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Judy Ledgerwood

Because it’s so easy on the eyes and served up in a nicely digestible serving size, you might be tempted to breeze right through the new paintings survey at Milwaukee Art Museum.

But, “50 Paintings,” which opens Friday, Nov. 17 and continues through June 23 in the Bradley Family Gallery is like a fine wine or a great chef’s most heavenly creation.

It should be savored.

Included in the show – co-curated by artist and School of the Art Institute of Chicago Professor Michelle Grabner and MAM Senior Curator of Contemporary Art Margaret Andera – are works by 50 artists, including Cecily Brown, David Diao, Nicole Eisenman, Judy Ledgerwood, Amy Sherald, Jake Troyli, Carmen Neely, GaHee Park and Cinga Samson.

The artists represent eight countries – China, England, Germany, Iran, South Africa, South Korea, Spain and the U.S. – on four continents, and more than half are women. Each artist is presented by a single painting executed in the last five years.

“When we made that decision of 50 paintings won by each artist, the underscoring goal was to have visitors spend time; I mean really engage in slow looking at each painting individually,” Andera says. “The way that we've installed the exhibition is really not to imply connections, although you will see connections, it’'s laid out for you and every visitor to go through and really engage in each work individually.

“And as you do that and you come out the other end, hopefully you will be as excited about this moment painting as we are.”

The connections are often subtle, rarely jumping out at you and as the wayfinding signage guiding visitors to the exhibition exhorts, look at color, look for brushstrokes, consider pattern, consider the focal point.

The linkages, Andera stresses, are not only between works in “50 Paintings” – which is the museum’s first contemporary painting survey show since 1995’s “25 Americans” – but also with other works throughout the museum.

“There are connections between works that maybe don't appear to have connections at first, but as you start walking through and consider things within the language of painting, you’ll see how a lot of the same conversations are going on among these artists.

“And then you walk through the Bradley Collection and you could see that conversation from generations ago. Then you can walk all the way down to the Baker/Rowland exhibition to see the Bader exhibition that has Rembrandt. And you will recognize things there, too.”

Stylistically, the paintings run the gamut. There are portraits – a number of which, especially examples by Sherald, Troyli and Samson, are highlights – alongside abstract works, landscapes (check out April Gornik’s stunning study for a larger work, and Maureen Gallace’s quietly charming study of a small garage, for example) and interesting patterned and design-inspired works, like Raul Guerrero’s movie-poster-cum-political-statement, Ann Pibal’s striking GHSTBK3RED painted on aluminum and Judy Ledgerwood’s “Yummy Yum.”

Then there are the works so detailed it’s hard to imagine the time and patience required to complete them, especially Sarah Morris’ “Springpoint [Spiderweb]” and Xylor Jane’s “Dancing Bears.”

The patient, focused viewer will reap rewards as many of these paintings only reveal themselves slowly, with long, close-up (not too close, please) consideration.

“To ‘read’ a painting is to linger over its surface, explore its pictorial space, and engage with the artist’s imagination,” says Grabner, who also serves on the Sculpture Milwaukee board of directors and executive committee, and curated the 2021 Sculpture Milwaukee season.

“Rather than imposing a particular interpretation of a work on the viewer, our curatorial strategy for 50 Paintings welcomes open-ended explorations and personal responses. Our hope is that visitors will find connection, inspiration and a deeper appreciation for the broad range of contemporary painting practices.”

Because there are two entrances to the exhibition, the curators said they didn’t attempt to create the kind of flow that they might if the show had a single entrance and a specific path to the exit.

Here, someone can enter either side and have a different experience. I viewed it first in one direction and later in from the opposite end and I definitely recommend this, as it opens new vistas.

When you turn a corner from one direction, your eyes naturally land in a certain part of the space. Entering from the other side, they’ll land in a different spot and you’ll experience the space differently.

Even though the works are unchanged, you perspective is altered.

But, whichever door you choose, the show is vibrant and alive and bursting with color and ideas, and that’s to the credit of the artists, of course, but also to the curators.

“We made the choice of 50 paintings by 50 artists,” says Andera, “to really highlight and underscore all of the variety and the richness, richness of this moment in painting.”

Mission accomplished.

Written by  Bobby Tanzilo

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