The Artist as Curator
In June I was asked to curate the annual UW-Milwaukee Alumni Art Show: Continuum 2014. I was urged specifically to curate my own retrospective and include influential artists in the exhibit. With “can-do” fervor, and the whole summer ahead, I also agreed to design all the publicity, and write and design this exhibition catalog.
Continuum can be defined as “a series of things that exist between two possibilities”. My place in the Continuum of UW-Milwaukee Alumni starts as a student, then grad student, then instructor. I survived attending art school in my late forties by working out narratives between the possibilities of life and death. The title of the exhibit, “No Time Like the Present” comes from lessons learned while dealing with cancer: life is short – death may come prematurely – so what are you waiting for?
When the show opened and I could survey the four packed gallery rooms with nearly 200 pieces of art on display, I felt unusually satisfied. Some of my best work from four decades including prints, sculptures, paintings, artist books, drawings, and sketchbooks, and the work of some of my best friends, mentors, and colleagues were all on exhibition. I experienced a mixture of pride, joy, vulnerability, and terror.
Curating oneself has the inherent problem of maintaining objectivity and restraint. As an artist I want as many pieces of my work on display as possible. As a curator I want to bring context to the viewer and mediate the relationship of artifact and intended experience. The exhibition is organized chronologically as early, mid-career, and new work, as well as an entire room devoted to cancer related art. Also on view are exemplary works of my most significant mentors, colleagues, and influences, with an entire room dedicated to the woodcuts of the late professor Danny Pierce.
The American Baby Boom was already beginning to wane in 1959 when I was born. Before I was eleven years old I had witnessed (through Walter Cronkite and Mad Magazine) four assassinations, the Viet Nam War, Civil Rights protests, the Summer of Love, the Milwaukee race riots, the Moon landing, Woodstock, and the Manson Family murders. With the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s resignation just around the corner, it is no surprise my generation of late-baby-boomers became jaded and cynical. Art was a vehicle for satire and parody, and comics became pre-eminent.
I dropped out of art school in 1980 to raise a family and pursue a career in business. Over the next 25 years Sharon and I raised three children and ended up running a family shoe repair shop. Making art was sporadic and consisted of the occasional gift and making comics and zines, like Pseudo Heroes Comix and Dog Egg Comix. Everything changed in 2005 when I was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma – bone marrow cancer – and could no longer fix shoes. With a prognosis of two or three years, and no other options, I went back to UW-Milwaukee to finish my art degree.
CANCER RELATED WORK
The harder I worked the more I recovered and went into complete remission. I embraced the opportunity to make art day and night. I was inadvertently practicing Trauma Narrative Therapy by expressing the narrative of surviving cancer through various symbols of death and identity loss. This may be best depicted in Lost Future and I Am Cancer. I stayed on for grad school and began researching the Apocalypse and World Religions for the thesis exhibition. I threw everything I had into the work because, after all, there is no time like the present.
Post grad school, my focus became centered on the historical aspects of medicine on the body. From 19th century quack medicine cures and traveling medicine shows, to heroic bleeding, blistering, and administering poison and narcotics, popular medicine has not changed much in the last 150 years. The fancy Victorian typefaces beckoned me to manipulate them without defacing them. I turned to collage which is most evident in Away With Leeching, and Infants Preservative.
My work is narrative because I think in terms of stories. Printmaking offers dozens of techniques to create line, tone, layers, and color; all of which help tell the story. I approach the process like a carpenter approaches building a garage. I start with an idea, make drawings, do research, plan a strategy, buy materials, and execute the project. Things may change along the way, but the process usually serves the finished picture. Inspiration has to come early and sustain me through to completion.
Weakness is never a virtue; it is usually accompanied by shame and carefully kept hidden. In America a weak man is a pariah to the nation, and is expected to step out of the way. The attempt to accept my own physical (and fiscal) weakness has become an underlying theme in my work. The great Christian paradox “strength is made complete in weakness” has an ever-growing fascination for me.
With a few exceptions, the artists I have included in the exhibit are 50-something late Baby Boomers. All have been significantly instrumental in my understanding and appreciation for art-making. Each artist has helped to show me the way, and I am honored to gather their work together and exhibit alongside them.
If you need inspiration to clean your house, simply plan a big party and you will inevitably clean it. If you need inspiration to start a new art work, simply agree to participate in an upcoming show and you will inevitably make it.
And so it was for the image to the left, a hand-colored screen print I made for the “Heroes Surround Us” show at the JM Kohler Art Center called “Norbert Kox: Against the Darkness”. The prospectus for the exhibit requested a 14 x 14″ work of art on paper that honors a Wisconsin hero.
I Chose Norbert Kox because he is a relentless art maker, and devout Christian believer, and he manages to combine the two in a profound and prolific manner. His life and work are well documented, the biography from his website is a good starting point.
Mr. Kox is a university trained artist that is frequently tagged as Visionary, Outsider, and my favorite – Apocalyptic Surrealist. He is my hero because he fearlessly makes art about what really matters to him. Everything is at stake in every painting: the planet, the fate of the human race, every universe, and every dimension of existence.
While researching the Apocalypse for my MFA exhibition, I inadvertently bought the book, “The Colorful Apocalypse” by Greg Bottoms. What I thought was going to be another smug and condescending diatribe making Evangelical Christians out to be mindless robots, turned out to be a very personal look at three Outsider artists, Howard Finster, William Thomas Thompson, and Norbert Kox. Bottoms spent quality time interviewing Kox and meeting his friends, and wrote a compelling memoir.
Norbert Kox has a very strong internet presence, and before long I had read a great deal of his writing and seen most of his paintings and sculptures, albeit at 72 dpi. I hope to see his paintings in person some day. His unwavering commitment to communicating his message through art is very powerful.
I took inspiration for the print from the comic book style tradition of Evangelical Christian tracts, as well as the allegorical fervor of William Blake. I wanted to depict Norbert as a central figure literally fighting his enemies: Fear, Greed, Lies, and False Christs.
The coiling snakes came from a tiny 19th century image of a snake charmer. The flames and smoke of hellfire, as well as the hand written Bible verses come from the didactic tradition of religious art. Norbert stands defiant amid the flames holding the Bible and his paint brushes while he chokes the serpent named “False Christs”.
Even though I have never met Norbert Kox in person (we have been in contact by email) I will always imagine him as a quiet, confident warrior in the service of a King who will ultimately prevail.