Skin Horse

The 2018 Wisconsin Biennial at MOWA, with Sarah O'Farrell's "Skin Horse (Becoming Real)" in the foreground. 

Photo: Kat Kneevers

The 2018 Wisconsin Artists Biennial is an exhibition of contemporary art. It is not about Wisconsin clichés — there is nary a cow to be seen. 

There are 53 pieces by 46 artists in the exhibition, which is presented in three gallery spaces at the Museum of Wisconsin Art in West Bend.

The guest jurors were Katherine Chang Liu — an artist and teacher based in California — and Scott Zieher, an artist and gallery owner from New York City. It is through the eyes of outsiders that we appreciate work from artists in communities large and small.


Prize-winning air conditioner

The winner of the MOWA Prize in the exhibition is “Air Conditioner” by Mark Klassen. It’s mounted high on the gallery wall — its unobtrusive placement adds to its ordinariness, even mechanical unattractiveness. Over the AC vent is taped a piece of cardboard with a silhouette of a knife, encased in a round red circle with a line through it. No weapons here. 

In 2016, when Klassen made this piece, conceal-and-carry was under debate in the Legislature — debate that continues in the aftermath of yet another school shooting. With conceal-and-carry laws in effect, stickers are everywhere in the public sphere, often prohibiting their presence in places of business, entertainment or education. 

While that may provide a sense of comfort knowing weapons aren’t allowed in a location, it subtly and constantly alludes to the idea that guns and knives are everywhere. Getting back to that air conditioner, no knives allowed, of course. 

air conditioner

Mark Klassen's "Air Conditioner," 2016

But the point of the piece is there is still something sinister about this innocuous object. Klassen notes that air conditioners — and their use of hydrofluorocarbons — are part of the chemical romance that permeates our daily lives. Multiplied by the millions of units large and small, each is one more part in the problem of pollution. On their own, they seem harmless enough and are even essential creature comforts. 

Klassen asks us to look more closely at these types of things, striking a more thoughtful awareness of our surroundings. Oh, and you will have to look more closely at this piece as well. While it is totally convincing as a run-of-the-mill AC unit, it is handcrafted by the artist out of wood and paint.


Paper, glass, bronze and more

For visitors sparked by materials and craft, there are other works that transform interesting stuff. 

Glenn Williams makes his “Prosthetic Bike” out of medical bandages, cast plaster, wood and steel. This relief sculpture, which is something like the body of a bicycle encased in delicate scaffolding, rewards close attention for faint, delicate embossments on the surface and even the textural details of rubber tires. 

Sarah O’Farrell’s “Skin Horse (Becoming Real)” brings together welded steel, handmade abaca paper and pine shavings to create a hulking, friendly and gentle draft horse that looks like its settled down comfortably for a nap on the gallery floor. 


Maureen Fritchen's "Foreshore," 2017.

Maureen Fritchen’s “Foreshore” is an organic, minimalist spin between a painting and a sculpture, with protruding horizontals that are cleverly made with torn drywall tape. 

There are many works on paper, unique installations in glass and bronze, and a video installation — as well as paintings and photography. 

On this latter note, one of the strongest is by Spooky Boobs Collective (Amy Cannestra, J. Myszka Lewis and Maggie Snyder). Their triptych of black-and-white digital prints — under the title “You Have the Right to Remain A _____.” — is a provocative spotlight on the way presumptions of personality affect how we see someone. In one, a white man holds up a placard that reads “PUSSY,” while a black woman with dramatic eyes holds one that reads “OVER EMOTIONAL.” A young white woman, her lips pursed, holds one that reads “BOSSY.” There are a lot of ways to read these images. That also holds true for the larger scope of this exhibition. 



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