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To Be Seen and Heard: Chicago’s Homage to Wisconsin Artists

By Arts & Culture

Eugene Von Bruenchenhein (American, 1910-1983). A Dream May be Forever Tho Life May End, 1955. Oil on mat board, 15 x 17 in. Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift f Lewis B. Greenblatt. M2000.92

Opening the door to Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art’s building, I was immediately taken aback by a large decal of the state of Wisconsin adhered to the wall. It announced the title of the exhibition: “To Be Seen and Heard.”  Aside from a collection of five lesser-known outsider artists, the exhibit also celebrates the epoch of collaboration between Wisconsin artists and Chicago institutions at large. These works speak to a nontraditional sense of autonomy that was recognized by Chicago establishments early on.

The space was set up in a way that each artist’s work was introduced by quotes stating their intention behind it. The quotes create a linear narrative around the room, bringing alive the works of Prophet William J. Blackmon, Josephus Farmer, Simon Sparrow, Albert Zahn, and Eugene Von Bruenchenhein.

The paintings and sculptures of Prophet William J. Blackmon are made from house paint on plywood and narrate biblical stories through images and words about heaven, hell, and redemption. The wooden bird sculptures of Albert Zahn come from the yard of his vernacular home — or as he liked to call it, “Bird’s Park.” There are sculptures of angels, people, and animals that show great craftsmanship, and incorporate the use of tin can and coffee lids. Wood was easily accessible in Wisconsin, and Zahn found pleasure in carving it. Likewise, Josephus Farmer. An evangelical minister, he carved historical images and stories from American and biblical history in wood reliefs, with a painted finish that makes the pieces look more like glazed clay.

Native to Milwaukee, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, the self-proclaimed “freelance artist,” had the most variety of works. He moved between prints, sculpture, photographs, and paintings as his ideas progressed through different methods of art-making. His paintings present mystical landscapes of an awareness of atomic power; on land, sea, sky, and space, he depicts the effect of the hydrogen bomb. Bruenchenhein manipulated oil paint on a surface prepared with white enamel paint using various objects, and sometimes his fingers. He intentionally created art to publicize himself as an innovator of ideas through his expressive use of colors and techniques.

Simon Sparrow, the artist who stood out to me the most, uses everyday objects such as jewelry, beads, buttons, bangles, hair clips, and a whole lot of glitter to create human and animal figures in his collages. He lost all of his previous works after a fire burned down his Sparrow’s apartment, took it as a sign from God, and began creating abstract images in glitter and found objects that conveyed people’s inner “spirits.” These universal middle-class house items automatically create a connection with the viewer, reminding one of childhood through objects that everyone has owned at one point. His works glisten from the lights, and the placement of the colored glitter is similar to the detailed style of pointillism. In “Beaded assemblage of wood, shells, beads, glitter, and other materials of a cat” I found my inner feline spirit through Sparrow’s abstract image of a cat — an animal appearing gentle and soft from the outside that may prove to be fierce within.

Feeling this spiritual connection, I realized the necessity of one’s experience with the works as a highly inner and self-engaged process, relying on a lack of didactic panels or visual images of locations or landscapes where the artworks originally resided. The desire to be heard and seen is evident in each artist’s creative process and derives from a spiritual origin. Working outside the mainstream, outsider artists exhibit a raw way of seeing the world. Through a creative process that flourishes by using common found material, they connect with most who interact with it.

The connection Wisconsin artists have with Chicago lies in both their northward migration from Chicago to Wisconsin (where their creative journeys began to take shape), or in the proximity of Chicago to Milwaukee, a city that has served as a central hub for creative outsiders in a self-contained incubator — and fostering the fusion of individuals influenced by the found material of their surroundings.

I found a sense of belonging with this group of artists. Each work spoke to me on a deeper level. Displaying the works without explanation is a strategic tactic of the curators, Matt Arient and Tim Bruce.  It allows the viewer to find their own meaning: the way the artist intended. Keeping within the tradition of Chicago’s symbiotic relationship with Wisconsin artists, they’ve helped bring attention to under-recognized artists at a time when places like New York had rejected them.

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