MOWA’s “imaginary ecosystem” organically frames its Magic Wilderness exhibit

As all artists and gallery owners know, the frame is not the painting. But an elegant and appropriate frame is meant to embrace and enhance the content of the artwork. Moreover, the right framing can add an extra intellectual and emotional dimension to even the most famous work.

The Museum of Wisconsin Art chose to create an imaginary ecosystem for its latest exhibit, “Magic Wilderness: Dreamscapes of the Forest.” The West Bend Museum has framed its show of interpretations by 16 Wisconsin Woodland State artists in a nearly complete wilderness experience, complete with sights, sounds, textures and images of the forest. The result is both spectacular and sublime.

The opposites of nature, from the mundane and the weird to the magical and the mathematical, form the content of the works, which range from paintings and photographs to sculpture and mixed media. Madison artist Jacob Bautista’s three-dimensional “trees” provide visual and physical context throughout the exhibit, which is bound by a forest soundscape created by artist Ben Binversie, who wandered through several woods of the Madison area by recording natural sounds, including birds singing, rustling leaves and his own footsteps walking on the earth to accompany the exhibit.

Artists from Milwaukee and southeast Wisconsin make up the lion’s share of participating talent. The list includes Kyoung Ae Cho, Maureen Fritchen (of Racine), Kevin Giese, Mary Hood, Barbara Manger, Cassandra Smith, Fred Stonehouse (who lives in Milwaukee and teaches in Madison), Brooke Thiele and Shane McAdams, who is also an occasional Berger Express donor.

perceive nature

In fact, Thiele’s paper leaves and branches serve as the entrance to the exhibit, which opens with a quote from Wisconsin naturalist Aldo Leopold: “Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, through beauty. It extends through the successive stages of the beautiful to values ​​not yet grasped by language. Artist Hood’s laser-engraved wooden bird sculptures carry the mood – and viewers’ attention – into the main exhibit.


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Photographer Tom Uttech’s black-and-white images give way to McAdams’ vivid and compelling summaries and mesmerizing Fish board 3 (Walleye), a circular sculpture in wood, fibreglass, acrylic and gold leaf. The richness, variety, and imagination continue throughout the rest of the exhibit’s whimsical and sometimes literal interpretations of Wisconsin’s vast and varied woodland terrain.

The cornerstone of the exhibition is the huge abstract mural by John Colt, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Measuring 22½ feet by 8½ feet, the canvas was commissioned in 1958 to honor the Reverend John J. Walsh of Marquette University and has not been seen in public since the 1970s. Images of wild mandrake leaves and shades of orange, green, yellow and black characterize the work, which is part of MOWA’s permanent collection.

Most art exhibits function as the sum of their pieces and works of art that adorn gallery walls, pedestals, and display cases. In the case of “Magic Wilderness”, the total Gestalt is that of thematic unity combined with visual and textural diversity, just like nature itself. This nature, filtered through the minds and ideas of such a talented group of artists, brings into play a living set of emotional and conceptual interpretations, enhancing the gifts that nature itself has provided.

If he were still alive, Aldo Leopold would also have been pleased with the exhibit.

Magic Wilderness: Dreamscapes of the Forest runs through January 15, 2023 at the Museum of Wisconsin Art, 205 Veterans Ave., West Bend.

October 31, 2022

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