Just Down The Road A Piece...

Although there is no shortage of things to do in Chicago, occasionally it's time for a change of pace and some new scenery. What I really need is a vacation and a concentrated block of time off from work, considering I haven't had more than a three-day weekend since Christmas, but that's not really in the cards at the moment. Instead, I've done the next best thing and set up a couple of day trips with Justin that will at least provide a temporary escape.

The impetus for today's excursion actually came from Justin, who mentioned that he was interested in seeing "Frank Lloyd Wright: Organic Architecture for the 21st Century" at the Milwaukee Art Museum. I readily agreed to go with him, since I like our neighbor to the north and its art museum in particular. I first went to the Milwaukee Art Museum on a field trip with my AP Art History class when I was a senior in high school, and I went again with Katherine during Spring Break our senior year of college, when she wanted to visit a friend who lived in Milwaukee. 2011 would put me on pace for visiting the museum once every four years -- I couldn't resist maintaining the pattern.

Naturally, no trip to Wisconsin is complete without consuming some cheese, and we stopped at the landmark Mars Cheese Castle, which is familiar to any motorist who has traveled the span of I-94 that spans Milwaukee and Chicago, due to its enormous sign. I think I've stopped there every time I've been in the area, largely for the cheese curds, my favorite Wisconsin delicacy. Cheese curds are little bits of fresh cheese that haven't been pressed to form a solid block. As a result, they make a pleasant squeaking sound against your teeth when you bite them, due to the trapped air, and they are very mild in flavor, since they have not been aged. They're virtually impossible to find in Chicago, aside from the occasional farmers' market, so I try to pick some up whenever I pass by.

The Mars Cheese Castle recently underwent a renovation, and now actually looks like a castle. Before, it was a large, corrugated metal structure, which provided a humorous contrast with its regal epithet.

Getting to the museum turned out to be a bit more harrowing than originally anticipated, as the enormous parking structure across the street where both of us had parked in the past for the museum was closed for construction. We unsuccessfully tried locating street parking, and the lot for the museum was full, as was the lot for the museum next door. We ended up having to valet the car (which always makes me nervous), though at $10 regardless of how long you left the car there, it was still a deal compared to what it costs to park in Chicago.

Justin and I in the Quadracci Pavilion of the Milwaukee Art Museum, the first U.S. project designed by Santiago Calatrava.

The Frank Lloyd Wright exhibit focused largely on Wright's vision for the future, as expressed in his conceptual drawings and models for planned communities that were never constructed, as well as his developments in modular housing and what we would call "green" design today. There were also drawings for a large number of houses and other buildings that he designed during his career which demonstrated the unconventional ways that Wright utilized space in his designs.

Personally, having visited a few of his buildings, including Unity Temple and Wingspread (a mansion designed for heirs to the S.C. Johnson family), I feel that Wright sometimes created unusual spaces just because he could, or because they were aesthetically interesting, but they weren't always necessarily practical for everyday living. His ceilings are low, his furniture tiny and uncomfortable, and rooms are often laid out in an inefficient manner. His works are interesting places to visit, but I wouldn't want to live in one.

Overall, I found the exhibit to be interesting, but I felt that it could have used more photographs of his completed projects. I understand where the curators were coming from in focusing on his drawings and models -- they wanted to emphasize Wright's creative vision, not how it was realized by builders. Still, after seeing floor plan after floor plan, it became a little difficult to visualize how his drawings translated into reality. The lack of photos is my only criticism though; by and large I found the exhibit to be quite informative, and it taught me several things I didn't already know about a figure about whom I had already read much.

"144 Pieces of Zinc," Carl Andre, 1967

Beyond the special exhibit, I've always enjoyed the permanent collection at the Milwaukee Art Museum. This could stem from the fact that I've visited there far fewer times than the Art Institute, but their collection always seems fresh, exposes me to artists with whom I am unfamiliar, and I see something new every time I go. I am particularly fond of their modern and contemporary art collections, and my favorite piece is the sculpture pictured above, "144 Pieces of Zinc."

It consists of nothing more than an array of metal plates on the floor, and is overlooked by many museum patrons who simply stride across it without noticing it. In fact, I did the same when I was first there eight years ago, until the metal clanged together under my feet and looked down. Panicked, I was afraid I'd stepped on a piece of art by accident, but no alarms had gone off. It was then that I realized that the sculpture is designed to challenged our expectations about art and how we should interact with it.

"The Sawdust Trail," George Wesley Bellows, 1916

I was also struck by this painting of women fainting at a religious revival, located in the American Modernism section. It is by an artist who is entirely new to me, and it reminds me simultaneously of the work of Toulouse-Lautrec and the German Expressionists, one of my favorite art movements. As I have written in the past, I am a bit jaded when it comes to art museums, so it always makes my day when I can find something new and exciting.

Although I forgot to jot down the information for this piece (all I can tell you is that it isn't by Millet, though that was what I'd guessed when I first looked at it), I found it intriguing for its demonstration of the dramatic impact of conservation on a painting. Technicians are working to remove a layer of stained, yellowed varnish off the surface of the paint, revealing a much brighter, pastel surface underneath. The underlying colors are what the artist originally intended, and the difference is striking.

"Laid Table (Still Life with Metal Pitcher)," Beth Lipman, 2007

While some contemporary art elicits a head-scratching response from me, I did appreciate this installation by Beth Lipman, which assembles a collection of clear glass objects. I'm not sure what she's trying to say with it, but on a purely aesthetic level, I thought the textures created by the combination of items was quite pretty. I know art is supposed to make you think, but amidst all the other thought-provoking works on display at the Milwaukee Art Museum, it was nice to shut my brain off for a moment and just look at something lovely.

We may have only made a day of it, but we both enjoyed our brief sojourn to Milwaukee. It was good to get away and experience something new together. I'm already looking forward to our next journey together, but you're going to have to wait to hear about that one...

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