A life in art is less an occupation and more a vocation that embraces all aspects of one’s being and time. It is an uncommon calling of devotion — and even more rare when shared by two partners.
Husband & Husband: Lon Michels and Todd Olson — at Portrait Society Gallery — is a gorgeous, vibrant exhibition that celebrates life in art with monumental paintings rich in detail and symbolism. The works are fascinating, and the lives of their makers add to the effect of this show.
Michels began painting when he was young, taking after his mother, who was an artist. Knowing that the life of an artist has its demands of time, with many long hours in the studio, he shared his love for art and painting with Olson, who then took up the brush.
Shared subjects, distinctive approaches
There are shared qualities in their work, with brilliant palettes and detailed works of symbolism, but each brings a distinctive approach. Some of the paintings borrow from their life and the environment they’ve created for themselves.
Often they address the same subjects. Icarus and Daedalus is one depicted by both artists, stemming from working with live models in the studio. The role of Daedalus was taken on by Joseph Pabst, who with loving counsel warns young Icarus of flying too close to the sun, lest the wax construction of his wings melt and he falls from the sky into the sea. It is a compassionate scene, with notes of hope and salvation. In Michels’ version, luminous halos frame the figures amid a rich background of patterns, foliage and roses gently falling. Olson includes shimmering stained glass, reflecting a detail of the couple’s home, as well as small notes of architecture and windows from which figures look outside. Their work in these compositions, painted on large canvases, is mystical and mythical, drawing from archetypes and enduring stories retold with their modern voices.
One of the treasures of the gallery is a room decorated to mirror their home. Patterns of leopard spots in pale, butter yellow on mint green, and rich red on pink form the walls. The leopard print continues over suits of armor, vases and interpretations of hunting trophies meant to evoke French hunting lodges. Paintings, of course, adorn the walls.
Michels and Olson travel extensively, and rather than simply taking photographs, the pair paint views side by side as part of their time in different places. Journeys to Ecuador and through the Andes Mountains are part of the iconography, and when they paint on-site, crowds of onlookers often surround them. Their views of beaches and harbors, churches and vistas, take on a Fauvist air, something reminiscent of Matisse’s early expressionist work in the south of France. Landscapes are colorful in vivid pinks and blues, also recalling Matisse’s sentiment about painting and color as a vehicle to show how something feels rather than simply how it looks.
The most common genre in the exhibition is portraiture. “Movie Directors” is a new piece that shows the subjects, a man and a woman, lounging on a couch. The title is apt, since the subjects are in the film industry and made the movie Palm Swings, which is due in theaters Oct. 3. Michels and Olson make a cameo appearance. The painting is characteristically lush, full of pattern and decoration to the effect that the nude representation of the seated figures is ancillary.
While the two artists work closely together and share visual similarities in their work, subtle distinctions are found. Olson’s “Portrait of Lon 2” uses slightly broader, looser spaces to show his husband holding their dog, Bazzy. He looks directly ahead with large prismatic eyes, and is surrounded by flowers, butterflies and greenery. On the periphery, figures of Buddha and Christ lean in profile with subtle whispers. It is a nod to Michel’s spiritual nature, which also flows through his own work.
Though the atmospheres in their paintings are glowingly colorful and even dreamy, the foundation of their subjects is real life. Their art has a tangible charisma, as though depicting the exuberant spirit through which Lon Michels and Todd Olson see the world.
Husband and Husband: Lon Michels and Todd Olson continues through Nov. 10 at Portrait Society Gallery, fifth floor, 207 E. Buffalo St., Milwaukee. For more, go online to portraitsocietygallery.com.
Cadence: New Paintings by Tony Conrad
Frank Juarez Gallery
Sixth floor, 207 E. Buffalo St., Milwaukee
Opening reception 5–8 p.m. Sept. 23. Exhibition continues through Oct. 28.
Tony Conrad’s paintings reflect a keen interest and even fascination with pattern and line, as well as the application of layers of color. As described by the Frank Juarez Gallery, “The meditative nature of this process and consequent imagery describes a journey — not a destination.” For more, go online to fjgmke.com.
Bay View Gallery Night
5–10 p.m. Sept. 29
Bay View, Milwaukee
Head to the Bay View neighborhood for another exciting gallery night, featuring hundreds of artists and 50 businesses that are showing, celebrating and making art. For more information, go online to bvgn.org.