Art in Madison: Cartoons that are no joke


by Jay Gabler | 5/10/09 • I spent the weekend in Madison, Wisconsin; with a major room at The House on the Rock temporarily closed, my friend Felix and I decided to spend yesterday museum-hopping.

Madison’s an easy city to navigate by foot, with a coherent radial street plan centered on the Wisconsin State Capitol. The architecture is comfortably eclectic; check out this little architecture office folded into a historic brick house. The 1870s meet the 1970s.

Felix is nonplussed by Monona Terrace, the 1997 conference center built from a 1938 Frank Lloyd Wright design, but I’m a fan. I especially like the way that, as seen from the Capitol, it seems to spill out into Lake Monona as though it had been poured down the boulevard.

Recent years have seen a flurry of construction in the area immediately surrounding the Capitol, with architecture that ranges from bland to bizarre. In the former category are high-rise condos that Felix, who is German, took to task for half-assedly mixing the glass-wall International style with wood paneling and the kind of nooks and crannies you’d associate with an Arts and Crafts aesthetic. (Of course, Felix acknowledges that he may be the only Harvard graduate student in recent years to actually relish living in the spartan graduate center designed by Bauhaus defector Walter Gropius.)

On the bizarre end of the spectrum is this Walgreens, which looks like Frank Gehry’s take on a Mansard roof.

Visible in this view down State Street is the glass dome atop the Overture Center for the Arts. Felix praises the acoustics in Overture Hall, but to me that dome looks like an orangutan habitat waiting for a tree and some rope swings.

We then made our way to the University of Wisconsin’s Chazen Museum of Art, making a couple of point-and-shoot stops along the way. Is this actually the Madison Fire Department, or a conceptual art gallery called “Madison Fire Department”?

The UW Design Center, after what I imagine was considerable deliberation, seems to have struck an interesting compromise between some clean (if distressed) Helvetica and a very post-modern use of handwritten signage.

We finally arrived at the Chazen, and I was immediately impressed by this cheeky mating between a planter and a streetlight.

Inside, I was even more impressed by this stairway, which forms an unsupported bridge across the atrium despite what must be the very considerable weight of that stone facing. The effect is almost magical; I saw a preschool-age child pull her mother over to climb it, as though she wanted to see if it were real.

For such a relatively small museum (there’s not much more to it than what is visible in the photo above), the Chazen’s collection is ambitious in scope, ranging from ancient to contemporary art from around the world. Still, there are impressive pieces in each section. Look at this powerfully evocative 1913 oil by American painter George Wesley Bellows, despite the fact that this small image does it no justice.

It’s impossible to miss Peter Gourfain’s imposing Fate of the Earth Doors, the cast bronze panels of which convey the horror of ecological catastrophe with a Bosch-like sense of the absurd. At first I took the animal in the center of this panel for a unicorn…it would be even better if it were.

This panel might be titled “Basilica Block Party.” Is that Paul Metsa in the corner?

The best work in the contemporary collection on the third floor is in three dimensions. Here’s a rusty old nag by Deborah Butterfield.

I also encountered the first I’d seen of John De Andrea’s painted bronze nudes. This piece is so eerily lifelike that I almost wanted to ask its permission to take its picture.

The Chazen is currently hosting two temporary exhibits. The first floor houses a roomful of eye-popping prints by the Japanese master Kawase Hasui (1883-1957). Felix pointed out that Hasui was an inspiration for Tintin author Hergé; his influence on contemporary Japanese animators is also clear. Can’t you just see Totoro floating into this print?

Hasui’s clean lines make his work a fitting companion to the work on display in the large Brittingham Galleries on the museum’s second floor, where the exhibit Underground Classics tracks the evolution of comix (a.k.a. underground comics) from 1963 to 1990. It’s an engrossing collection, demonstrating how R. Crumb and his fellow artists used grossly exaggerated depictions of sexuality and drug use to simultaneously mock the uptight pieties of mainstream culture and the empty liberties of the counterculture. This witty panel by Skip Williamson demonstrates how far the comix artists went beyond conventional satire.

Leaving the Chazen, we walked through the UW-Madison campus. Have you ever seen a humanities building that looks more like a social science building? Usually it’s the sociologists and the psychologists who are stuck with the Iron Curtain architecture.

front row seat is the blog of jay gabler, the daily planet’s arts editor. to keep up on the local arts scene, follow artsorbit on twitter and subscribe to arts orbit weekly.

We capped our day at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, which turned out to be a disappointment. One gallery contained a show of work by schoolchildren, another gallery contained a small collection of unexceptional “expressionist” pieces—which they were, insofar as “expressionism” is defined as anything that is neither pure realism nor pure abstraction—accompanied by unenlightening text (“Without question, expressionism has played a seminal role in the history of modern and contemporary art”), and the rooftop sculpture garden comprised a lot more garden than sculpture. But we saved what I expected to be the best for last: the exhibit Return to Function, a collection of pieces designed to be in some manner functional.

It turned out to be seriously annoying. Designers and architects have long been striving to create functional items that are also aesthetically pleasing, but if the work on display at the MMoCA is any indication, artists have a long way to go to bridge the gap from their end. The function of many of the items was completely unclear unless reference was made to the explanatory text on the wall; how useful can something be if you can’t figure out what it’s supposed to be used for? Further, many of the pieces were marked by an ecotopian idealism that I imagine would cause any experienced eco-conscious designer to bang her head against the wall. Lamps made from kiwi packing containers, for example, would fit right in at the Green store on Hennepin, where wealthy Uptowners can show their commitment to a cleaner world by dropping a few hundred bucks on a license-plate lampshade. The absolute nadir, though, was a work that the museum seems to regard as one of the exhibit’s showpieces; it appears on the cover of their spring brochure. Ralph Borland’s Suited for Subversion is a padded red torso cover meant to be used by protesters; the padding protects you from brickbats while an external speaker broadcasts the sound of a beating heart, to remind the authorities that you have a heart just like they do. Would any of the RNC Eight be caught dead in this getup?

Photo by Pieter Hugo, courtesy MMoCA.

Support people-powered non-profit journalism! Volunteer, contribute news, or become a member to keep the Daily Planet in orbit.