Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Fear Factors

“You will be creeped out.”

This was the promise Madison Museum of Contemporary Art curator of collections Rick Axsom made me as we set up a time to discuss the museum’s newest exhibition, Something Wicked This Way Comes.

He didn’t disappoint.

As Axsom took me through a visual tour of the paintings, prints, photographs and other works in the show, I encountered more than my fair share of evil, scary, ghoulish, disturbing and, yes, very creepy imagery.

Surprisingly, the nearly one hundred works in the exhibition come from the museum’s permanent collection. “Who would have thought there’d be so much evil?” Axsom asked with a laugh.

A few years back, as Axsom and a colleague were reviewing the museum’s collection of works on paper, they realized a good portion was of a menacing nature. So MMoCA decided to create a show highlighting the work, naming the show after a line from Shakespeare’s MacBeth.

Drawing upon works from the early twentieth century to the present, Something Wicked demonstrates how evil is understood and represented by modern and contemporary artists. Furthermore, instead of exploring evil through a religious lens, taking a secular approach focusing on “the horrors of political history, the monstrous acts of the sociopath and the inner torments of the mind,” according to the museum.

It’s fascinating to see the breadth with which artists depict this single concept.

A few works are slightly whimsical, in the scary-but-fun vein of Halloween, according to Axsom. A good example is Chris Vassel’s untitled image of death skeleton. Standing in a furry coat in a snowstorm, the chilly guy is someone you can almost feel sympathy for.

Yet other artists offer heart-wrenchingly horrible scenes, such as K├Ąthe Kollwitz’s etching in which a personification of death is ripping a mother away from her child or a series of photographs by Larry Clarke showing teenage heroin addicts.

Some pieces in the show reveal human-beast hybrids. The idea of nature gone awry was popular in the aftermath of World War II, when the threat of nuclear holocaust was a reality, Axsom said. In colorful works, evil military men have animal traits, women become pigs and men have the faces of birds.

But the collection I found the most frightening was a dream series of photographs by Arthur Tress. For his book, The Dream Collector, Tess interviewed children about their dreams and nightmares. He then constructed a few nightmare scenarios and had the very kids who dreamt them pose in the scenes for photos. A hockey player crouching over a steamy street gate is certainly unsettling but the image that unnerved me shows a hooded figure clutching a child on an empty street flanked by barren trees. I’m all for facing fears, but the kid who showed up for this photo shoot is a lot braver than I’ll probably ever be.

As we examined the works, Axsom raised intriguing questions about humans’ attraction to disturbing images, dangerous stories and scary movies. These and other ideas will be discussed in lectures and programs held in conjunction with the show, he said.

But one thing’s for sure: We’re all scared of something. And chances are you’ll find—and have the chance to confront—your fear at this exhibition.  

Something Wicked This Way Comes runs through April 12 at MMoCA, 227 State St. For more information, call 257.0158 or visit

Images top to bottom are an untitled work by Chris Vasell, Birds of Heaven by Robert Lostutter and Hockey Player by Arthur Tress.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

February Artist: A Matter of Perspective

A lifelong Madisonian, Dagny Quisling Myrah knows the ins and outs of the city, its neighborhoods urban, suburban and rural. But in her years as an oil painter, Myrah has come to find interesting angles and vantage points from which to depict her city.

In an exhibition at Grace Chosy Gallery February 6–28, her landscapes range from rural to urban to suburban. And while always vibrantly colorful, they offer new ways of looking at Madison, whether at night, from high up or through the absence of people.

Seeing an Edward Hopper exhibition in Chicago last year inspired Myrah to start painting night scenes. She drove around Madison discovering compositions and subjects she’d normally pass by without noticing.

One result of this experiment is a painting of a Monroe Street storefront. “Actually, what I was looking for was people at night,” Myrah says. But when she saw four mannequins lit up in the window looking as though they were ready for a night on the town, she knew she’d found her subject.

Other paintings—such as scenes showing a white house and the Bartell Theatre—came about after visiting a friend’s condo on the Capitol Square. “When night fell, the entire sidewalk below lit up with people,” she says. The high vantage point became a new way to depict architecture most commonly seen from street level.

Also in the exhibition at Grace Chosy are natural landscapes, such as a conservancy where Myrah likes to walk. And in a series of suburban scenes, her goal was to capture places where people had just been but no longer were, such as a chair in a yard where someone had just been sitting.

Such paintings made Myrah wonder where the people had gone and what had brought them to the spot on the first place. “It was fun,” she says. “It kind of made me want to be a short-story writer.”

Myrah hopes her paintings resonate with her fellow Madisonians. “I always hope I’ve picked a subject they’re familiar with and have enjoyed as much as I have,” she says. “I hope to give little snapshots of the city.”

Images are by Dagny Quisling Myrah and courtesy of Grace Chosy Gallery.

IN THE MAGAZINE: The February issue of Madison Magazine comes out tomorrow. Here’s some of the arts content you’ll find within the pages:
• A roundup of local radio DJs’ favorite love songs—just in time for Valentine’s Day.
• A column on a store carrying minimalist and beautiful children’s toys by associate/style editor Shayna Miller (and check out her Window Shopping blog)
• A profile on local jazz royalty Jan Wheaton.
• A poem by Mary Ellen Gabriel on the month of February.
• Our monthly Overtones section with picks on the can’t-miss performances, concerts and exhibitions taking place in February.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Source of Hope

Throughout Barack Obama’s campaign, several words became practically synonymous with the president-elect. “Change,” certainly. But also “hope.”

Hope is what Obama represents for Marilyn O’Brien—and she knows a thing or two about the word.

Starting in 1993, a string of injuries and accidents over the course of fourteen years left the Madison-area artist with brain damage and injuries in her back, hand and hip. Doctors told her she may never be able to paint again, but through rehab—and a good deal of hope—she’s continued making art.

O’Brien paints a wide range of subject matter, including Brett Favre, landscapes and spiritual images. And she’s finishing up a series on U.S. presidents that includes Obama.

As inauguration day approached, O’Brien took some time to answer a few questions about her path, her art and her connection to our newest president.

How and why did you become an artist?

I was an artist with a camera when I was thirteen years old. When my father died I didn’t know what to do to get past the grief. I knew I could take a picture but he wasn’t here anymore and I just wondered if I could paint. I didn’t have any idea how to paint. The grief was so overwhelming. One day I picked up a pencil and just sketched my dad.

I then painted it and my mom was upset because it looked identical to him. I was humbled by her perception of my work. My parents were especially fine people and whatever I did/do is a reflection on them, but my halo isn’t perfect. My big brother, Warren … and his wife, Rae, kept encouraging me in what a fine artist I am. I had a way to handle my emotions.

What is your typical subject matter?

I have no idea what I am going to paint until I feel something about a subject from deep within … I try to paint uplifting things to make people smile when they view my work or relate to it somehow. I want the world to relax when they see what I can do. Or to think to paint with bright colors. I really have a hard time answering why I paint. I just feel something and I paint it if I feel it deep enough.

What inspired you to create portraits of presidents?

I didn’t feel our country was patriotic enough and should know about the work/history of our forefathers. These great men are the basis for this wonderful country. I did President Abraham Lincoln first. When he was done I just decided to do all of them. This is a wonderful country and my grandfather and father went through the rigors of Ellis Island and that shouldn't be forgotten. They came here honestly and worked hard to raise their families and I wanted to show in sketch, painting and story how they accomplished this. I wanted to show that 9/11 shouldn’t ever be forgotten—and how dare they—this is my country. My father and grandfather as our presidents worked hard to make this country free for you and me.

What does the most recent election mean to you?


Tell me about your painting of President Obama.

I just liked painting him. He has a beautiful smile and when I was painting him I felt good. He was very easy to sketch and paint.

What do you hope to express or share with viewers through your work?

My paintings are an exploration of observation and storytelling. Sometimes the inspiration comes quickly and other times it resides in my mind for some time. My inspirations are my feelings with regard to a subject.

Whether I capture the mental image or the digital photograph of a subject, I first sketch the picture and then use oil paint to explore a variety of color contrasts and depth to give substance and meaning to my work. I start with a blank canvas, which allows the completed piece to be a reflection of my intelligence, research, hope, values and trust in myself and God. The end result is my mind, heart and soul expressing themselves.

I continue to work on my style that merges personal experience with images of world peace in order to bridge the gaps in humanity to build a stronger foundation built on compassion, inspiration and faith. My use of variance and relevant subject matter provide an overall sense of peace and empathy between myself and the viewer.

Images from top to bottom are of Barack Obama, Andrew Johnson, John Kennedy and Warren Harding. All are courtesy of Marilyn O’Brien. (Additional works can be found on her website.) 

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Good for the Heart

The holiday festivities are over and the reality of a long winter is setting in. Fortunately Troy Trout knows what we need: a lift-our-spirits, warm-our-hearts romantic comedy.

And that’s exactly what the director is serving up with Strollers Theatre’s production of Apartment 3A.

The play centers on Annie, a public-television fundraiser who’s just endured a bad breakup and given up on love as a result. But whether she’s ready for it or not, two men in her life—a neighbor and a coworker—are bent on nursing her back to emotional health.

The Strollers team purposely chose the play to run in the middle of winter. And it may not come as a surprise to learn a fellow Midwesterner—albeit a pretty famous one—wrote the play. Jeff Daniels, the actor of The Purple Rose of Cairo, Dumb & Dumber, Escanaba in da Moonlight and Good Night, and Good Luck fame, wrote the play for his Purple Rose Theatre Company in Chelsea, Michigan.

While Daniels sets the play in “a city of some size in the Midwest,” Strollers decided to specify the city as Madison for its production. However, the three lead actors are newcomers to both Strollers and the Bartell Theatre, Trout says. “They’re all first-timers,” he says.

The play fits nicely within Strollers’ preference for producing a wide variety of shows each season. But Apartment 3A is a bit racier than some of the company’s other plays. “It’s a pretty sexy show,” he says, “a little more titillating than what Strollers typically does.”

And the play has plenty else going for it, Trout says. “It has great lines, set-ups and situations, and quirky characters. But it’s really about her journey back to life. I think people will really walk away with a heartwarming story.”

Apartment 3A runs January 8–31 at the Bartell Theatre, 113 E. Mifflin St. Performances are Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., and Saturdays and 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Tickets are $15. 661-9696 x2,

Photo—featuring David Neueser as Elliot, Sarah O’Hara as Annie and Kamal Marayati as Donald—by Colm McCarthy.