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  • Writer's pictureElisabeth Gasparka

Discover Multitudes Within Contemporary Painting at 50 Paintings at the Milwaukee Art Museum

50 Paintings brings the Milwaukee area a groundbreaking survey exhibition that invites viewers to make contact with this moment in painting  

An image of one of the galleries, with contemporary paintings and a bench
50 Paintings at the Milwaukee Art Museum

Co-curated by Margaret Andera, the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Senior Curator of Contemporary Art and Michelle Grabner, the Crown Professor and Senior Chair of the Painting and Drawing Department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 50 Paintings is an exhibition of paintings on view in the Bradley Family Gallery featuring works made in the last five years from painters all over the world, including Milwaukee’s own Peter Barrickman

The exhibition is not discursive about what painting is—in fact—by design, you'll find very limited expository text within the galleries. The absence of a thesis is an invitation for viewers to look closely, to see and to wonder at how painting operates within and across the diverse works. 

Unlike in many exhibitions mounted at the Milwaukee Art Museum, there are no artists positioned as “masters," but rather, this exhibition presents a collective of living, working artists who have engaged with the lineage of painting and art history and are responding in a myriad of ways. Michelle Grabner describes the show as “putting forward a pluralistic field of possibility,” rather than a curatorial conclusion. As such, the organization of works refrains from formal categorizations or themes, and trusts in the audience’s ability to interpret what they see. 

A contemporary painting called Directional Hinge by Matt Connors
Matt Connors, Directional Hinge, 2022

“This exhibition is resisting some of those categories. They are there—but we really want the audience to think about those connections; and to break down something that we can identify completely as Abstraction, or something that’s Portraiture or something that’s Expressionistic, and start seeing connections,” said Grabner. “The difference is obvious, but now it’s time to start seeing the connection.” 

Co-curator Margaret Andera reflected on the methodologies within painting that have been employed across art history and within the works. 

“There are connections between works, that maybe don’t appear to have connections at first," said Andera. "But as you start walking through and consider things within the language of painting, you'll see how a lot of the same conversations going on amongst these artists, and then you walk through the Bradley Collection, and you can see that conversation from generations ago,” she remarked. 

The works in 50 Paintings also fly in the face of what frequent Museum and gallery attendees might expect to see from a contemporary painting show. The paintings don’t span entire walls, or jut into space with three dimensional elements. Most of the works are relatively intimate in scale, making them approachable, like artworks you might encounter in a home collection.  

And the accessibility of the paintings extends to how they relate to one another. Hung together, they are in conversation in a way that fills the gallery space with a lively din of color, texture, form and energy. It feels a bit like the artists themselves have gathered here in Milwaukee; almost as if you’ve walked into a social hour in the space with them. Bios on the wall are little more than nametags, and you may not know much about their work or the context they are coming from. Each work doesn’t necessarily represent the artists’ overarching practice or canon, but more so is a glimpse into their perspectives on painting.  

You’re not imagining it if you sense the presence of the artists; many of them were in town for the opening: another feather in the cap for the organizers of the exhibition, and a move that weaves Milwaukee into the larger art world, and no doubt sparked connections and curiosity about the artistic community we have here.  

“It’s so important for the museum and Milwaukee,” said Grabner, on the subject of the artists attending the opening, funding their own travel. “(It) reminded us that the artists that we ended up selecting are embedded in and enthusiastic toward the language (of painting) itself. That they would come to a survey exhibition in Milwaukee, a regional place, to celebrate painting and not themselves.” 

While you may not love all of what you see in 50 Paintings, especially if you come with strong notions of what painting is or should be, the works each speak for themselves, representing schools of thought and artistic practice. The exhibition opens up the opportunity to commune with each artist, to infer some of what they have seen and how they think about painting itself. 

A woman stands in front of Lisa Yuskavage's painting Night Classes.
Lisa Yuskavage, Night Classes, 2020.

The exhibition’s place, adjacent to the Bradley Collection, is a special nod to the painters of the past who have influenced these artists, and the curators. Grabner cited in her exhibition opening night talk how proximity to the Bradley Collection of Modern art was a formative part of her experience studying painting at UWM’s Peck School of the Arts. Later, she would go on to teach one of the artists featured in the exhibition, Leslie Vance, (born in Milwaukee) at UW-Madison.  

Beyond building on the continued relevance and splendor of the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Bradley Collection, the show builds on the lineage of the Milwaukee Art Museum’s survey exhibitions of contemporary art. In 1997, the Milwaukee Art Museum presented 25 Americans, Paintings in the Nineties curated by then Curator Dean Sobel and mounted in the Baker/Rowland Galleries. The exhibition was Michelle Grabner’s first Museum show—a distinction that helped to solidify her career as an artist. Co-curator Andera was a curatorial assistant at MAM at the time.  

With this exhibition, Grabner is interested in drawing on a curatorial approach that was modeled for her early in her career by Sobel, whom she cites as a strong influence. According to Grabner, he was interested in how “practices that are happening locally can be in contact with practices that are happening around the world.” 

This instinct to gather painting perspectives from across the world comes at a time when painting itself seems to be flourishing within the art market.  

“We do not need to restore painting,” Grabner offered. “What we do need is to restore the conversation around it, we need to restore how we evaluate painting and not just through a market lens, and not just through traditional value assessment.” 

That the show is happening in Milwaukee, a place not known for having a robust art market like New York or Los Angeles, is intentional. 

Josephine Halvorson's painting Last Words.
Josephine Halvorson, Last Words, 2022.

“This conversation...if it happens farther away from the center of the marketplace, the more we can get momentum to get those conversations going. To re-think what value is. To have different conversations around what painting is,” said Grabner.  

The freestyle nature of the presentation of works within the show also creates space for some personal, more familiar interactions between painters.  

“Peter (Barrickman) is hanging next to Amy Sillman who was his teacher at Bard College,” reflected Grabner. “It’s not a master-student presentation, but how one can have a conversation with different generations... and to see that conversation move. Peter, who came back from Bard and based himself here, can continue that conversation here.” 

And Barrickman himself is continuing to influence the lineage of painting in Milwaukee—both through his practice, and through his teaching as a faculty member at MIAD. Read on for a Q and A with Barrickman, below.  

In 50 Paintings, we see how painting is evolving in real-time. So is the art of curation. Seeing only one painter represented from present-day Milwaukee has now inspired Grabner and John Riepenhoff of The Green Gallery and Sculpture Milwaukee to discuss collaborating on a forthcoming series of shows that will focus on gathering together regional painters, exclusively.  

You certainly don’t have to be a painter to appreciate 50 Paintings. But, it doesn’t hurt. To have the opportunity to lean in, to get lost in the different approaches to how to use paint and how it functions, is a privilege that will no doubt spark the many practicing artists who call Milwaukee home. One can’t help but wonder and imagine how Milwaukee painters might take up the charge to continue the conversation, responding to what they absorb from these works. 

“The language of painting and its history transcends the authority the artist,” said Grabner. “We are indebted to the language and we have a responsibility to evolve it, to understand its histories and to participate in its potential.” 

Caitlin Lonegan's Untitled.
Caitlin Lonegan, Untitled, 2022.

A black and white photo of Peter Barrickman's face and shoulders.
Milwaukee artist and educator Peter Barrickman. Photo courtesy the artist.

Q and A with Milwaukee Artist Peter Barrickman 

What has your relationship been with the Milwaukee Art Museum, across time?


“MAM is the art museum I grew up with. The Bradley, von Schleinitz, Haitian and folk collections were where I spent a lot of time being amazed by paintings. The museum was a fun place to be and between the kinetic sound sculptures, the immersive infinity chamber and the ice cream sandwich machine it had a funhouse vibe. They showed films in the afternoons and I remember seeing a great 16mm Karel Appel documentary in their screening room with carpeted benches. Also I saw a print of ‘Six Painters of the 80’s’ and a kind of hippy film called ‘Touch Clay’. Later I had a job there as a preparator and made many enduring friendships.” 

Michelle Grabner cites her own relationship with the Bradley Collection as a huge influence on her painting practice. How did your time, working as an art preparator with ongoing access to paintings and other artworks, inform your artistic practice? 

“Colleagues in different areas of the institution helped to shape the way that I approached making things at that time. For example, I remember seeing someone replicate a damaged antique frame by making fake worm holes with an awl and by staining and distressing the surface. It was interesting to see tools and techniques as a kind of theater used to inhabit an object’s physical character. It opened my eyes to all sorts of repair jobs I saw around the museum and how they were each a language that were related to painting.” 

A painting in blues and golds of two figures walking in an abstract pastoral field.
Peter Barrickman, Sleeping Dogs, 2021. Photo courtesy of the artist.

What does being a part of this grouping of artists from around the world mean to you? 

“It’s an honor to be included in this exhibition. If I could generalize, I think that painters are people who thrive in a community but they also need to be able to distance themselves. They all reach a point where they’re going to excuse themselves, shut the door on everyone and paint. This is sort of an insider/outsider position. You could also call it a cycle of choice. It’s funny to me and heartening being in a room full of painters who’ve never met but you already sort of know each other.” 

You've made an art career for yourself in Milwaukee. Can you reflect on how/why that was possible for you? Are there other influences beyond the Museum that have compelled you to make your life and work here? 

“My friends and family are the reasons I’m in Milwaukee. In the mid to late 90’s my work was driven by the energy around being in bands and going to shows and a relationship to film, performance and late night gathering. All of that social activity fueled my painting and created space for collaborations in other forms. Nowadays I’m much more of a morning person and I value the relative quiet of this city. I like the accessibility of nature and I prefer to make my paintings outside. I think the dynamism of extreme seasonal changes make Milwaukee feel like many different places within a single year. This definitely feeds my work.” 

How have you seen Milwaukee's artistic energy evolve since making a home here? How do you hope it evolves from here? 

“I’m thankful that more funding for the arts and artists have emerged in recent years. I would love to see new funding models that don’t require artists to compete with each other constantly. For the health and morale of our community I think artists need to feel their own value through meaningful support. We need to trust and empower the artists in our society by supporting them in doing whatever work they are called to do. I hope more artists will take responsibility for nurturing and working for each other in ways that are not symbolic but actually concrete. To this end, artist Kim Miller and I have started Mazzzagine Project. This is an initiative to facilitate new collaborations or connections between artists who have never met. These collaborations produce finished work and one of the goals is that artists get paid for their time. We recently finished the fourth edition of Live AV which was a project that paired filmmakers with sound artists. We are also producing and rereleasing artworks that we think are significant and underrecognized. We’ve just completed a vinyl remastering of the self-titled 2003 album by the Milwaukee duo Bamm Bamm which will soon be available for purchase through our Instagram @mazzzagineproject." 

Experience 50 Paintings, on view at the Milwaukee Art Museum until June 23, 2024.


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