Waste Not II: Wisconsin Self Taught
January 19 to March 17, 2018
Opening reception, Gallery Night: 5 to 9 p.m. January 19.
Portrait Society Gallery represents a growing, impressive roster of self taught artists. This winter, the gallery showcases these independently spirited makers with the work of Bernard Gilardi, Romano Johnson, Rosemary Ollison, Rudy Rotter, Jeremy Ward and Della Wells. This exhibition coincides with Portrait Society’s participation in the Outsider Art Fair in New York City January 18 to 21.
Undeniably some of the most important artists in the state, their status deliniated here as “self-taught” need not identify them as different from any other practitioner with formal training but is used for orientation. Each of these artists crafted meaningful bodies of work outside the professional realm of academic training and in spite of life conditions that may have impeded the pursuit of a creative life.
Bernard Gilardi wanted to be a painter since high school but after WWII he needed a profession that would support his family. He worked full time for a printer and painted during the evenings and weekends, ultimately creating nearly 400 oil paintings in his basement by the time he died in 2008. While he didn’t show or sell his paintings when he was alive, his work is now represented in major museums including the Milwaukee Art Museum, Chazen Museum and Museum of Wisconsin Art. Gilardi has had solo exhibitions at the Museum of Wisconsin Art and the Wriston Art Center, Lawrence University.
Jeremy Ward, who the gallery introduced in its first Waste Not exhibition in 2013, is from Horicon, Wisconsin. Ward creates angular wooden masks, often inspired by cartoon subjects or popular culture personalities. Each mask is carefully designed with multiple wooden geometric pieces. Diagnosed with autism, social interactions can be difficult for Ward making the mask an almost literal intervention to mitigate human dynamics.
Both Rosemary Ollison and Della Wells translate difficult personal histories into their art work. Wells is a consumate story teller whose collages address African American female empowerment. Ollison used her interdisciplinary art practice as a means to set herself free from trauma and build a new life. Her career reached a pivotal point this year when the Milwaukee Art Museum purchased several major works for its collection, including a 10 x 10 foot leather patchwork, abstract textile piece. Della Wells’ work is in numerous public and private collections and she has a solo show at the Loyola University Museum of Art on Michigan Avenue in Chicago opening in February. She was named artist of the year by the city of Milwaukee in 2016.
Romano Johnson, an African-American artist born with a developmental disability, lived on the North side of Chicago until moving to Madison at age 13, which is when he started making art. “Mano,” as friends call him, works out of the non-profit studio in Madison called Artworking, Inc.
His large, acrylic and glitter paintings are packed with pattern and color creating exuberant compositions that electrify his larger-than-life subject matter. Recent paintings include portraits of Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Martin Luther King, Barack Obama, and Ice T as well as images of motorcycles and cars sometimes referencing Mad Max films. His work is in many private collections. His first major solo museum exhibition, The Glitterati, was presented at the Museum of Wisconsin Art in 2017.
Rudy Rotter (1913-2001) was a dentist in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. He began carving wood sculptures in 1956 when he was 43, while still operating his full-time dental practice. When he retired, he worked full time as an artist and by the time he died at age 88, had filled all three floors of his studio/museum. The Rudy Rotter Museum of Sculpture, long a landmark to art enthusiasts, was closed several years ago and Rudy’s work was moved into storage. Besides sculptures of intertwined men, women and children in celebration of love and humanity, later in his life Rotter adopted a Surrealist methodology of automatic drawing to free his mind and hand. Experimental and inventive, Rotter also worked with a variety of cast-off and found materials from local industries. Rudy Rotter’s work is in the collection of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan, WI.