Ever since Picasso and Braque cut out pieces of newspaper ads and began including them in their paintings, contemporary artists have seen popular culture as a potentially rich source of material. Much of this sort of borrowing is in evidence at the current show by Milwaukee artist Fred Stonehouse, at the Eyre-Moore Gallery in Pioneer Square. But the effect of these dark, sometimes funny paintings is far removed from the world of advertisement and illustration that is their source. Here with our review is KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin.
A good introduction to the bittersweet complexities of the work of Fred Stonehouse is a small painting called "Welt Meister," a beautifully painted little gem with a very involved pedigree. If some paintings are thoroughbreds, this one is surely a mutt.
"Welt Meister" depicts the tiny bearded figure of the artist himself cast in the role of the world-toting Atlas. Sweat pours down his face as he precariously balances a giant globe. He is dressed for the occasion in the unflattering combination of jockey shorts, white socks, and patent leather shoes, and his troubled breath emerges in a little white cloud. The title of the painting, which surely refers to the Christ-like suffering of the artist, is written across the image in giant circus-poster cursive, complete with drop shadows and the typography of an earlier America. The old-fashioned county fair/religious icon look is further reinforced by the highly polished drawing and modeling (one of Stonehouse’s true strong points) and faded-looking color scheme.
Add to this a surface streaked and spotted like a house painter’s drop cloth, a cheap thrift store frame, and what do you have? A mock Christian/ Greek contemporary version of a retro artifact with the look of having been fished out of someone’s basement and sold at the Goodwill. From such wildly mixed threads, the tapestry of this strange work is woven.
By all accounts Mr. Stonehouse comes off as a regular guy, offspring of a working class family who never left his home town and lives much like his neighbors. All the more ironic, then, that his skillfully depicted private world should be so divergent from the popular culture that gives it root.
Surely Stonehouse’s Milwaukee neighbors might be taken a bit aback by his take on the cute little girl who is the centerpiece of the huge canvas entitled "Wursthouse," based on a remembered meat label from the artist’s childhood. Here a heavy-lidded tot with a kewpie-doll look rides astride a glistening, six-foot sausage, and her bare bottom visible underneath her lifted poodle skirt leaves little doubt as to the artist’s carnal intent.
One wonders also what the folks on the block might make of the artist’s recurrent devils, rubbery looking gents wearing clerical robes and blackface in one picture, ice fishing for sausages in the next. As a group, they are comical, ugly, but not particularly threatening, more likely depictions of faulty humans than of supernatural Satans.
Ultimately, It’s difficult to generalize about an artist whose material comes from as many places as Stonehouse, and whose tactics and motives are as varied. Like many artists, he seeks above all else to attract and provoke, and that the resulting pictures are frequently open-ended comes with the territory.