A Celebration of All Things Cultural, Artistic, and Entertaining in Madison
Jun 2, 2010
Since reading Rebecca Ryan’s June column on the “value of being weird,” I’ve had my attention primed toward the odd, interesting and unusual in Madison. It was an ideal mindset with which to visit The Magic of John Wilde, an exhibition running through July 25 at the Chazen Museum of Art.
The show brings together just under thirty works the Wisconsin artist created from the 1940s to the 1990s, all culled from the museum’s collection. Considered magic realist art, they include surrealist scenes, dreamscapes, allegorical landscapes, still lifes and self-portraits ranging in medium from pencil sketch to silverpoint to oil paint on panel.
Born in Milwaukee, Wilde attended UW–Madison from 1938 to 1942, majoring in art until he was drafted and served in the U.S. Army. Following World War II he returned to Madison to earn his master’s in art and art history and then taught art at UW from 1948 to 1982. He spent the last forty years of his life outside of Evansville.
Influenced by rural Wisconsin as well as the horrors of war, Wilde’s landscapes often reveal dark, strange themes.
His paintings and drawings are exquisitely detailed, making them a joy to examine up close (don’t miss the wood grain of In the Barn). Some feel safely dreamlike—as in The Great Dog of Night, in which a pale woman rests on the back of a large dog flying through the sky—while others are more surreal and grotesque. In Love, for instance, three humans embrace while a fourth lies on the ground, his skin blue, dogs ripping out bloody organs.
Wilde addresses the passing of time in a few pieces, notably in a 1997 silverpoint rendering the artist at ages seventy-eight and twenty-eight. An older man in a button-down shirt and glasses stands next to a slightly taller, younger man with fuller, darker hair who’s dressed in an older-fashioned sweater vest, bow tie and jacket.
Since the human form is presented nude in much of Wilde’s work, either as the celebrated subject or coolly treated like any other prop-like element, images like this one and 15 Cooksvillians stand out.
In the latter, fifteen men line up as if they’re posing for a group photo. They stand shoulder to shoulder wearing jeans, shorts, polo shirts and a Wisconsin sweatshirt. Compared to the other pieces in the show, this work seems the most shocking—precisely because it feels so familiar.
The Magic of John Wilde runs through July 25 at the Chazen, with a reception held June 4, 5:30–7 p.m., at the museum. For more information, visit chazen.wisc.edu.
Photos courtesy of the Chazen Museum of Art.