September 16 to November 6, 2011
Opening reception: Friday, Sept. 16, 6 to 9 p.m.
Gallery Night: October 21
This collaboration between the photographer Francis Ford and Milwaukee’s well-known man-about-town Jack Eigel began in 2000 with an exhibition at Kent Mueller’s now defunct KM Art Gallery. The second iteration of the project, “Jack’s Dolls” was in 2003 and the third, “Dairyland Divas and Dandies,” was in 2006 (accompanied by a book).
Portrait Society Gallery is honored to host the fourth chapter of the project, Men of Leisure. This new body of work emerges from the span of five years that have passed since Dairyland Divas and Dandies, a time in which both Jack and Francis suffered life-threatening health crises.
Jack Eigel, 55, experienced cardiac arrest in 2007. In subsequent years, his heart deteriorated to the point that he needed a full transplant. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel covered the 2009 surgery in Madison in a series of front-page articles. Jack had a rare condition where his heart was on the opposite side of his body, making the surgery extremely difficult. Not only did he survive the surgery but he has since become involved in the US Transplant games, winning a Bronze in swimming.
Although many people know Eigel as the iconic salesperson at George Watts and Sons, a position he held for many years, he has chosen to take time off post transplant because he says he is having too much fun with his renewed lease on life.
Francis Ford, 66, Wisconsin’s best known and perhaps most revered portrait photographer, experienced a fully unexpected bleeding aorta while watching a film of the Metropolitan opera’s Der Rosenkavalier, at the South Shore Cinema in January 2010. Unexpected to survive emergency surgery, Ford has since fully recovered.
The new project, Men of Leisure, obliquely addresses both of their near-death experiences and the subsequent changes in their lives but lands squarely in the same playful, whimsical inventive narratives of the previous bodies of work. Indeed, Ford’s passionate interest in opera and Eigel’s affinities with vintage fashion and style infuse these staged images with a potent blend of theatricality, absurdist folly and humor.
Jack Eigel is the ultimate chameleon. He invents these scenes by first dipping into his vast repository of vintage clothing, which is stored at his Wauwatosa home in an orderly and accessible manner. The outfit then triggers the setting and staging of the concept. Eigel concocts all of the ideas and titles and enlists friends in supporting roles and then tells Francis where to arrive with his camera. This could be his cousin’s lake house, city hall, the Hob Nob supper club in Racine, who knows. From there, Ford uses his considerable mastery to frame the idea and cast the drama as a compelling picture.
The first project, “Jack Show,” completed in 2000, featured only Jack, as a solitary performer. Still anchored to film and darkroom chemicals, Frank followed Jack through all kinds of imagined scenarios: Jack wearing furry chaps and a cowboy hat while drinking a cocktail in a horse pasture or Jack wearing a headdress of daisies and floral patterned pants and sipping wine, still manly with a five-o’clock shadow, in the backyard by the Weber. The descriptions get cumbersome as the images become laden with layer upon layer of artifice, that is also, ironically, an amplified reality.
From the relative simplicity of this first project evolved increasingly complex and multi-character scenes.
The exhibition features the Men of Leisure work in the front gallery and “greatest hits” from the past projects in the other two rooms, pulled from the total 108 pictures. In any of these images the viewer can easily detect sparks igniting between photographer and subject. There’s a shared joy in the making of the pictures and it energizes the compositions.
Both Jack and Francis have always lived a little on the edge of the mainstream and when they throw themselves fully off the cliff into their own invented wacky world, it’s as if they are suddenly more at home. For Jack and Francis, the celebration of the exaggerated is a place of comfort, a place where we are all finally, fully safe from becoming numbed and absorbed by the monotonous consumption of daily life. Francis has always gravitated toward drag queens, rock bands and eccentrics. In contrast, Jack has lived an almost absurdly normal life by day in his parent’s home in Wauwatosa, selling china and wine glasses to dreamy future brides at Watts, yet fully commanding a Milwaukee nightlife existence as a flaneur (a lounger, saunterer or loafer as the dictionary defines it). It is here, after dark that Jack would flow across all boundaries from gay to straight, from grunge to business elite. It is legendary how he could land on any bar stool and inextricably bring enchantment and charm to the encounter.
For Eigel, whatever persona he concocts, be it sailor, crossing guard, tough guy, bar fly or civil servant, it seems to engender him. People often ask what Jack “is” – is he an actor, a performance artist, a comedian, a cross dresser? Oddly, he defies categories. There is really no title for Jack’s role in life or his avocations. Perhaps he is simply more alive and engaged in the exploration and expansion of his composite selves than most of us. And that becomes an art form because it allows us to imagine what our own composite selves might look like if we dared unleash them. Recently, when pressed to come up with a label, Jack said he is a “novelty model.”
Writing about the artist, actor and writer Antonin Artaud (Theatre of the Absurd), Marthe Robert said that theatre to Artaud was “absolute freedom in revolt.” She writes, “To outfit life in the most garish fashion in order to force it to show itself as it really is, to recapture a language that existed before value judgments froze the word – such was the task Artaud entrusted to theatre…” (Marthe Robert in “Antonin Artaud: Works on Paper,” Museum of Modern Art, 1997).
Ford and Eigel’s long collaboration first speaks from this realm of theater. Photography then steps in to burnish these bizarre little vignettes with a veneer of truth, allowing them to co-exist in our space as wacky alternatives to our often deadened world of perception.
Within these constructed photographic narratives, Eigel/Ford’s greatest antecedent would be Lady Clementina Hawarden in the 1860s who costumed her adolescent daughters in staged compositions. The role-playing seemed to allow these women to step out of proscribed Victorian social codes. Then there’s Sally Mann and Cindy Sherman and, more recently, Yasumasa Morimura, and Nikki S. Lee. But Ford and Eigel’s project stands fully on its own as something “other,” perhaps in part because of the decade-long engagement and the odd blending of art and life that they manage to keep tethered together.
The new body of work, Men of Leisure, is shot in color. Francis Ford has seldom worked in color. To wander from the older work into the room of new work is a Wizard of Oz experience. Ford has manipulated the color to unnaturally blanch skin tones toward a colder, paler contrast as well as heightened some colors and isolated contrasts between areas. Eigel’s wardrobe choices are given full lavish, shout-out attention. But even beyond the color, there is something different about this new body of work. While the black and white images feel grounded in the editorial and documentarian, somehow limited to the page and pushed just a little away from us, the color work embraces us fully into these contrived worlds.
Even with Jack dressed in a vintage airline stewardess dress in the role of a school crossing guard juxtaposed with a young girl who looms brightly in the foreground, or Jack dressed in a gingham apron in the kitchen peeling a very phallic plastic carrot there’s an innocent goofiness to the scenarios that is trusting and inclusive.
Perhaps when one enters a real-life zone that feels fully impossible and unreal – such as the near-death experiences and medical/hospital worlds from which they’ve both recently emerged – the invented world of art and fiction become less severed. The gap closes when life gets as implausible as anything one could imagine. This new body of work has a bolder assertion to it. Sure Jack and Francis are aging but they are not letting go of that wide-eyed kind of looking at life that notes just how truly bizarre it all is, on every possible level.
-Debra Brehmer, Gallery Director
Portrait Society Gallery, 207 E. Buffalo Street, Fifth Floor, is a contemporary gallery devoted to the exploration of the portrait and its role in society. The gallery is open Thursday through Saturday from 1 to 5 p.m. For additional information contact Gallery Director Debra Brehmer, 414-870-9930; firstname.lastname@example.org.