David Lenz's 'Sam and the Perfect World.'
While there is really no such thing as "Wisconsin art" - in terms of a specific style or movement - we'd all be in a sorry state without Wisconsin artists and the museum professionals and donors who are also an important part of the cultural ecosystem.
And although local audiences get regular chances to see what contemporary Wisconsin artists are doing through shows like the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art's Triennial and the periodic showcase of art faculty work at the Chazen, it's rare that we're given the long view, a sense of Wisconsin visual art over time.
Therein lies the importance and the appeal of the James Watrous Gallery's excellent show with a dauntingly long name, "Building a Visual Arts Legacy: The Wisconsin Visual Art Lifetime Achievement Awards." As the title indicates, it is connected with the annual awards given to artists, patrons, arts administrators and educators.
The awards are jointly sponsored by the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters (which runs the Watrous Gallery); the Museum of Wisconsin Art, located in West Bend; and Wisconsin Painters & Sculptors/Wisconsin Artists in All Media.
Although the Watrous Gallery occupies a relatively small space on Overture's third floor and the installation is by no means crowded, there's a lot to see. Each work is accompanied by a brief bio of the artist, detailing his or her importance to Wisconsin's cultural scene.
In the early years, it's interesting to see just how strong Wisconsin's German roots and connections to European art academies still are. Take, for example, Carl von Marr. Although Milwaukee-born, he left at 17 to study in Germany and spent most of his career there, eventually becoming director of the Royal Academy of Art in Munich. Other artists, such as Richard Lorenz, were German-born but emigrated to the U.S. and continued to exhibit widely in both countries. While known as a fine artist specializing in Western themes, Lorenz got his start with a Milwaukee company specializing in panorama painting, making large backdrops for theatrical presentations and other entertainments in the years well before film, radio and TV became dominant.
On a more contemporary note, the show is full of treats like Milwaukee painter David Lenz's "Sam and the Perfect World," his 2005 portrait of his son in a rural landscape. What makes Lenz's work remarkable is how he combines incredible technical skill with psychological acuity. What Lenz does is anything but a cold exercise in near-photorealism; his work, while precise, has heart and humanity.
Lenz portrays his son, who has Down syndrome, beneath a vast expanse of sky taking up more than half of the picture. Sam looks directly at the viewer, squinting just a little in the bright sun. Rolling farmland is behind him and, for this perfect moment, Sam's the epicenter of this lush landscape.
In between the early Wisconsin artists and the contemporary ones, there's a lot to see, including a Frank Lloyd Wright architectural sketch, a John Steuart Curry lithograph and work by renowned former UW faculty members such as the late surrealist John Wilde.
Whether you're interested in the historical angle or just want to feast your eyes, this show offers plenty to hold your interest - and make you proud to live here.