who lives across the street, it’s a place to go when he’s feeling kind of down.

“Every time I come in,” he says, “I get a lift.”

Judith Moriarty is an artist and writer. She was editor of
Art Muscle magazine.


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