Grohmann Museum

3 Posts

“I could do that!” is a common theme overheard when some folks judge the quality of artwork.  My typical reply: “perhaps you could, but did you?”

On the other side of the coin are those who appreciate artworks requiring such skill that they could never ‘do that.’  A viewer feeling that they could or could not produce an object should not be thought of as a reliable gauge for what is ‘good’ art and what is not. 

Related to this, we also find those that judge art based on whether or not they understand it; whether they can apprehend what it is the artist was trying to tell us.  These are generally folks who feel daunted by modern art and question their own psychological abilities when contemplating ‘meaning.’  While one may be able to recreate the work, what does it mean?

Many of our Museum patrons fall into the latter category.  They appreciate the Grohmann Museum collection because it is wholly representational.  One can readily understand what is depicted.  One knows what it means. One can ‘wrap their arms (and heads) around it.’  This is special.

To those I say, we’re here for you and we appreciate your perspective, but please don’t sell yourself short.  By that I mean, while it is great to view and consume representational art for what it tells us, do not diminish your potential appreciation for all art, the strictly representational to the more abstract.

That is, just as ability should not dictate taste, we should not always assume there is some larger message in modern art or that a special skill set is required to have an appreciation for what is on display; sometimes it is aesthetic response only.  One’s engagement with art is a dialogue, and oftentimes what the viewer brings to the discussion is equal to if not greater than what the artist was trying to ‘say.’

My evidence for this includes a couple of anecdotes from two artists who I have been associated with, both modern expressionists with a great deal of talent and ability.

First was a German painter whose exhibit I organized in the late 90s.  His works included a great number of barren apocalyptic landscapes with shadowy, unrefined human figures central to the compositions.  At his opening, one patron asked “with this one here of the two figures and the clouds, what does it mean, what were you trying to say?”  His response: “It’s two figures and a cloud, that’s all.”

Second is a friend and painter from the upper Midwest, an abstract expressionist know for his use of color, space, and material.  One of his compositions, a gold and blue abstraction, was a dazzling arrangement of form and line that was a real exercise for the eye.  I asked what the general theme or feeling he was trying to convey.  Dynamism? He replied “I like blue and gold together.”

This oddly sums up the point of this brief meditation: art can be appreciated on all levels, but most importantly do you like it? Not whether or not you could create something similar. Not what the artist was or wasn’t trying to say.  Not if you fully understand it.  No specialized skill set is required to view and/or appreciate art.

Some art tells a story, other works convey a feeling, still more resonate due to the viewer’s personal experience.  In our personal dialogue with art, all views are valid.  The perspectives offered by critics and reviewers, while informed and well-intentioned, are no more valid or objective than our own. 

But, really, do you like it?

Hawksbill-SwimmingHole.jpgO. Winston Link was one of the foremost photographers of the 20th century.  And he likely would have enjoyed a visit to the Grohmann Museum, as he spent his career photographing many of the same themes depicted in the paintings and bronzes in the Museum’s collection.  Link was captivated by factory complexes, industrial interiors, and the steam locomotive.  So are we.

 

Link distilled these scenes into engaging photos of mid-century America.  For Link, the steam railroad was not just a means of moving goods and people from point to point.  Rather, he viewed it as a vital ingredient of the ‘good life’ in America; essential threading in the fabric of our lives.  In viewing machinery and engineering marvels, he was really viewing human life, progress and achievement.  This, of course, is the essence of what we do at the Grohmann Museum. That is, viewing life through the lens of occupation and identity.

 

We are fortunate to have forged a partnership with the Center for Railroad Photography and Art (Madison, WI) in our efforts to bring new and interesting exhibitions to the Museum, to MSOE, and to Milwaukee.  It is through their kind cooperation that we are able to host this exhibition of Link’s photos.  The show will feature 36 original, signed prints from the Artist’s collection and will open with a Gallery Night presentation (January 17th@7pm) by Thomas Garver, longtime friend and former assistant to O. Winston Link.

 

Trains that Passed in the Night is yet another in a line of world-class exhibitions presented at the Grohmann during our brief history.  It joins Requiem for Steam, Working Wisconsin, Milwaukee Mills, Bridges: The Spans of North America, Great Lakers, and many others in our list of outstanding feature exhibitions.

 

Despite a dearth in Museum coverage from Milwaukee’s only daily newspaper, we continue to present fresh and compelling exhibits worthy of display in any museum or gallery.  And yes, we still hear “I never heard of this museum, it’s a hidden gem” from a number of our patrons.  However, we hear it less as we continue to gain traction in the local, regional, and national arts communities.  While we may still be considered the ‘new’ museum in town, we can also be considered among the best.

 

It is for these reasons, among many others, that we are very much looking forward to the New Year and to Trains that Passed in the Night.

Web Banner2.jpg

The current feature exhibition at the Grohmann Museum, A Working Ranch by Jim Brozek, is one not to be missed.  The reasons are numerous: the world-class venue, the carefully selected images artfully arranged to create an atmosphere that pays homage to the worker and the artist, and the presentation of a striking visual mediation of life on an American ranch.

 

The advent of photography in the early nineteenth century brought with it a new way of seeing; both seeing one another and the world in which we live.  Just as the current virtual revolution has expanded our worldview—making for a ‘smaller’ planet—so, too, did the photo revolution of the mid 1800s.

 

Following Daguerre’s refinement of the photographic process in the late 1830s, evolving beyond the early camera obscura and camera lucida of previous eras, photography has been an integral part of communication and artistic expression. In America, photographic development ran parallel to our industrial revolution, expansion westward, and the Civil War.  Journalists and documentarians had a new method to relate—in pictures—the events of daily life, individual travels, and major national events.

 

A natural extension of the medium served not just the writers and artists that gravitated to the new form of communication, but also the early ethnologists examining culture in its many forms.  Alongside the establishment of anthropology as a formal academic discipline in the 1880s and 1890s, photography had proven itself to be an important tool for research. Edward Curtis relied on photo documentation of Native American culture in his study of the indigenes of the American West.  Franz Boas found photography to be a vital component in his work among the Native Americans and First Peoples of the Northwest Coast of North America.

 

The turn of the twentieth century brought further refinement in photographic documentation.  Taken further into the field, photography was used with great success by Bronislaw Malinowski in studying the Trobriand Islanders of the Western Pacific.  Many others utilized photography to some extent, but it was Malinowski who perhaps had the most impact on future scholars, as he and students of Boas also developed the method of participant observation that became a standard in future examinations of culture.

 

Participant observation emerged as the touchstone in cultural studies because its aim was to examine culture from within, as a direct participant in the lives of those studied.  It created an insider’s view of culture, which allowed for a more intimate portrait of social life than the detached outsider perspective that previously dominated the field.  Malinowski and others felt strongly that the way to best understand a group was on its own terms, by participating in work, play, and ritual as a member of the group. This also reinforced to the informants and members the researcher’s passion to learn about their lives from the inside-out, to walk in their shoes and better understand their worldview.

 

This concept of participant observation is particularly relevant to an examination of the photography of Jim Brozek.  While not formally trained in anthropology or sociology, Brozek nonetheless has made participation an important part of his work.  Brozek has made his career working alongside his subjects to more accurately and appropriately capture the nuances of work in many forms.  One’s identity is to some degree intertwined with what they do for a living, and insomuch occupation equals identity.  In this vein, Jim Brozek is everyman. 

 

Over the course of his professional life Brozek has rarely been without his camera while working in a variety of situations.  He has operated a combine, harvesting crops in East-Central Wisconsin.  Added to this is his work on the ore boats of the Great Lakes, as a demolition man and carpenter on the west coast, in a variety of construction projects and, as featured in this volume, as a ranch hand in New Mexico in the late 1970s and early 80s.  As jobs changed and new opportunities presented themselves, he made himself available to new experiences and remained a photographer and artist all the while.

 

In order to capture various modes of work and the inherent subtleties, much like a good painter, Brozek insists on developing an understanding of the subject.  One cannot simply observe to produce work of the quality found here.  Rather, it is through cultural immersion that his photos are produced.  Supplementing his camera work are audio recordings made in interviews with his fellow workers, be they lakers or ranch hands. Through these methods of data collection, he has developed his own brand of participant observation that has served him well throughout his career.

 

In much the same way anthropologists approach their work, Brozek focused on many of the same elements used in examining social groups and subcultures: the material apparatus, societal norms, activities and the performance of joint tasks, and the common aims of the group.  Work is thereby viewed as a function in satisfying human needs, but also speaks to the qualities of being human through one’s successes and shortcomings.

 

Jim’s ethnographic approach to work and photography, coupled with a fascination with cowboy culture, make for a special portrait of working life.  Through his work, we are presented with a captivating visual ethnography of life on A Working Ranch.

 

James Kieselburg

Director

Grohmann Museum


GALLERY NIGHT EVENT - October 18th, 7pm - A Gallery Talk with the Artist