Wisconsin Triennial 2016

Teaching Page

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Images from top to bottom: Portia Cobb, Performing Grace (video still), 2016. Video, duration variable; Sky Hopinka, Jáaji Approx. (video still), 2015. Video, 07:35 min.; Helen Lee, OMG, 2015. Neon, 64 x 20 in.; Romano Johnson, Ice Grey Eye, Snow Golden Angel, 2015. Acrylic and glitter on canvas, 40 x 30 in.; Michael Kautzer, The Blue Little Red Barn, 2015. Wood, AstroTurf, and mixed media, 70 x 52 x 70 in.; Lois Bielefeld, Wednesday: Willie Mae. 2013, from Weeknight Dinners, 2013–15. Color photograph, 25 x 36 in.; Suzanne Rose, Concrete batch plant (Cornell, WI), from Night Vision, 2015. Pigment print, 22 ½ x 34 in.; Amy Fichter, Black Tern (Chlidonias niger surinamensis), 2015. Archival Inkjet print, 22 x 40 in.; Brendan Baylor, 50 Million Acres, from Transmission Networks, 2016. Screenprint and coal dust on Mylar, 48 x 96 in.; TetraPAKMAN, About the future mA03/11 (Dreaming), 2016. Plastic structures and zip ties.

This teaching page is a resource to help you prepare your students for their visit to the 2016 Wisconsin Triennial and extend the discussion after your visit. The artists highlighted below offer examples of the diversity of art in the Wisconsin Triennial. More information on these and other Triennial artists may be found in the Artists section of the exhibition page. Video interviews of Portia Cobb, Sky Hopinka, Helen Lee, and T.L. Solien—each discussing how identity intersects with their work—can be found in the Tri Your Story section. The exhibition is on view at the museum through January 8, 2017.

THE ART

The 2016 Wisconsin Triennial is the current episode of MMoCA’s ongoing series of triennials and biennials that have been surveying Wisconsin’s contemporary art since 1978. The Triennial represents a longstanding tradition in the museum’s history while simultaneously contain freshness that imbues the exhibition with continued significance. It reflects the state of art in Wisconsin today, capturing the richness and variety creative expression and showcasing prevalent themes being addressed within the contemporary art world.

The Wisconsin Triennial is on view in the museum’s Lobby, State Street Gallery, Imprint Gallery, Main Galleries, and Rooftop Sculpture Garden through January 8, 2017, and features works by 34 individual artists and three pairs of artists working in collaboration. The museum’s curatorial staff selected new works of art by established and emerging artists through a rigorous review process, which involved a careful review of material submitted by more than 600 artists followed by visits to over 95 artist studios across the state.

The exhibition features site-specific sculptures and installations designed for distinct spaces within the museum, as well as completed pieces selected from artists’ existing bodies of work. Paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, sculpture, and video are among the media represented, reflecting the diversity of approaches artists undertake in their explorations of process and content. The included artworks address topical issues such as ecology and the consequences of environmental destruction, personal identity and its representation through visual storytelling, and artistic notions of place as it is experienced in their local, state, and world communities.

THE ARTISTS

Narrative

Portia Cobb is a video artist who produces short documentaries, experimental videos, and photographic essays about home and identity. She has recently been exploring her African American family history and her mother’s Gullah-Geechee culture from the Low-Country region of South Carolina. Cobb was interested in revealing how the abstract quality of “grace” might be embodied following tragic events such as a murder in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015 of nine African American Church members by a self-described white supremacist. In her video project, Performing Grace, her mother shells peas, which are an African American food staple in South Carolina, as a silent labor that gives expression to the quality of grace in moving from anger and sorrow to mercy and forgiveness.

Sky Hopinka is a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin and a descendent of the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians. He weaves his identity he into his videos about his tribal history and heritage. In the video Jáaji, Hopinka merges audio recordings of his father telling stories and singing traditional as well as new songs with footage of landscapes that the two men have separately travelled. He uses his tribal heritage language, Hočąk, to address his personal connection to his father.

Helen Lee creates glass and neon sculptures that express her discoveries about her cultural identity and its relationship with her Chinese-English bilingualism. She has said, “I am a 38 year old adult who speaks Chinese like a 5 year old. The family members with whom I once spoke Chinese have since passed away, rendering the language a silent aspect of my identity.” She has discovered that some expressions that she thinks of as typically American and contemporary are also used in Chinese, which she thinks of as a language that is old and associated with her ancestry. Her neon sculpture OMG expresses this interest in translation, and depicts the phrase “Oh my God!”

Romano Johnson grew up in Chicago and was continually drawing and painting, “always working for better ideas—blending colors, adding glitter, coming up with patterns.” His depictions of people or cars or spaceships are full of color and glitter and express his enthusiasm for life and art. He draws inspiration from the world around him, from watching television, reading comic books, looking at fashion and jewelry. His hand-painted clothing mimics his canvasses, adorned with bright and robust colors. His work blurs the line between fine art and pop culture.

Place

Michael Kautzer uses his background in architecture to build miniaturized versions of barns, cities, and railroads. His bright colors and simple shapes emphasize form but also express and inspire playfulness. The installation Blue Little Red Barn recalls the first architectural work Kautzer made, which was a dairy barn from a Cheerios box. Its simple shape and yellow color satisfied his desire to build. The dimensions of the four barns in Blue Little Red Barn are all related to each other. Each barn is approximately four times bigger than the one below it. Viewers are engaged by the unconventional color choices for such an iconic piece of rural architecture.

Lois Bielefeld’s photographic portraits capture customary activities and individual characteristics that bind people together. In her Weeknight Dinner series, Bielefeld examines the nightly ritual of eating a meal. Although all of her subjects engage in the same custom, each photograph reveals nuances of individual homes and possessions and personalities. Bielefeld says she has always been fascinated by what people’s habits and personal spaces reveal. “I am very interested in people’s habits, rituals, and the way their space reflects who they are.” Her photographs are rich with objects, color, and details that inspire a feeling of familiarity for viewers who share the routines of meals and sleep.

Suzanne Rose makes photographs of Wisconsin towns and rural areas where there is little light pollution. She works between the hours of sunset to sunrise using artificial light as well as, on occasion, twilight or moonlight, in remote rural locations with little or no light pollution. Lee says that she has been afraid of the dark all her life, for years not being able to fall asleep easily. As an adult she has purposely worked in the dark and in a darkroom for developing her images and says she has become “braver and braver over the years.” She always asks permission to shoot at sites and in doing so continually meets new people in her community and hears their stories.

Environmental Challenges

Amy Fichter photographs scientific specimens of bird species that have been classified as endangered, threatened, or of special concern in Wisconsin’s Western Coulees and Ridges Ecological Landscape, of which her home county of Dunn is a part. She makes her photographs as meditations on what will be lost to extinction with hope that her depictions of beauty in the natural world will be a spur to people’s desire to save it. Fichter was raised on a farm in southwest Iowa, where she learned to be an intent observer of the stages of growth, death, and rebirth in the natural world. She teaches at the University of Wisconsin–Stout in Menomonie.

Brendan Baylor, who teaches at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin, grew up in the Pacific Northwest, influenced by living next to natural wetlands. He creates prints, installations, and digital and sound artworks that explore the economic and political motivations behind land management practices, including the effects of mining on forests and native animal species. For example, he has examined the effects of clear-cutting native forests in Wisconsin by transferring an historical image of clearcutting by painstakingly cutting into wood and then printing onto paper to compare the meticulous ruthlessness of the historical clearcut with the rigid depiction of the image he carved onto each panel. He also has explored the effects of coal mining on native fish species in Kentucky and connected these effects with his own use of the electricity that has been generated from the burning of coal His prints for the Wisconsin Triennial include a series depicting endangered native fish species of Kentucky and Tennessee that are threatened by mining, using coal dust as a medium.

TetraPAKMAN is committed to environmental and social change and creates sculptures and installations using materials that most people might consider trash. He uses his work and his interactions with the individuals who participate with him in its construction, to educate people about environmental issues. TetraPAKMAN’s project for the Wisconsin Triennial involves upper elementary and middle school students participating in MMoCA’s ArtZone program in October, November, and December. The students are working with the artist using discarded plastic medical pipette holders as sculptural elements to add to his Triennial installation over the course of the exhibition. Each ArtZone participant selects eleven of the colorful, rectangular shapes and form them into a pattern. These individual elements will be ultimately joined together to create a larger, collective design for TetraPAKMAN's installation.  

KEY IDEAS

  • Diversity of form, style, materials, processes, and subject matter
  • Examination of environmental loss and degradation
  • Visual narratives of social rituals and bonds
  • Explorations of social and familial influences on personal identity

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. Contemporary art is characterized by its diversity of form, subject, style, materials, or concepts addressed. In what ways is this diversity reflected in the works of art discussed here and featured in the 2016 Wisconsin Triennial?
  2. Contemporary artists often use their artistry to explore societal or cultural issues that are dominating daily experiences of people in present-day America. Portia Cobb’s video of her elderly mother in Performing Grace, Brendan Baylor’s woodcutprint 50 Million Acres of a clear-cut and burned fieldand Amy Fichter’s photographs of endangered birds are examples of this style of working. What are your thoughts about using issues or problems as the subject matter of art? In what ways does this seem to be an approach to art that is of our time, or contemporary? How can looking at and discussing art be a useful step toward addressing these concerns?
  3. In Helen Lee’s neon sculpture OMG and Sky Hopinka’s video Jáaji, family history and aspects of personal identity are represented with artistic materials and technique. How is this different from what might be typically considered the subject matter of art? What might be some reasons an artist would explore their own relationships and sense of who they are in their works of art? What makes their art appeal to others with different life experiences?
  4. Amy Fichter’s images of endangered birds and Brendan Baylor’s images of endangered fish species represent the effects of environmental pressures including habitat loss and pollution due to destructive mining practices. What are some of the factors affecting the survival of wildlife in Wisconsin? What are some of the actions that people are taking to slow or reverse these effects?
  5. Portia Cobb’s video project Performing Grace, Lois Bielefeld’s photographs of people eating dinner, and Sky Hopinka’s videos of his father singing traditional Ho Chunk songs are examples of narratives of common rituals in daily life. What are some routines or rituals that you and people in your family share? Can you think of any rituals that are tied to the place where you live or the ethnicity of your family background? What are they? What might be some ways that these kinds of rituals contribute to a person’s identity or sense of who they are?
  6. TetraPAKMAN uses discarded materials and involves other people in creating his installations. What are your thoughts about inviting other people into the process of making an individual’s art works?
  7. Michael Kautzer works with the geometrical shape of barns that is so recognizable to Wisconsin viewers, but he uses surprising colors, and Suzanne Rose finds familiar places in rural Wisconsin that acquire a surprising mystery when photographed at night. One of the compelling aspects of art is its tendency to invite viewers to see familiar things in fresh and unexpected ways. What are some other surprising works of art have you discovered in the 2016 Wisconsin Triennial exhibition? What types of art have you made that transformed something familiar into something new or different?

RESOURCES

On the Artists:

2016 Wisconsin Triennial exhibition page
MMoCA Collects
 Introduction to Modern and Contemporary Art

Art Methods:

Sun-sensitive dye printing (process used by Katy Cowan)
Wikipedia page for cyanotype (process used by Linda Levinson)
Needle-punching (process used by Chris Rowley)
Irish Museum of Modern Art: What is Installation Art? booklet (Carol Emmens, Nicholas Frank, David Harper, Helen Hawley, Shana McCaw & Brent Budsberg, Meg Mitchell)
Walker Art Center: mnartists blog on film and video, "Crosscuts" (Ted Brusubardis, Portia Cobb, Stephen Hilyard, Sky Hopinka, Joseph Mougel)

Context:

2016 Wisconsin Triennial exhibition page
WNDR: explore Wisconsin's biodiversity
WDNR: Wisconsin Endangered and Threatened Species Laws and List
NASA.gov: What Are Climate and Climate Change?
Ho-Chunk Nation website
Article: Museum of Neon Art reopens in Glendale, CA
Catalogue for the exhibition "Emily Arthur: Endangered" at Occidental College
Spatula & Barcode's Foodways project