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Bob Watt: ‘Last of the Bohemians’?

Idiosyncratic local artist exhibited at Grove Gallery in Walker’s Point

Nov. 22, 2016
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Bob Watt was known to many: He was a poet, an artist, even sometimes a politician, as when he ran for mayor in 2000 on a platform that included plans for nude beaches and reforming jails into art and music schools. He was seen around town driving a large boat of a car decorated with various curiosities like fake fruit. These idiosyncrasies and the breadth to which he created the world around him influence the exhibition “The Last of the Bohemians: Bob Watt (1925-2012)” on view at Grove Gallery.

The title is a play on James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, fittingly enough as Native American figures are central to these works. Ten paintings from the collection of Jimmy von Milwaukee are displayed, and have a curious visual history. Watt often painted over the sometimes-kitschy landscapes of bright forests or placid streams he found at rummage sales or second-hand shops, creating a looming form of a robed person. The faces are mask-like, recalling the African masks that influenced Picasso in the creation of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, or as von Milwaukee notes, shades of Amedeo Modigliani. Oftentimes there are open spaces within the figures, allowing the background to be seen. It is like a strange dream that modulates the banal into something far more interesting. 

This overlay of figures also suggests something like the presence of the past. In an essay included in the gallery notes, Watt’s writing from 1968 (originally published in the alternative newspaper Kaleidoscope) describes his fascination and appreciation: “We need Indian drums, smoke and dancing on our lake, feasting, shooting an occasional turkey that may be unfortunate enough to fly over, making beads for Indian head shops.” In these paintings, the figures of the past are recalled like specters to their land in a visual reclamation.  

In one untitled work, the phase is reversed. A collaboration between Watt and von Milwaukee, a red robed figure stoically gazes sidelong, a joint hanging from his mouth. On his chest, a small Nike swoosh in black reads as the contemporary present. Still, the aura of the bohemian remains.

Through Dec. 17 at Grove Gallery, 832 S. Fifth St. 

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