A Celebration of All Things Cultural, Artistic, and Entertaining in Madison
Jul 10, 2013
03:24 PM

Three Reasons to Visit MMoCA

Three Reasons to Visit MMoCA

Art Fair on the Square is coming up this weekend, but continue your art seeking down State Street to the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Three exhibitions explore American themes in photography, showcase the latest work by a Madison artist and offer a fantastic introduction to Mexican modernism.

Focal Points: American Photography Since 1950 (through September 1) poses an interesting question, what is American? And then digs into the museum’s permanent collection to provide answers. The show reveals how photography has captured and expressed American identity.

With sections devoted to themes of people, the American road, the body, city and suburb, rural America, nature and fantasy, the exhibition offers up images you might expect—yet they feel authentic, not cliché.

In the “We the People” section, photographs show teens hanging out, men shaking hands, football fans, a woman in a café—people as they really are. A highlight is Ida Wyman’s “Girl with Curlers, Los Angeles,” a photograph from 1949 showing a young girl in suspenders, hands on her hips, standing with a street blurred behind her.

“The American Road” offers an aerial view of a highway being built, a crashed car, a horse in road, a nighttime gas station and Airstream trailer. Robert Flick’s “East of Lancaster, along Highway 14, California,” a grid of forty-nine black and white photos of road taken in 1981, feels familiar to anyone who’s road-tripped out west.

In the section on the body, visitors see a close up of craggy-nailed feet, a pregnant woman, a Cindy Sherman still of a woman with two black eyes, a muscled man holding an ax, a diptych of a man lying in bed and Michael Abramson, “Perv’s House, Chicago” from 1976 featuring a woman with her back to the camera, tying white headwrap.

City and Suburb” shows a nighttime apartment building, a house at dawn, an empty street, and a southeast Chicago neighborhood, while “Rural America” offers a drive-in movie theater, a train at night and a church among farmland and hills. “Nature,” meanwhile, features the bank of a river, waves of Great Lakes and canyon, among other scenes.

“Fantasy” offers a variety of thought-provoking images, from Carl Corey’s photograph of an anonymous road at dusk or dawn to Duane Michaels’ “Self-portrait as if I were dead,” with himself as both a dead man on a table and a man dressed in black looking at him.

The diversity of subject matter in Focal Points is almost dizzying, but the organization helps orient visitors and every photograph seems thoughtfully chosen—each a unique example of what defines America.

Downstairs in the State Street Gallery, I Dream Too Much: Paintings By Leslie Smith III (through September 1) is a fantastic showcase of recent paintings by Smith, an assistant professor of painting and drawing at UW–Madison.

This exhibition reveals the compelling dichotomies inherent in Smith’s work. His bold paintings are abstracted yet offer a strong narrative quality. They’re sometimes straightforward, while other times suggestive. They feature sharp-edged geometric forms along with organic shapes. These tensions add interest to his compositions often carried out in reds, midnight blues and blacks, with features resembling sticks, windows and gauzy curtains.

In “I Dream Too Much,” an oil on linen work from 2012, thick brown sticks are arranged atop a dark blue sky, with gauzy curtains opening slightly in front of them. The sky plays a significant role in “Sticks, Stones or Drones” as well. The large oil painting features a gray cloudy sky, with sticks and red cubed forms flying through the air and dropping below; the movement feels incredibly fast.

“Viennese Waltz,” on the other hand, feels almost meditative. Red and purple shapes—organic and squared, as well as solid and patterned—sit amid a pink backdrop. The form resembles a human organ, perhaps a heart.

The show includes Smith’s newest abstractions on shaped canvases, such as “Honest Boy,” a 2013 oil painting. Varying shades of red exist as overlapping geometric forms on a canvas that’s square except for one curved side.

Another recent work, “Night Baptism,” is especially intriguing. The painting’s description states that it “speaks to the contradictions of organized religions.” The canvas is dark but you can detect a human form and a pool of water. Look closer and you see the composition is made with red covered by black—an interesting detail that suggests hidden meaning.

While I Dream Too Much is Smith’s first solo museum exhibition, let’s hope it’s not his last showing at MMoCA.

Los Grandes del Arte Moderno Mexicano (through June 1, 2014) in the small Henry Street Gallery makes great use of the museum’s permanent collection and provides an excellent introduction to Mexican modernism.

The show is arranged by masters of the movement—seven artists who helped define Mexican modernism in the 1920s and 1930s following the Mexican Revolution. These painters, printmakers, photographers and muralists rejected art of the past and focused on contemporary subject matter, social reform, national identity. They included references to indigenous folk art and pre-Columbian art, but the European movements of Expressionism and Surrealism worked their way in too.

You’ll find works by art-word heavyweights, including three prints by Diego Rivera. His “The Dream (The night of the poor)” lithograph from 1932 is a beautifully tender and sad scene of adults and children, their bodies nestled together and faces all looking down. And Frida Kahlo’s small 1938 painting “Still Life: Pitahayas” features decomposing red fruits while a small skeleton with scythe sits on a rock nearby.

In “Grief,” a 1926 lithograph by José Clemente Orozco, a man’s clasped hands shield his face. With his body set at an angle, the composition is dynamic and his grief is palpable. Also powerful is Leopoldo Méndez’s 1952 linocut “Soledad’s Shawl.” In it, a woman with a black hood looks directly—intensely—at viewer.

The show also features works by David Alfaro Siqueiros, Rufino Tamayo and Manuel Alvarez, many of them moving portraits and depictions of life.

For more information on these exhibitions, as well as Art Fair on the Square, visit mmoca.org.

Photos—of "Perv's House, Chicago" by Michael Abramson, "Sticks, Stones or Drones" by Leslie Smith III and "Soledad's Shawl" by Leopoldo Méndez—courtesy of MMoCA.

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About This Blog

As managing editor at Madison Magazine, I'm also an unabashed arts enthusiast. Paintings, plays, music, movies—I'm intrigued by all forms of creative expression. I enjoy talking with artists and sharing their insights, challenges, inspirations and latest endeavors. Check in regularly for details on events, previews and reviews, artist interviews and more! 

– Katie Vaughn
Follow Katie on Twitter @katiemv

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