Monday, November 20, 2017

Eugene Von Bruenchenhein at the Kohler Arts Center

If you've never been to the Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and you can get there by the end of the year, now is the time. The current set of exhibits, in honor of the museum's 50th anniversary, is a broad look at 20th-century outsider artists, particularly environment-builders.

One of the largest exhibits displays a wide range of work by Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, whom I don't remember hearing about before, or at least I know I haven't seen before.

The museum presented the first major retrospective of EVB’s work in 1984, the year after he died at age 83. It later “purchased a representative selection of works, its first major art acquisition, and now holds the largest collection of the artist’s oeuvre.” But they haven’t shown much, if any, of it during the 10 years or so I've been visiting once a year.

EVB was a "self-mythologizer," according to the accompanying text. He wanted to be recognized as a great artist, and experimented throughout his life with painting, photography, clay, and drawing. He also created inventions, cures for diseases, and grew plants, especially succulents.

He worked at a florist just out of high school in the late 1920s, then at a commercial bakery though the 1950s. He married at age 33 to Eveline Kalka, whom “he renamed Marie in honor of one of his favorite aunts.” (I have to say I wonder about the power dynamics within any couple where one of them feels he can rename the other one.)

They lived in Milwaukee, usually in financial straits, and — according to the museum's description — “perhaps because of it, their need for fantasy and escape was amplified. For the next forty years, their home was transformed into an astonishing art environment—though there were very few who experienced firsthand the incredible world the two generated."

I'm not including images of the photographs (almost all of Marie/Eveline), and not many of the paintings. I find his three-dimensional work, which started about 50 years into his life, more compelling

First, the bone chairs, which he sometimes called thrones. They were created 1965–70 and are made of chicken bones, paint, metal, adhesive, and varnish. EVB soaked the bones in ammonia, dried them in the stove, then sorted them by type for use. The museum has grouped a dozen-plus of the chairs on a wall:

After the chairs, he built a series of towers, inspired (I heard) by the Watts Towers:

Around the same time as the chairs, EVB began making ceramic crowns in plant form:

The crowns were created 1965–75.

In 1977, EVB began painting images of fantasy architecture:

He used a technique that involved dipping the edges of corrugated cardboard into paint, then printing it onto enameled sheets. “The resulting masses of upright forms display a lacy grid design that emulates building blocks, a pleasing solution for creating the illusion of the complexes of his new architectural age.” Here's a close-up of the texture he created this way:

There's a lot more than this in the EVB exhibit alone, not to mention all of the other artists currently on show in the building. So really — if you can get to Sheboygan, please do!

Here's one last item from the EVB exhibit... not art, but a bit of carving on the wall from his basement:

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