Installation view of Dark Matter: Joel Otterson at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center 2018 (all photos courtesy John Michael Kohler Arts Center unless otherwise noted)

SHEBOYGAN, Wisconsin — A series of four exhibitions corralled under the title Live/Work at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center (JMKAC) demystifies the artistic process more than any other show I’ve seen in recent memory. Together, the exhibitions manifest the messy, iterative, and collaborative processes by which artists combine experience, an understanding of materials, intuition, and deft dexterity to create objects that hold and convey meaning. In essence, each of the shows contained within Live/Work turns JMKAC’s gallery space into an extension of the artists’ studios.

A work by Jessica Jackson Hutchins

The separate exhibitions are displayed in such a way as to bleed over into each other, so when I visited the center several weeks ago, I often had to ask the docents present which exhibition I happened to be standing in. It should be noted that these guides were quite interventionist. They often approached me, and without waiting for me to signal interest, offered me particulars about the work and the artist, such as informing me that Jessica Jackson Hutchins’s ceramic pieces, which I witnessed lying inertly on sofas and other furniture in her section of the Makeshift exhibition, were utilized by performers at the show’s opening. I was told that dancers wore and held the sculpted pottery and served food visitors out of them. Initially, I was a bit discomfited by not being left alone to my own devices, but I have to admit that the information they imparted helped me understand the work in a fuller way than I would have on my own.

Installation view of Made and Connected: Garry Noland and Peggy Noland at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, 2018; Peggy Noland, “Good Job” (2018) polystyrene, wood, paint, and chains

The first show I encountered,  Made and Connected: Garry Noland and Peggy Noland, was a smartly laid out collaboration between artists who are father and daughter. Made and Connected is contained within a voluminous hallway, with the each artist’s work on opposite walls; so, as I did, a viewer might ping back and forth between them, looking for clues about how the works speak to each other. Garry Noland’s work looks like small, indifferent artifacts that might be found in a refuse pile at the local pottery studio, while Peggy Noland’s crudely carved polystyrene characters and cityscapes felt more aesthetically coherent — a story of a couple navigating urban terrain. Still, in both cases, the work was too casually blasé to appeal to me, though I appreciated the dynamic display design.

Installation view of Made and Connected: Garry Noland and Peggy Noland at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, 2018

That hallway ends in a bend which takes me right into Hothouse: Virgil Marti, a show which uses the notion of a terrarium in which art might be seeded, grown, and tended to, to talk about Marti’s studio practice — and a small bottle terrarium, which has apparently been a part of Marti’s studio since the early 1970s, is actually present. I maneuvered quickly through this section because though the majority of work here was visually stimulating with variegated and polished car tires — low, white furry daises with a motley assortment of glass objects positioned on top, and large mirrors on wooden stands — it all seemed like miscellany rather than a set of objects that could give me insight into the artist’s concerns or obsessions.

Curling into the adjacent room I came upon the most beautiful pieces within the entire suite of exhibitions: Dark Matter: Joel Otterson. The cavernous room is filled with fantastically lovely hanging tapestries, spectacularly-colored brass pieces that look like the armature of vases, and wooden sculptures shaped like boxes and low tables. Otterson combines an array of materials including leather, black tourmaline, corals, 24k gold leaf, silk, black glass, onyx, spinel beads, copper pipe, and embroidered velvet. The pieces all together form a kind of showroom suggesting a decorating scheme that is both wildly intuitive and carefully precise.

I have the docent I spoke with to thank for informing me that Otterson (along with the other artists displayed in Live/Work) talked about his practice in a looped video playing near the main desk. In this video, Otterson talks about coming of age in a working-class family, and how every stitch he makes and every steel pipe he casts is a kind of homage to his mother, who was a seamstress, and his father, who was a plumber. He describes being inspired by Greek amphorae on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and taking that inspiration to his most recent of three Arts/Industry residencies at the Kohler company’s factory to produce these the brass sculptures, which even in departing from the classical shape, seem palatial. As Otterson tells it, his work is about slowly making his way through the house, transforming the quotidian objects within as he goes.

Installation view of Dark Matter: Joel Otterson at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center 2018

The largest of the exhibitions, Makeshift, curated by Michelle Grabner, includes Trenton Doyle Hancock, Jessica Jackson Hutchins, Brad Kahlhamer, Odili Donald Odita, Barbara Rossi, Greg Smith, and Alison Elizabeth Taylor. By far, Hancock and Taylor most clearly modeled how the process of moving through ideas works for these artists. In Hancock’s installation, several large paintings, some composed of small varicolored colors and one other containing bits of mixed media, sail overhead, while a custom-designed series of Black dolls that are packaged and arranged to resemble a toy store display is installed on small color-coded shelves along the wall below the paintings. (These dolls are part of Hancock’s Moundverse, a mythology the artist has been developing through combining toys with the ideas of imaginative play and the formation of self-image.) At the very bottom, a series of cartoon sketches like a narrative frieze depicts a conversation the artist has with his mother while he sits on a toilet. Hancock has also included several free-standing shelves and stocked them with toys and games. The comic strip conversation is funny not only due to Hancock’s multitasking, but also because it reveals how his mother doesn’t quite grasp the significance of his inclusion in this show or what the Kohler Art Center is, but nevertheless demonstrates care and affection for her son in requesting that he resume attending church regularly. Having seen Hancock’s work before and reviewed it for Hyperallergic, I recognize that he is a brilliant painter. But art exhibitions are most frequently geared towards creating showcases that elicit awe or marvel from viewers. However, in this show allowing visitors to see the relationships that condition an artist’s feelings and shape his backstory, it begins to create an intimate connection that moves beyond admiration and toward a more holistic appreciation of their concerns.

Installation view of main gallery in Makeshift at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center 2018

Alison Elizabeth Taylor’s small installation aids the viewer in coming to an understanding of her process in a detailed fashion. The wall text associated with her work tells the story of “Shed Bed Chainlink Forest Scorpion Sunrise” (2018) being developed out of a game of making gouache paintings to represent each of 48 random words, then reducing those to six random images from which she would make her composition. Taylor’s practice typically uses marquetry, layering pieces of diversely colored wood that are combined in such a way as to give an image dimension and texture not quite achievable in the same way by painting. What gives a window into her practice is the detritus she’s left on the floor around the finished product: all the bits and pieces that are left over from Taylor’s manipulation of materials.

A work by Alison Elizabeth Taylor

In all, the exhibitions of Live/Work illustrate how the living and working of artists go hand in hand. We still are heavily influenced by the romantic notion of the artist as a gifted, heroic maker, but here we also have the artist as a collaborator, as the daughter or son, as the person shaped by those aspects of a lived life that are invisible to us who lie outside those personal relationships. Despite these relations being hidden, we get to see how they emerge refracted and rechanneled in work that piece by piece, room by room, seeks to remake the world.

Live/Work continues at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center (608 New York Avenue, Sheboygan, Wisconsin). Dark Matter: Joel Otterson ends January 20, 2019. Hothouse: Virgil Marti ends February 3, 2019. Made and Connected: Garry Noland and Peggy Noland ends February 17. Makeshift ends March 3.

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a former senior critic and Opinion Editor for Hyperallergic, and is now a regular contributor to it and the New York Times. In 2020, he won the Rabkin Arts Journalism prize and in...