There’s a lot of Fred Stonehouse in Fred Stonehouse’s latest show, “Night Vision,” at Tory Folliard Gallery (through Saturday, Oct. 13). Many of his recognizable artistic alter egos—the pop-surrealist, punk-folk, and generally irreverent figures—are clearly on view, but there’s also a lot of Fred Stonehouse the individual lurking inside them, too.
It might seem a matter-of-fact that an artist’s personality be present in his work, but the issue has a surprisingly fraught history in the post-war/contemporary art world. So fraught, in fact, that I hesitated to address it. But Stonehouse’s is a unique case that can potentially rub some salve on an issue that has festered in the art world for years.
The annals of modern art are cluttered with artists whose colossal personalities complicated the legacy of the art they produced. And it has been difficult to know in many cases whether the art made the legend or the legend the art. Think Vincent Van Gogh, Salvador Dalí and Jackson Pollock—the latter an artist who flared out so famously, magnificently and ignominiously that his death ushered in a 50-year hangover and subsequent teetotalling with regard to the psychological and biographical.
But, as sure as humans like to have a cocktail, they like art that exudes the essences of its makers. They always have. Even when they didn’t, they did; from Andy Warhol to Jeff Koons, personalities themselves have been assigned conceptual significance.
The quickest glance at the nearly two-dozen works in Stonehouse’s show suggests something deeply personal. And directly personal, too; not as emotional correspondents, but as visceral collisions. As if Stonehouse himself is confronting you with a scowl and a mirror.
Fire Show, for example, is figurative, audacious and unruly, but still slightly vulnerable. The beanied, blue-eyed figure, appendages all ablaze, next to the words “on” and “off,” could be one man’s fever dream, but in the presence of other works like Nube and Summer Sounds, it adds to a more complex story; something ominous and outward, allegorical and universal. Stonehouse’s symbolic depiction of tears, sweat, saliva, flowers and other discreet visual nuggets verging on the textual imbue the work with a didactic quality that anyone will read before seeing, in the same way one would a Giotto in 1300.
Cryptic and diaristic text, like “sounds of the summer in the night” in Summer Sounds and other freighted snippets turn Stonehouse’s work further in the direction of the legible, letting us know for sure that these bad-ass painter dudes, punk rock ungulates, hesher skeletons and other macho misfits are reaching out to us even as they look askance. And more than reaching out, they are confessing cosmic forces, urges and thoughts in booming visual profusions of generosity and honesty with just a little contempt.
“Booming visual profusions of generosity and honesty with just a little contempt.” This is Fred Stonehouse, the person. The art. The art and the person. You may not know him, but take the Milwaukee art world’s word for it that adjectives like “bluster,” “candor,” “generosity” and “sensitivity” might describe the work in Night Vision and are also words anyone would use describe the artist himself.
There it is. I’ve broken that tacit, decades-old taboo between the art and the personality behind the art. The curtain is pulled back, and the wizard is there, ready for questions. If, in 2018, Roman Polanski’s or Chuck Close’s character failings diminish what we think of their work, let the magnanimous have a say in support of theirs. Because, when there’s an easy, natural consonance between the maker and the made, as we see in Fred Stonehouse, it’s nothing to be afraid of; rather, it informs, edifies and, ultimately, liberates the work. We should only make sure the emancipated doesn’t get loose, go feral, run amok and turn into one of those legends that caused us to cage the beasts in the first place.