Walking into the Holden Fine Arts Center on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Superior, you are immediately welcomed by a beautiful brick walled interior, a gentle glow, and a scent reminiscent to that of your grandparents’ attic. You may think, as I do, that this beautiful building speaks just as much about art as the paintings, sketches, photographs, and sculptures that call it home. Although this is one of the older buildings on the campus, flyers strewn across crowded bulletin boards and student artwork parading through the halls give a vivid picture of the great amount of hours spent here by a hodgepodge of unique artists.
As you slowly make your way into the Kruk Gallery, your first glance inside reveals an astonishing absence. The room is completely void of any furnishings or fixtures excluding a wooden desk just inside the glass doors. The walls are a dreary tan color, except for one brick wall behind the solitary desk, and the bare floor is grey and crackled. The loneliness of the room screams desperately at you, with the only thing capable of silencing this disturbing cry being the twelve paintings that grace the walls.
While at first you see only bright color within these frames, the closer and the longer you look, the deeper you are pulled into a bizarre wonderland. The painting seated closest to the doors is one bearing the title, “Dangerous: Self Portrait With My Father’s Pistol”, which is a self portrait of the artist Jonathan Thunder, in which he looks quite abstract and surreal. Thunder’s interpretation of himself is a Native American man, with abnormally large fingers and one cheek that is larger and more geometric than the other, who is holding a pistol in one hand. The illusion of smooth texture within the painting is interrupted by the muddy backround which drips down the surface behind the figure, whose expression is quite sober in appearance.
Moving clockwise around the room, you would then come to a piece entitled, “Blue Cheese (Santa Fe Nights)”. In this image you see a man seated at a counter with a glass of wine. The wine bottle sits on the other side of his plate, and as you gaze at the picture you can almost smell the pure, intoxicating scent of the liquid. His plate has only a chunk of blue cheese on it, and a mouse sniffs the air hungrily while standing on the floor behind him.The man holds a napkin in one hand, and with the other he is bringing a forkful of cheese toward his face. As you look into the distance, you can hear the music resounding from the group of musicians that are seen playing in a distant corner of the room. The odd part of this picture is that the man seated here, as well as the band that is seen performing, has no facial features whatsoever. I think that it may be safe to assume that this painting includes inspiration from the time that Thunder spent studying at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe.
The next painting that you see is different from the others in that it is the only painting on the wall of the gallery that has a piece of poetry, R. Vincent Moniz Jr.’s Fata Morgana, placed alongside it. In this painting, which bears the title, “The Beautiful light of Delirium Tremens”, you are placed in front of a pink elephant who is dressed in a blue suit, and holding a drink in one hand. Although the creature’s skin is wrinkled, there is a soft glow emitted from its skin that is quite unnatural. The longer you look at this piece, the more uncomfortable you become as you feel the presence of the figure. Whether this is because of the strangeness of the character or the uneasy gaze that it gives to the viewer I am unsure. The curious subject matter and bold colors used in this work of art pull you towards it, as your curiosity is heightened considerably and you are left to wonder what purpose is hidden within the painted canvas.
“The Psycho Lounge-Bot” portrays a robot with terror in his eyes who is placed against a deep, smudgy red color. There is a meter on his chest with the colors of the rainbow dancing along a curving line, with a needle that sits on the far right of the line –the portion that is colored red. It is as if you are watching the figure as it becomes mad. A scent closely comparable to that of something burning becomes apparent as you feel the stress that the figure creates. As you stand frozen in front of this apparition, you are filled with the fear that the robot will suddenly burst into an explosion that is quite theatrical, but also devastating because of the attachment that you have formed towards this character.
“The Psycho Lounge-Bot and The Treachery” shows a robot, similar to the one you have already seen, except this one is wearing a brown hat, and holds a rabbit with closed eyes in one hand while grasping a door that is attached to his torso with the other hand. The expression of the robot is also much different than that of the first one. He appears heartbroken, desperate and lonely, as if the one thing that he holds most dear to him has just been snatched from his hands as he stands by able to do nothing but watch helplessly. The only thing that can be felt as you search the image is an overwhelming sense of emptiness.
In another work displayed, entitled “The Musician”, the figure shown has an appearance closer to that of a zombie than what one would typically think of as a musician, as the title seems to suggest it to be. He possesses no instrument, but appears as a solitary figure with a sinister smile that would imply deceiving friendliness. There is an evil look in his eyes that makes you quite uneasy as you struggle to match his gaze. The monster-like quality of the figure is increased as you notice that some of his limbs are disjointed, and a vulgar scent like that of a rotting corpse comes to mind as you study the character.
As you continue to move along the wall, the next painting you will behold is “The Psycho Lounge-Bot #3”. Within the deep blue tones that overwhelm this image, you are able to perceive a robot who stares into the distance with an expression of desperation and terror. You begin to feel tense as the emotion of the character penetrates your being and gives you a desperate desire to help it. It is difficult when studying this image not to wander into the deepest corners of your imagination, searching for a meaning to satisfy the realms of thought that only the most creative, and at times the most disturbed, mind can conjure up.
“The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Black Duck” gives you a sickening, uneasy feeling as you gaze into the eyes of a duck whose action and intention appears quite ambiguous. He grasps a wheelbarrow with a strange shape inside of it and stands beside a tattered house, some of the very few objects within the picture. The landscape behind the duck’s house gives no sign of inhabitance, which gives the scene a feeling of intense emptiness and sinister mystery. There is, however, one other figure in the picture who is peeking out mysteriously from behind the dejected house. This figure, however, gives a creepy quality to the picture rather than a comforting one. A smooth texture is also seen in this work, which gives it a polished feel that is quite strange paired with the content of the image.
Even though this exhibit by Jonathan Thunder can easily be interpreted as quite creepy and disturbing, it has an ambiguous quality that invites you to explore the world that he has created and make it your own. Thunder describes these paintings as journal entries, but who is to say that we can’t incorporate them into our own journals? Maybe there is a painting in this group that would inspire you, spark your imagination, or remind you of a time in your life that you have fond memories of. This is what I find comforting about art: that it does not have to be only about the artist. Let’s be honest, if art was simply about the artist, then the world would not be so fascinated by it because people like things that they can relate to. They like to compare things with their own experiences. We love art because, when we study it, we are able to see a piece of ourselves within it.