New Exhibition by Wisconsin Painter Charles Munch Revisits and Expands His Natural Themes – Isthmus

Brightly colored simplified landscapes are populated by often giddy people and animals, often deer. Something is going on here, but we don’t know what. Wisconsin artist Charles Munch’s symbolic paintings tug at the viewer’s subconscious, but defy easy explanation.

Animals and landforms – hills, trees, bodies of water, even fire – are depicted, suggesting styles as disparate as pop art and Australian Aboriginal painting. The title of Munch’s forthcoming exhibition at Stoughton’s Abel Contemporary Gallery, “Miracles and Mysteries,” sums up the vaguely unsettling mood of his work.

“One of the reasons I make them is that they allow me to address issues that I cannot put into words. Sometimes I find answers through them,” he said.

Munch’s paintings were the subject of a major retrospective at the Museum of Wisconsin Art in 2019; it was followed by another exhibition, “Parallel Worlds,” at the Tory Folliard Gallery in Milwaukee in the spring of 2021. “Miracles and Mysteries” will feature about 35 paintings, including 18 new ones, Munch says, surrounded in mid-August by many of these new paintings, still in his studio on the second floor of his Driftless home.

The Wikipedia entry for Munch says he lives on “a lonely hill near Lone Rock”, but it’s less than an hour on the west side of Madison and the road to his place is dotted with farms ; he even shares part of his driveway with a neighbor. That said, it’s a long drive to his house from the road. When asked how he clears it in the winter, Munch, 77, says he does it himself the entire length with a snowblower, although he admits he might not be able to manage this task for too many winters.

It’s a down-to-earth attitude typical of his modest and dynamic approach. His workshop is equipped with a blind with a pulley system that he designed himself and uses to regulate the light coming from his tall south-facing windows. On a table is a stack of pieces of foil that Munch has molded into paint palettes, with his colors mixed together corresponding to specific paints, each in a separate dash. It’s handy for touch-ups or other fixes – “if I can remember what goes with which paint.”

The wall space is taken up by paintings that point towards Abel; the rest of the studio houses an archive of his older works neatly classified in a vertical storage area. Near the windows, cloves of garlic from his garden lie on the ground to dry. Elsewhere there are stacks of CDs, tubes of oil paint, brushes, an old light fixture, sticks (from trees), pencils, watercolors and a set of wood.

This exhibition highlights more recent works, including several created during and in response to the pandemic, including “Expulsion from Hell,” which was painted quite early in the shutdown. The imagery plays on a standard motif of Renaissance painting, the expulsion from Eden. A standing man, woman and stag face the viewer, a wall of flames behind them. “The idea is that they’re happy to be kicked out and emerge into a new, changed world,” says Munch.

Another work from the pandemic period is called “Hope”. It’s less clear to him what it is, except that he “felt hopeful” when he was working on it. A man and a woman kiss outside a house. “The clouds are still heavy,” he observes. “It is not finished.”

Munch is sometimes lumped together with Upper Midwestern artists such as Tom Uttech, Randall Berndt, Barry Carlsen, and John Miller, as a kind of “northern mysticism” school of painting, but it’s really nothing so formal and he’s probably the least realistic of the bunch. “It’s not just the north, it’s a certain attitude towards the landscape,” suggests Munch.

Munch begins a job with a sketch made with good old Crayola crayons and watercolor, the crayon outlining the objects and the watercolors helping him “think about color.” For his real work he paints in oil on unstretched canvas which he nails to the wall. “That way I can push against the wall,” he says. “I like resistance.” It begins with glazes, very fine paint, in large areas. Details and outline are added later with a brush. The result is flat and smooth; the viewer can barely perceive a brushstroke. He is looking for “clarity and freshness, as if I were doing everything all of a sudden, whereas it is not the case”.

He tends to paint the same picture multiple times, such as with a new painting for Abel’s show titled “Deer versus Wolf”, which depicts a deer chased through a forest by a wolf. “Freezing a moment,” he says, “is how you create suspense.” Considering the scene, he said, “It is not clear that the deer will escape. I don’t want the image to tell that story. I intentionally create mystery.

He starts with a small painting, then recreates pretty much the same image on a larger canvas. This one, he painted it again, on an even larger canvas, more square than rectangular. Each depicts the same action but ends with subtle differences in feeling or mood. “I try until I’m satisfied,” he says. “With each enlargement, I have a chance to improve. I get a lot of satisfaction from making the painting look more like I had imagined.

Other pieces, like his “Mammal Polyptych” are not clear stories but intended for meditation. “I wanted the human figures and mammals to face the viewer clearly,” he says of the four-panel work, which depicts a man, bear, woman and deer under a moonlit sky. – all standing except for the woman who is seated. He compares it to Italian altarpieces of the Renaissance, “but made in the present for Wisconsin”.

There has long been a sense of impending ecological disaster in Munch’s work. He’s been called an environmentalist – “and I mean, I a m, but I never thought it was part of the paintings,” he says. He acknowledges that there’s a “darkness” about what’s going on that’s only getting worse, though he’s not sure it’s affecting his work. “It’s not something new for me,” he said. “Maybe there was a time when I was more angry. Maybe I softened up.

Examining his work on the studio walls, Munch sums it up quite optimistically. “The beauty of nature, growth, animals – everything that happens seems miraculous to me.”

“Miracles and Mysteries” opens at the Abel Contemporary Gallery in Stoughton on September 16, with a reception from 5-8 p.m. Munch will give an artist talk on October 1 at 2 p.m. The show will continue until November 6.

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