New art in ‘Young and Erie’

The exhibition’s title — Young and Erie — is at least a double entendre. It refers to intersecting streets near the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design, but also applies in various ways to the artists and works it presents.

Portrait Society Gallery director Debra Brehmer conceived of the exhibition as a way of showcasing works of mostly recent art school graduates from four institutions.

Do not expect a sprawling group show, however. There were only eight painters selected and, as such, this exhibition is not a survey of contemporary trends in the academic world.

Instead, the artists present some fresh approaches to an ancient art.

Some traditional subjects are part of the exhibition, of course, but the varied twists these artists give make them interesting. The large portraits by Jacob Salzer (BFA, UWM) particularly stand out. They emit a sense of personality, but Salzer’s painterly handling and unstressed line and color make them worth perusing longer for the details. You’ll be drawn in by their vibrancy and extended study of unexpected lines — such as the strange wavy-ness of a bicep in “Josh” — both of which yield ongoing interest and energy.

Jennifer Barr (BFA, UW-Madison) is like a counterpoint. Her still-life paintings incorporating plants are starkly direct. “Still Life with Clock” has a quiet, dark gray foreground where a cup, vase and green leafy plant in a pink vase sit. In the background, a clock watches silently. You could set this up on your kitchen table, but what Barr does is pull away all extraneous details and draw our attention to her cool sense of color and the way textured brushstrokes create the presence of light and dimension.

A couple of the featured artists draw more explicitly on their painterly forebears. Deanna Antony (BFA, UW-Parkside) makes canvases in unusual sizes with exposed stretcher bars. The painted forms are sometimes figurative, sometimes amorphous, but recall Frank Stella and his unorthodox shapes. Sean Heiser (BFA, UWM) brings together bifurcated arrangements in which varied black and gray textures provide a backdrop for figurative elements. Images like hands, or biomorphic shapes that could be birds or gymnasts, take the foreground. These intriguing and eloquent ambiguities speak with echoes of Robert Rauschenberg.

Other artists use approaches that delve into pop culture or the power of images to suggest a small bit of a larger story. Caitlyn Doran (BFA, MIAD) makes mixed-media illustrations that imply interactions that carry both charm and ominous clouds. Conversely, Romano (Mano) Johnson, a Madison-based artist, offers monumental portraits of celebrities and pop culture icons that are animated by a free-form play of flat space and use of light-catching materials like glitter.

As might be expected, personal histories also play a part of these artists’ lives. This is most clearly represented by Brian James Bartlett (MFA, UW-Madison) and Kevin Wrencher (MIAD). Bartlett uses vintage family photographs as a starting point, but the addition of painted eyes, teeth, birds, dots and other details transports them into the realm of dreams and familial psycho-drama. A case in point is a picture of a sibling trio titled “Malevolent Spirits.”

Wrencher’s large, multidimensional canvases address his examination of identity in light of emotions surrounding his mother. Her death when he was a sophomore in college was an experience that profoundly affected his work. Each of his large scale pieces, such as “Even When I’m Gone,” deal with his sense of dissociation from his family and the lost woman who gave him life. The combination of black and bright colors, religious symbols, and collaged elements such as eyes comes together on a monumental scale in a highly personal catharsis.

These artists are in the formative stages of their careers, and their work often provides reference points for personal stories and influences. Young and Erie, presented at a well-established venue like Portrait Society Gallery, does a great service to these artists by offering a deservedly professional venue for their work.

Young and Erie continues through Aug. 28 at Portrait Society Gallery (207 E. Buffalo St., fifth floor).

UPCOMING

‘Sam Kindler:

Interpersonal Relations’

The Ski Club, 3172 N. Bremen St.

Opening reception Aug. 12, 9–10:30 p.m.

In case you missed it during the Riverwest 24 bicycle race in late July, Ski Club is providing an encore of Sam Kindler’s installation of telephones, pillows and a video projection at Ski Club. It was a bonus stop on the route, open 2–4 a.m. More than 200 people visited.

‘Arrange & Inhabit’

The Lunchbox, 731 E. Center St.

Opening reception Aug. 19, 7–10 p.m.

Presented by the After School Special curatorial collective, this exhibition delves into ideas of the domestic space and the display of art as predicated by the formal art world. A la Carte also debuts. It’s a pop-up shop with artist-designed consumables.