It’s spring! Maybe you’ve noticed? The daffodils are peeking through and the shorts-all-year guys look a little more comfortable. To celebrate the long-awaited vernal shift, we’ve assembled a visual arts roundup to coincide with our other list of spring events around Milwaukee. These five shows will keep your art docket satisfied until the next Gallery Night (April 19 and 20) rolls around.

Saint Kate – The Arts Hotel
Meg Lionel Murphy, “Ecstasy And Escape At The Swan Song Motel”
Until April 7

Meg Lionel Murphy, “You Are No Longer The Little You, The Separate You, The Small You, The Doormat You, You Are Monstrous, You Move Galactical”

Meg Lionel Murphy has overtaken one gallery at Saint Kate with paintings, sculpture, and an installation all orbiting a fictional place called the Swan Song Motel. Taken from her own family experience of owning a motel in rural Wisconsin and exploring the space between innocence and horror, “Ecstasy and Escape at the Swan Song Motel” is ripe with symbolism. Murphy’s subjects are on the run from their lives, sawed off from their autonomy but not entirely hopeless.

Even without context from the writings associated with this show, these paintings convey domestic violence just outside the frame, not far in the past from the narratives playing out in double bedrooms and around the little kidney-shaped pool. These are women who have no connection to one another aside from their need for an immediate refuge from domestic violence. Motels are often used as interstitial loci. They are only comfortable enough to invite brief, necessary stays; hostile enough to encourage one to quickly and quietly move along.

“You Are No Longer The Little You, The Separate You, The Small You, The Doormat You, You Are Monstrous, You Move Galactical,” depicts three women of monstrous size looming above the motel and nearby steeple, reclining into the road and surrounding rural acres. One squats and holds her gaze level at the viewer, a baby hooked to her breast. The other two are drawn to each other in a lean while a blue vine connects them at the nipples and from between their teeth. The sky is the color of a Los Angeles sunset—that intense and polluted orange. It is easy to miss the two small knights on horseback below their feet, who charge on toward the blooming roses trailing along the right corner.

There’s a bit of Bruegel echoed in these images, a bit of medieval logic to the physical incongruences between the women and their surroundings. These motifs play out across many of Murphy’s paintings and, taken as a whole exhibition, coalesce into a sophisticated series by an artist who knows exactly what she wants.

Portrait Society Gallery
Oscar Gruber, “Persistent Practice: 400 Portraits From The Art Students League”
Until May 11

Oscar Gruber

Oscar Gruber’s 400 paintings are on display, unframed, up and down the Portrait Society Gallery walls, immersing the viewer in a productive decade in one artist’s 90-year-long life. Generated at The Art Students League of New York, a long-running Manhattan studio that, since the late 1890s, has trained artists and cultivated artistic sensibilities that often became entire movements in art history, this selection from Gruber’s body of work was amassed one three-hour live drawing session at a time.

The title “Persistent Practice” is certainly appropriate as a descriptor for what the exhibition offers. Gruber’s portraits demonstrate a skilled understanding of the human form, capturing light, shadow, and contour in expressive strokes that are not overly rendered or infused with subtext. Without titles to individuate each painting, the series presents itself honestly: as exercises, as practice born from passion and aptitude. It’s easy to forget that artists can be sustained by something other than ego, exposure, and stylistic evolution towards the evergreen and avant-garde. What drives these rare breeds is the love of practice and the satisfaction of executing work with clear technical ability.

Gruber’s paintings are distinctive and lovely in their technique, preserving a midcentury essence that has continued to influence portrait artists up to contemporary times. To honor that continuum, the curators have included work by Wisconsin artists practicing life drawing today, as well as work by Gruber’s son Mathew, who recently passed away at 100 years old.

The Alice Wilds
Shane Walsh, “Nights And Weekends”
Until April 20

Shane Walsh, “Nerve Twin”

If you are walking around in adulthood with core memories from the environment at Waukesha Skateland or the Rainbow Road course in Mario Kart, you should go see Walsh’s abstract paintings for these evocations alone.

Aside from the nostalgic colors and patterns these paintings employ, Walsh’s large images present urban fragments flattened into collages that layer architecture atop radiating light and movement. There is a quality to “Nerve Twin” that suggests driving on a rainy night, when oncoming headlights cluster and diffuse through water and reflect in feathered streaks along the road. Or the way neon lights and disco balls cast dreamy auras on waxy wooden rinks. Other gestures echo urban vandalism and tag-making, or tag cover-ups, inventing and suppressing communication by way of the city’s coded languages. These images speculate what urban architecture becomes through public interaction, and how the artist can interpret ongoing stimuli and subcultures occurring all at once.

Var Gallery (2nd Street)
Group exhibition, “Abundance: Through the Lens of Black Women”
Until April 5

Monjoa Likine, “Spring’s Final Breath”

This exhibition centers photography as the primary medium and the word “abundance” as the prompt the artists used to examine their subjects. Featuring works from nine Midwestern Black women throughout the gallery, this tidy display at Var’s 2nd Street gallery includes a mix of portraits and cityscapes loosely connected by the overarching theme

Abundance manifests in many ways here, including as motherhood in Shanoaleigh Marson’s series of women holding infants and wading up to their pregnant bellies in a body of water, as stretch marks in Glenda Mitchell’s black and white diptych, and as fading sunlight in Isioma Okoro-Osademe’s sunset trio. Of particular note are Monjoa Likine’s two high contrast “Spring’s Final Breath -1 & 2,” which beautifully present their subjects with leafy flairs that hide one face and crown one head. The colors are deeply satisfying and command the space they occupy with primary swaths that seep from the frame. Likewise, the aforementioned portraits by Marson are earthy and soft, the subjects and environment captured in a similar palette that bleeds all intensity away from the early days of motherhood.

Be sure to head upstairs for a bonus show by another group of artists as well, but certainly don’t miss all the talent displayed on the first floor at this essential Walker’s Point venue.

Real Tinsel
Heimo Wallner, “Not Again”
Until March 30

Real Tinsel does not look like a typical gallery. Squashed between a resale store and a halal meat market, this recessed storefront appears to have once been a bridal boutique on Mitchell Street. Now, the simplified gallery is lined with ink drawings hung at eye level, each spaced less than an inch from the image to its left and right. This should give you a sense of just how immersive Heimo Wallner’s solo show is within the compact space.

Heimo Wallner

The cumulative impact is amplified once up close and personal with the work, most of which depict gangly bald figures with furrowed brows and empty eyes engaged in activities that run a spectrum between artistic (a nude man photographing a nude woman with a dog) to medical (a nude man leans above a splayed book/vagina, displays the image for a nude female on an office chair, underneath a framed diploma). Hard as you might try, there does not seem to be a single continuous narrative arc across the many drawings, only recurring characters and vignettes from absurd and spontaneous moments in their fictional lives. There are many references to sexual acts and exaggerated body parts, and images where the banal becomes morbid through Wallner’s interpretive strokes.

Once this show comes down, the work will move downstairs to the flat files once renovations are completed in April and join ranks with more than a dozen recognizable names.

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About The Author

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Annie Raab has written about visual art and culture for print and online pubs since 2014. She has a BFA in fine art and an MFA in writing, loves pool, cardio, and tiny apples. She lives in Milwaukee, partially on a sailboat.