Conversation: Deb Brehmer and Laurie Winters on
Wondering which Wisco artists to watch? Just ask Laurie Winters, the director of the Museum of Wisconsin Art, or Deb Brehmer, the owner of the Portrait Society Gallery. The two have a lot in common. Both women left academia to work more closely with artists. Both spent stints at the Milwaukee Art Museum. And both have devoted their lives to championing the careers of talented local artists. We invited them to talk shop at Debra’s Third Ward gallery. The conversation, and wine, flowed freely.
LW: I think the art scene here is pretty animated. There's a younger group of artists – Shane McAdams, Keith Nelson, Peter Barrickman and Shane Walsh – who sort of live between Milwaukee, Cedarburg and New York. So they're here part of the year and in New York part of the year. And there's this nice sort of collaborative energy. I admire what they're doing. I think it's really smart, though it'll be interesting to follow them and see whether that makes a difference on how successful they're going to be in going to the national level.
DB: We also have more self-taught artists in Wisconsin than pretty much any other state in the country. And that has supported other self-taught artists. You know, generations support subsequent generations, like Rosemary Ollison. [Editor's note: Ollison is a self-taught, Milwaukee-based artist. Her largescale, multi-media works were featured in a solo exhibition at the Portrait Society Gallery in 2016.] There's a theory that it's like our exclamation point on winters, this kind of idea of work ethic, self-made ... man identity, kind of. I don't know. That is something to characterize Wisconsin too.
LW: I was a curator of European art for 17 years and had little experience with the Wisconsin art scene. Honestly, that lack of familiarity has benefited me. I was able to assume my current role with fresh eyes and have never felt constrained by what happened in the past. Would you say you've seen changes in art production in the last five or 10 years?
DB: I’m seeing more people working in clay and fabric and video and film and mixtures of them all. A photographer we represent, Lois Bielefeld, often incorporates video in her exhibitions and even built a full-sized, double-stall bathroom for a sound installation. The young painter Skully Gustafson transformed the entire gallery, included collaborative photographs and built a stage within the space. Really, even Rosemary Ollison – she's painting, she's weaving, she's making quilts, she's making jewelry, she's making clothes, she's working with all these materials. I think we're just seeing more and more evidence that an artist isn't going to be like this purist, kind of like, "I'm a sculptor, I'm a painter, I'm a this." More people are going to be doing shows that represent diverse practices.
LW: I’m really excited by artists who are pushing traditional boundaries or who work collaboratively. Beth Lipman is a prime example of the former. Wisconsin is often cited as the home of the studio glass movement and Beth has taken that movement to a new level of definition. Another example is the work of Shana McCaw and Brent Budsberg – a married duo whose video production often evolves into complicated large-scale installations.
DB: It feels like the toolbox is now wide open. Artists are being asked to move into these different territories.
Deb Brehmer (left) and Laurie Winters at the Portrait Society Gallery