SHEBOYGAN, Wisconsin — Leading up to the 50th anniversary of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center (JMKAC), curator Karen Patterson approached artists, preservationists, collectors, scholars, historians, and folklorists to respond to their collection of artist-built environments. “All I said was come back with 200 words of what do you think needs to be discussed,” Patterson told Hyperallergic on a recent visit to the Sheboygan, Wisconsin, museum. In particular, she was interested in what would happen if they took away the labels “outsider artist” or “art environment” from these individual creators, and allowed for broader themes to emerge. The matchmaking of artists with contemporary “responders” was “a way to ground the exhibition series in a multi-vocal way,” she explained.
Although Sheboygan is a small city along Lake Michigan, JMKAC has had a major impact in how art environments are approached by museums, and how they can be protected. In the year-long The Road Less Traveled, 15 exhibitions reexamine an artist known for building environments, whether Nek Chand’s whimsical Rock Garden of Chandigarh in India constructed with debris from demolished villages, or Eddie Owens Martin’s vibrantly painted mandalas and visionary symbols on the structures of Pasaquan, Georgia. A conference at the end of September will further delve into these themes.
The current Road Less Traveled rotation highlights work by Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, Mary Nohl, Stella Waitzkin, Emery Blagdon, Loy Bowlin, David Butler, and Fred Smith. A gallery also features photographs by Fred Scruton, who travels the United States to document living artists and their environments. Patterson said Scruton’s photographs communicate that this is “still going on”: the building of art visions in yards, houses, and disused places.
Each exhibition in the series has its own curation and space, but there are strands of connection, like the home as a place of living with and creating art, and the independence of that practice from art world success. Not all these artists worked in deliberate obscurity, though. Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, whose Milwaukee-based work was the first environment acquired by the Kohler Foundation in 1983, believed in the importance of his art. “He knew what he was doing and had every intent of being a famous artist,” Patterson said.
There is some irony that he received that attention posthumously, with his chicken bone thrones in shapes reminiscent of H. R. Giger and his large-scale paintings of intricate towers now popular in exhibitions and with collectors. Nevertheless, Mythologies: Eugene Von Bruenchenhein (previously covered by Edward Gómez for Hyperallergic) questions assumptions about his paintings of nuclear explosions and leafy ceramic vessels. Visitors enter through a representation of his home’s exterior, then navigate a sprawling array of multimedia art, spotlighting his knowledge of art history (such as his study of architectural shapes), his concerns about the Cold War era, and his botanical passion, with a greenhouse built into the large JMKAC gallery as a tribute to the one on his property. In different sections of Mythologies, Milwaukee-based artist Michelle Grabner, Brett Littman (executive director of the Drawing Center), photographer Chris Wiley, and Lisa Stone (curator of the Roger Brown Study Collection) respond to these perspectives.
Patterson also contributed a response to Mythologies, considering Marie, Von Bruenchenhein’s wife. She’s often overlooked as merely a subject, “but she’s everywhere,” Patterson said. Marie appears in photographs, frequently nude and posed like a space-age pinup; brushes made with her hair were used to paint the thrones; and she hand-tinted many of the photographs, exposed on their home bathtub. Patterson wanted to show her as a partner in the work, including in a series of photographs on the wall, her shifting poses playing with the camera’s gaze. She lived with Von Bruenchenhein in a royal realm, where the crowns were leftover chicken bones and the delicate ceramic vases baked imperfectly in the oven, but together for 40 years, they were a king and queen.
Many of the Road Less Traveled responses are through text and curation, yet stepping from Mythologies into the next gallery immerses visitors in a strange hum. The metallic noise was collected by Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe (as seen in the video above) from both the baling wire and aluminum foil mobiles in Emery Blagdon’s “Healing Machine,” reconstructed from rural Nebraska, and modernist designer Harry Bertoia’s sounding sculptures, resonant metal towers made from the early 1960s until his death in 1978. An Encounter with Presence: Emery Blagdon + Shannon Stratton has this unlikely pairing facing off across the gallery: the curtains of painted lightbulbs, beer cans, and Christmas lights on Blagdon’s side; the elegant sculptures of unadorned metal cylinders by Bertoia, best known for his Diamond chair, on the other. “They were both very much thinking about space, vibrations, and energy,” Shannon Stratton, chief curator at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) in New York, states in her response. Stratton recently organized the exhibition on Bertoia’s sonic sculptures at MAD.
Blagdon spent 30 years on the “Machine,” constantly rearranging its bottles of medicine and metal contraptions to better harness the Earth’s energy in order to ease pain. Patterson explained that he built it after losing members of his family to cancer. “He was struck by the hopelessness of how we can’t control that,” she said. After Blagdon died in 1986, Dan Dryden, a pharmacist who had helped him, preserved “The Healing Machine.” In 2004, the Kohler Foundation acquired it.
Sound also figures in The Making of a Dream: Loy Bowlin + Jennifer Joy Jameson, featuring the recently reconstructed, glitter-encrusted home of Loy Bowlin. Formerly in McComb, Mississippi, the home was going to be razed after Bowlin’s death in 1995, until it was bought by Houston artist Katy Emde. The Kohler Foundation acquired it in 1998. In the late 1970s, Bowlin made himself into a Glen Campbell-inspired “Original Rhinestone Cowboy,” covering his life with gleam and glitz, right to his gem-embedded dentures. Folklorist Jennifer Joy Jameson gathered oral histories about Bowlin. “As a folklorist and documentarian, I knew my response would be less about digging in the archives and more about creating a contemporary collection of oral histories and portraits, and gathering photographs and ephemera sourced from the many Mississippi friends, family, and collaborators who knew ‘Rhinestone,’ as he is locally referred to,” Jameson explains. She discusses more of the process in the video below:
Visitors can listen to these recordings on headphones in the gallery, then walk right into Bowlin’s “Beautiful Holy Jewel Home.” Ornaments dangle from the ceiling, cutout paper frames photographs of Bowlin and running horses, and everything is doused in glitter, even the TV. His is the only whole environment you can enter in the current rotation, but in Greetings & Salutations & Boo: Mary Nohl + Catherine Morris, you can get close. As previously covered on Hyperallergic, Nohl’s Wisconsin house surrounded by concrete heads and giant fish is currently being restored, and is not accessible to the public. Greetings & Salutations & Boo — the title referencing the local superstition about this woman artist being the “Witch of Fox Point” — reconstructs her living room. Visitors can walk along its edges, noticing details in the dense installation of art and furniture, such as a sewn, red fish pillow on a painted chair, or a wire statue of a flying human figure. Catherine Morris, curator for the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, aimed to put Nohl’s multidisciplinary work, which ranged from sculpture to painting to graphic novels, in a modernist and feminist context. “She devoted the last fifty years of her life to turning her childhood home into a fantastic yet fragile environment that reflected intense training and a freedom to create,” Morris states.
Across the museum is Volumes: Stella Waitzkin + Rita Barros. Waitzkin studied with Hans Hoffman and Willem de Kooning in New York City, and later lived in the Chelsea Hotel, deconstructing books to their forms. The “Lost Library” that filled her modest fourth-floor apartment was composed of cast resin books. In Volumes, the wordless tomes are positioned in reconstructions of walls from her apartment. Waitzkin died in 2003, and through the Waitzkin Memorial Trust, JMKAC acquired three wall sections of her environment in 2007. Photographer Rita Barros, who lives in the Chelsea Hotel, has images on view to contextualize how this place was long an art hub, and how that is disappearing.
Whenever possible, JMKAC’s goal is to keep an environment in situ. It’s Gotta Be in Ya: Fred Smith + Ruth Kohler is the smallest of the exhibitions, with two concrete and glass sculptures — a larger-than-life man and a deer — in the lobby. They represent the 237 sculptures built by Smith, many still at his Wisconsin Concrete Park in Phillips. Following his death in 1976, the restoration of the park was the first major project for the Kohler Foundation. An animated video by Souther Salazar (embedded below) tells the story of this restoration, and how, in turn, Ruth Kohler was led to build up JMKAC’s collections on vernacular environments in the time she served as JMKAC director from 1972 to 2016.
Along with being JMKAC’s 50th anniversary, 2017 marks 10 years since Leslie Umberger’s influential book Sublime Spaces & Visionary Worlds was published. Umberger, curator of folk and self-taught art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and formerly senior curator at JMKAC, responds to David Butler’s work in one of the smaller galleries. Butler was a New Hope, Louisiana-based artist, who began to build a “yard show” with cut-out sculptures of sea creatures and colorful characters after a work accident in his 60s. The whirligigs and kinetic sculptures in Shelter: David Butler + Leslie Umberger, including a bike festooned in metal shapes, are bordered on two sides by improvisational quilts by African American women, connecting the two intuitive, community-based traditions of Southern black art. “Butler’s need to feel like he was truly at home where he was and in full control of his domain was a powerful drive, and so clearly related to a larger sphere of homemaking and artistic nest building,” Umberger states. “He was brilliant at what he did, and yet his story is also sobering when it’s viewed in terms of race relations in America.”
A few of these exhibitions will rotate out in early September, with upcoming focuses on Peter Jodocy, Seymour Rosen, Jesse “Outlaw” Howard, and Charles Smith. More than just celebrating the legacy of JMKAC, the series highlights how there remains much to be explored in these histories. Art created in, or on, the home is often relegated to the margins, labeled directly or indirectly as “outsider.” These are not artists who fit neatly under one umbrella, and The Road Less Traveled exhibitions don’t argue for that. Instead, they individually celebrate a person’s vision, and the untapped ways museums can respond to them.
The Road Less Traveled exhibition series continues through March 4, 2018 at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center (608 New York Avenue, Sheboygan, Wisconsin). Greetings & Salutations & Boo: Mary Nohl + Catherine Morris continues through August 20; Shelter: David Butler + Leslie Umberger continues through September 10; American Sites: Art Environment Photography + Fred Scruton continues through September 10; An Encounter with Presence: Emery Blagdon + Shannon Stratton continues through December 3; It’s Gotta Be in Ya: Fred Smith + Ruth Kohler continues through December 31; The Making of a Dream:: Loy Bowlin + Jennifer Joy Jameson continues through December 31; Mythologies: Eugene Von Bruenchenhein + Lisa Stone + Brett Littman + Michelle Grabner is up through January 14, 2018; Volumes: Stella Waitzkin + Rita Barros continues through March 4, 2018;