Tyanna Buie and Gregory Klassen at Museum of Wisconsin Art
Often when I meet with Thomas Hellstrom, a Milwaukee-based artist and friend, our conversation inevitably turns to New York City. I was born and raised in Queens, but left the city in 1999. Although Thomas is from Wisconsin, he lived and worked as an artist in New York for over twenty years. Perhaps temporarily moving outside of Milwaukee, a prolific center for the arts in the Midwest, makes more apparent its overlooked status in relation to the coastal behemoths of Los Angeles and our former home, New York. So, when he suggested we carpool to the Museum of Wisconsin Art (MOWA) to see installations by Tyanna Buie and Gregory Klassen, I looked forward to this brief sojourn outside the city limits to view Buie and Klassen’s work in a new context, and to sharing reminiscences of “the city.”
After fifteen years, I’ve lost the title of “New Yorker,” but driving along a stretch of I-45 lends itself to romantic reverie of exile and stoic determination to return. My desire to leave the Midwest was abated upon our arrival at MOWA, a soaring new construction set in a triangular cleft shaped by the Milwaukee River. The early autumn sun reflecting off the glass panels promised an exceptional view from any position within the building and I wondered why I’d never visited before.
On the atrium wall hung Klassen’s Retrospective Aggregate (2014), a found object created from the preparatory studies, toil, and remnants of other works. Produced over an eight-year period, the work is an inverted studio carpet that reveals an abstraction of material labor, a less intentional action painting that exists as the manifest of latent content. Klassen’s “inside/outside” carpet is encrusted with globules of acrylics, intensely thick and weighty in its center, then flowing outward in a diffusion of color at its edges.1 Klassen describes his work as a “model,” or even a “tool” for a “future field work.”2 In its common usage, a “retrospective aggregate” is a type of reinsurance that protects losses that have yet to be reported. In this sense, Klassen’s work effaces its determinacy and accompanying material loss, and reinvests itself in an accidental and fortuitous design, one that suggests the temporality of natural formations in our environment. At MOWA, Retrospective Aggregate expands against the atrium wall, where its subtle textures reveal themselves anew with each permutation of the setting sun. More than a surface allusion to the natural environment, Retrospective Aggregate is a product of chance, of relinquishing rule and constraint for the happenstance of a more profound, unpremeditated creation.
On the museum’s second level ONE Gallery is Buie’s installation, Still Lives (2014), a site-specific, interactive work that consists of four vintage See ‘n Say pull string toys set against multi-layered prints that include reproductions of toy advertisements. Like several of Buie’s works, such as her recent Mary L. Nohl Fellowship exhibition at the Institute of Visual Arts (INOVA) Gallery, Father Figure (2013), and her solo show at Dean Jensen Gallery, Playing Favorites (2014), Still Lives evokes nostalgia for the familiar objects of our childhood. First introduced by Mattel in 1965, the See ‘n Say was designed as an educational toy. A pull-string mechanism randomly selects an image that is associated with a recorded sound. In the installation, the See ‘n Say mechanisms, like Klassen’s carpet, are found objects – scratched, asynchronous, covered in debris – and are not so much reclaimed as brought back from the dead, which through a kind of shocking restraint and austerity, becomes the material of childhood nightmares.
Although Klassen’s Retrospective Aggregate posits a more decided abstraction, reminiscent of the work of Glenn Ligon, Buie’s Still Lives turns text into illegible pattern, refusing comprehension in order to create a palimpsest of memories, both ecstatic and anguished. I’ve always been intrigued by an aspect of Buie’s work that abstracts desire generated by commodities. The advertisements stimulate a desire for an object that promises fulfillment. Yet, by the third or forth pull of a string, the See ‘n Say speaks only to a transient pleasure, as the salvaged toy exposes us to an even greater desire for a state of contentment that the object can never fulfill. The uncanny sensation generated by the mechanical device is echoed in the partial remnants of the advertisement’s copy: Little kids don’t always like to be little kids. Through its conflation of signifying systems – sonic, visual, and textual – Buie excavates a darker side of childhood experience.
At first, MOWA didn’t seem a likely context for two works about labor and loss, of the psychic remnants created by our struggle between constructed and natural environments. Established in 1961 by the family of Carl von Marr (1858-1936), the institution,then known as the West Bend Gallery of Fine Arts, became the preeminent museum of Wisconsin art, taking its current title in 2007 and completing its new building in 2013.3 While Thomas drew my anticipation toward Von Marr’s The Flagellants (1889), rightfully the centerpiece of the main exhibition galleries, I was drawn to the idiosyncratic moments in the collection, like an image of the sprawled body of a dead soldier from a Civil War tableau, the remnants of the once prolific tradition of panoramic history paintings in Milwaukee. The visitor’s movement through the gallery is in a reverse chronology, so I ended with dual portraits of Henrietta Maria Kilborn, wife of Byron. I strained to reconcile the dissonance created by the two portraits, which excepting for the labels, one would take as paintings of two different women. I stepped back bringing a Ho-Chunk effigy spoon (circa 1920) into my purview.
In the gallery adjacent to Buie’s installation is an exhibition of the work of John Steuart Curry (1897-1946). Curry was also a transplant to Wisconsin, arriving from Kansas to complete one of the nation’s first artist residences at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Although an outsider, Curry found much to admire in Wisconsin, using a social realist dialect merged with a regionalist sensibility to celebrate agricultural labor and the Midwestern work ethic. Resettled for ten years, Curry set Wisconsin in the golden hues of an eternal harvest. I appreciated Curry’s bright vision of the Midwest, albeit tinged with the threat of an imminent world war.
Returning to Milwaukee, on the now darken stretch of I-45, Thomas and I make a slight digress back to New York City, ending with some comment or other about how it’s too expensive to live there anyway. While seduced by Curry’s idealistic vision of Wisconsin, it’s Klassen’s “aggregate” that brings meaning to the accidental displacement of self. Milwaukee is on my horizon now; I can’t wait to get back to the city, and during the drive home, I take pleasure in my new view of Wisconsin offered by a brief journey outside of the familiar urban milieu.
Tyanna Buie: Still Lives is on view through November 2, and Gregory Klassen: Retrospective Aggregate is on display through October 26 at the Museum of Wisconsin Art in West Bend, WI.
Images courtesy of the Museum of Wisconsin Art.