‘Hus­band & Hus­band’ re­veals shared lives in art

Wisconsin Gazette - - Opinion - By Kat Kneev­ers Con­tribut­ing writer

A life in art is less an oc­cu­pa­tion and more a vo­ca­tion that em­braces all as­pects of one’s be­ing and time. It is an un­com­mon calling of de­vo­tion — and even more rare when shared by two part­ners.

Hus­band & Hus­band: Lon Michels and Todd Ol­son — at Por­trait So­ci­ety Gallery — is a gor­geous, vi­brant ex­hi­bi­tion that cel­e­brates life in art with mon­u­men­tal paint­ings rich in de­tail and symbolism. The works are fas­ci­nat­ing, and the lives of their mak­ers add to the ef­fect of this show.

Michels be­gan paint­ing when he was young, tak­ing af­ter his mother, who was an artist. Know­ing that the life of an artist has its de­mands of time, with many long hours in the stu­dio, he shared his love for art and paint­ing with Ol­son, who then took up the brush.


There are shared qual­i­ties in their work, with bril­liant pal­ettes and de­tailed works of symbolism, but each brings a dis­tinc­tive ap­proach. Some of the paint­ings bor­row from their life and the en­vi­ron­ment they’ve cre­ated for them­selves.

Of­ten they ad­dress the same sub­jects. Icarus and Daedalus is one de­picted by both artists, stem­ming from work­ing with live mod­els in the stu­dio. The role of Daedalus was taken on by Joseph Pabst, who with lov­ing coun­sel warns young Icarus of fly­ing too close to the sun, lest the wax con­struc­tion of his wings melt and he falls from the sky into the sea. It is a com­pas­sion­ate scene, with notes of hope and sal­va­tion. In Michels’ ver­sion, lu­mi­nous ha­los frame the fig­ures amid a rich back­ground of pat­terns, fo­liage and roses gen­tly fall­ing. Ol­son in­cludes shim­mer­ing stained glass, re­flect­ing a de­tail of the cou­ple’s home, as well as small notes of ar­chi­tec­ture and win­dows from which fig­ures look out­side. Their work in these com­po­si­tions, painted on large can­vases, is mys­ti­cal and myth­i­cal, draw­ing from archetypes and en­dur­ing sto­ries re­told with their mod­ern voices.

One of the trea­sures of the gallery is a room dec­o­rated to mir­ror their home. Pat­terns of leop­ard spots in pale, but­ter yel­low on mint green, and rich red on pink form the walls. The leop­ard print con­tin­ues over suits of ar­mor, vases and in­ter­pre­ta­tions of hunt­ing tro­phies meant to evoke French hunt­ing lodges. Paint­ings, of course, adorn the walls.

Michels and Ol­son travel ex­ten­sively, and rather than sim­ply tak­ing pho­to­graphs, the pair paint views side by side as part of their time in dif­fer­ent places. Jour­neys to Ecuador and through the An­des Moun­tains are part of the iconog­ra­phy, and when they paint on-site, crowds of on­look­ers of­ten sur­round them. Their views of beaches and har­bors, churches and vistas, take on a Fau­vist air, some­thing rem­i­nis­cent of Matisse’s early ex­pres­sion­ist work in the south of France. Land­scapes are col­or­ful in vivid pinks and blues, also re­call­ing Matisse’s sen­ti­ment about paint­ing and color as a ve­hi­cle to show how some­thing feels rather than sim­ply how it looks.


The most com­mon genre in the ex­hi­bi­tion is por­trai­ture. “Movie Di­rec­tors” is a new piece that shows the sub­jects, a man and a woman, loung­ing on a couch. The ti­tle is apt, since the sub­jects are in the film industry and made the movie Palm Swings, which is due in the­aters Oct. 3. Michels and Ol­son make a cameo ap­pear­ance. The paint­ing is char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally lush, full of pat­tern and dec­o­ra­tion to the ef­fect that the nude rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the seated fig­ures is an­cil­lary.

While the two artists work closely to­gether and share vis­ual sim­i­lar­i­ties in their work, sub­tle dis­tinc­tions are found. Ol­son’s “Por­trait of Lon 2” uses slightly broader, looser spa­ces to show his hus­band hold­ing their dog, Bazzy. He looks di­rectly ahead with large pris­matic eyes, and is sur­rounded by flow­ers, but­ter­flies and green­ery. On the pe­riph­ery, fig­ures of Bud­dha and Christ lean in pro­file with sub­tle whis­pers. It is a nod to Michel’s spir­i­tual na­ture, which also flows through his own work.

Though the at­mos­pheres in their paint­ings are glow­ingly col­or­ful and even dreamy, the foun­da­tion of their sub­jects is real life. Their art has a tan­gi­ble charisma, as though de­pict­ing the exuberant spirit through which Lon Michels and Todd Ol­son see the world.

Lon Michels’ “Icarus and Daedalus” (cropped).

Ca­dence: New Paint­ings by Tony Con­rad

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