Society tea report, December 12

Portrait Society Tea Report, December 12, 2009

Society Tea Report

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Saturday was another one of those days that was so busy that the tea steeping was postponed until the end of the day. There was a big surprise at the gallery, however. Two people came in whom I haven’t seen in 20 years. How strange is that? Twenty  years is a long hallway to peer down. Can you hear the rapid fire of flickering calendar pages? OK, let’s turn back the hands of time:

Gary Kampe and his partner Dave Roberts used to be regulars at Michael Lord Gallery when I worked there. Gallery Director John Sobczek, with Michael, would call them to come in and look at whatever had just arrived, be it Robert Mapplethorpe, Gregory Amenoff, Gary Stephan, Robert Longo, Georg Baselitz or Andy Warhol. At the time, Michael Lord Gallery was located on the fourth floor of a building off Wisconsin Avenue. A tiny elevator opened directly into the space and you never knew who was going to emerge when the elevator doors slowly opened.  I usually worked on Saturdays and not many people came in. There was an eccentric old guy, however, whom we named “the admiral” because he wore a military uniform and always carried a briefcase full of xeroxed documents. He would mumble for 10 minutes about legal proceedings and government conspiracy and then leave. Often, the admiral was the only visitor on Saturdays. But once in a while, I was privy to Gary and Dave stopping by to talk to Sobczek. They’d roll up their sleeves,  get out the cigarettes and John would take them into the back room and start pulling art work out of drawers and portfolios. We are talking about the late 1980s here. Michael Lord was the first and only gallery in Milwaukee to show fine art photography just as it was emerging on the market. Through these years, Gary and Dave were trusting of John and Michael’s guidance and ended up purchasing then affordable works by Cindy Sherman, Francisco Clemente, Robert Mapplethorpe and many others. Why didn’t I do this, I ask myself now? I was just a bit too young to think of myself as someone who should buy art.

Things were never the same after Michael moved his gallery into the Pfister Hotel space. That place was a “showroom” with huge windows. Everything now felt sparkly and expensive. It had none of the intimacy of the old small rooms. There was no sense of secrets being shared there. The charm of John Sobczek with rumpled hair, stinking of smoke, emerging from his Hobbit hole in the back to pointedly convince us of why some artist we’ve never heard of is exceptional was lost – forever.

People keep asking when Portrait Society is going to move to a ground floor “real” space. I say there is no substitution for character and feel. A ground floor space speaks too loudly of commerce. My 5th floor rooms leave a little of the real world behind. Like Michael’s old gallery, you ascend to arrive and then hopefully you enter a protected, detached zone where, for a little while,  ideas, reflection and visual encounter become the new condition.

(Filed by Debra Brehmer. This is not an accurate account of Saturday, December 12 at the Portrait Society. It is abbreviated due to poor time management).

 Winner of the Fred Bell Show “tell Fred what to paint” contest announced:

December 17, 2009

The subject for the fourth line of nine paintings in Fred Bell’s on-going project at Portrait Society has been chosen. The winner is Amber Krueger for her suggestion that Fred paint door knobs. Amber is a Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design painting major who works as an intern at Portrait Society. Despite her close connection with the gallery, Fred Bell says that her idea was selected fair and square. Amber will receive one of Fred’s doorknob paintings upon completion of the line. What should Fred paint? Let us know. You too could be a winner. 

Society Tea Report

Saturday, December 5

Portrait Society Saturday tea resumed within the full on-set of winter. Ruth’s grandma’s silver tea service came out of the store room along with the random assortment of tea cups and saucers whose histories are mostly now detached.

First a lady came in with two children. She said her daughter always throws away her drawings and she wanted to show her the Intimate Page show because it is all artists’  preparatory or sketchbook drawings “that they didn’t throw away.” The two kids seemed pretty fascinated with the show, especially the fact that a real motorcycle engineer had working sketches of motorcycles on view, the moral of the story being that all sorts of people use drawing as a foundation for their thinking and imagining process.

Several of the artists who are in the show then wandered in. Sofi Askenazi and her husband (who works at Buell, not coincidentally) spent a long time in The Intimate Page and ended up buying a great little drawing by another motorcycle designer, Chris Fiorini. Then Michael Howard, (former Nohl fellow), who teaches painting at MIAD, came in. He has four studies in the show and explained that his finished paintings come after many, many watercolor and gouache attempts at the same image. He shifts the color and emphasis on each study to see what essentially the picture is really about. He says he has not finished the final paintings that the Portrait Society studies relate to and right now he likes the studies better than the larger unfinished paintings.

The truth be told, I hadn’t even made tea yet. I had plugged in the pot to heat the water, but had not gotten around to making tea so I was remiss in not offering these visitors anything. The former owners of Red Car Gallery on 1st Street in Walker’s Point came in. It was nice to meet them and hear about their art interests. They are very nice people who went into the gallery business for all the right reasons, but couldn’t find a way to make it financially viable over the long haul. It is a tough market in Milwaukee. We have a few long-term established galleries who have slowly built clientele, but new galleries have to initially rely on selling work off the walls to walk in visitors, which is very hard. It is obvious from gallery night attendance that there is a large audience for art in Milwaukee. But that audience hasn’t yet learned that buying art is better than glancing at it during a walk-through, crowded reception. Art is something solid, substantial and meaningful. It’s like owning your own little island. And I find that the act of “selection” is a powerful gesture. When someone says “yes, I want that one,” it represents a spoken aloud commitment to a moral, philosophical, aesthetic attitude. It is empowering.

I finally made the tea. Artist Sally Kuzma and her friend Judith came in. Sally brought tea from China. Her husband goes there often on business. Her friend Judith was from Vermont and came with an amazing story: With their children grown and out of the house, one year ago Judith and her husband found themselves rather unexpectedly unemployed.  They had to give up their house and have spent the last year on the road, living at relatives and friends’ houses and also doing volunteer work at a national park in New Mexico where, in exchange for their work, the park gave them a house to live in. They had to walk 10 miles every day to the house, which was deep in the mountains. It was a profound experience, Judith said, to live in a national park for three months. Their “job” was basically to wander the trails everyday, checking conditions and just being present. While this adventure that they are on sounds compelling, it must be very difficult to be ‘on the road’ at a stage in your life when most people are hunkering down and anticipating more leisure time. It was almost fated that the painter Eriks Johnson came in while we were talking. Eriks has been spending more and more time in the wilds, canoeing and hiking and he was intrigued with the prospect of living for free in a national park. Eriks’ show just came down from Rosenblatt Gallery. Like so many of us, Ericks cobbles together finances by working many part time teaching jobs and selling some art. Artists do not have easy lives.

In the midst of these conversations, Fred Bell came in with his nine new monthly paintings. Portrait Society has started an on-going project called the “Fred Bell Show” where Fred, a prolific and painterly painter, completes nine new paintings on a theme every month. The new series was self-portraits and they are spectacular. These paintings contain a perfect adhesion of gesture and surface energy with the mood and content of the work. Come see them.  Fred’s next series is rocks. Please send in suggestions for what Fred should paint. If he selects your idea, he will give you a free painting.

I am very late in filing this Tea Report. End of semester business slowed me down. But to my knowledge, this is a clear and accurate report of Saturday, December 5. 2009.


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