Sep 21 – Nov 9, 2019
Robischon Gallery is pleased to present its second solo exhibition by Wisconsin artist Fred Stonehouse. Exhibiting paintings, drawings and newly-created color lithographs, the artist dramatically departs from his influences of Renaissance and medieval art, folk art and surrealism, with wickedly biting and humorous twists, as he subjectively explores the many vulnerabilities of the human condition. Hybrid creatures, demons, and homunculi are proxies for those in contemporary society who find themselves aware of their own fragility and imperfections even as they face the uncertainties of their conditions and circumstances. Stonehouse’s figures, often fanciful, absurd, or even startling, maintain a sense of dogged determination and peculiar nobility even as they struggle to navigate the world around them.
Informing his imagery, Stonehouse’s references are a percolating cauldron derived from a variety of personal sources through common and uncommon narratives – his Catholic school upbringing, his Sicilian ancestry, and living with a deaf mother are just a few of the many important experiences in the artist’s life that merge in his decidedly contemporary work with art historical iconography. Many of the artist’s figures find themselves walking a thin line: neither human nor animal, neither saved nor doomed, even as the searching eyes of both man and beast often seem to bear more than a passing resemblance to one another – and to the eyes of the artist as well.
Text is frequently employed by Stonehouse which is intended to either confound or clarify. It often bridges the gap between Catholic imagery and the artist’s seemingly secular twenty-first century existence as humans drip with blood, tears or perspiration, evoking devotional images of the Weeping Madonna or Christ on the Cross. References to the Devil, too, figure prominently. Art writer Debra Brehmer notes that “Stonehouse’s Devils function broadly as symbols of things that get in our way, fall in our paths, and cause detours.” To the artist himself, the devil is “the paragon of mundane human fallibility” such as in the Limits of Desire where a demon sits fearful and sweating in the flames generated by his desire. The devil-headed boy-like figure of Cheap Shot with an empty speech bubble nonetheless communicates with a clenched expression as he is seated on the lap of a dear-headed figure sporting a crucifix tattoo on his arm. With a sprouted cascade of vines for antlers, the hairy-chested deer-man seems to exude sustenance as if gained from sitting on his tree-trunk stool.
In Stonehouse’s hands, ears can grow long and pointed, as in the centaur man in After I’m Gone who is composed of elements of black ovoids across his face and poised with a paint brush honed from a living branch which drips its red vitality between the scripted admonishment “REMEMBER AFTER I’M GONE. Combined with language, the artist’s compositions reveal commonplace and contemporary anxieties of isolation, second-guessing and outright painful realities such as Leaving where the unstretched canvas’s text above the hybrid-man and his sorrowing elephant declares: The excruciating process of LEAVING. In a similar compositional mode, Simple Strategies, the sentence above a sweating supplicant beneath an oversized bat with a single drop of dripping saliva reads: “The reliance of simple strategies wasn’t as effective as it had been in the past.”
Growing up with a deaf parent, the artist was thoughtful with language, and relied on methods other than speech to communicate. Often in his work, mouths are open as if speaking or seeking, like the buck yearning to taste a spotted pear; rendered silent yet searching with an unwieldy tongue and as in a smaller painting where the crouching, white-spotted and possibly weeping human-headed creature displays the word SECRET emblazoned red on his forehead. Words or written phrases often accompany Stonehouse’s silenced figures, which according to Brehmer, “set(s) his paintings spinning into zones of association,” and for his audience, allowing them to find their own personal entry into the work.
Stonehouse is not interested in perfect images; rather, he states that he focuses on “the moment when things sort of look three-dimensional but… (are) still fucked up -- the ‘beautifully awkward’ in art history is what I like.” His affinity for the language of Folk Art is quite evident. An intentional avoidance of perspective and proportion, as well as a preference for flat backgrounds and text refer to language of Folk Art. His use of allegory and symbolism, bizarre juxtapositions, and social satire conjure contrasts to artists like Frida Kahlo who often painted self-portraits with her body tangled in or growing vines, symbolizing her human connection to the earth or her tangled relationships and lost progeny. In this body of work, repeating patterns of red marks in overlapping figure-eight patterns or concentric accumulations serves a similar shorthand of visual transmission of knowledge in works like Intention where the man-chested bat hovers over a red tear-drop-filled circle with a caption stating, THE TASTE OF INTENTION. Additional new drawings, not currently on view though also part of the dialogue, include a peculiar, long-tailed rabbit preparing to take a nip of alcohol, an elephant showering itself with THE RAIN OF DECEIT, a lion, emblematic of the iconographic St. Jerome with a wooden cross and a skull - all add to the series and in relationship to the other equally curious drawings.
While aspects of the portraits in Stonehouse’s drawings and paintings may be specific to the artist, they also represent a kind of “everyman” shape-shifted into animal form – the experiences, the choices and ultimately, the perplexity that the artist feels every human soul must face, as both image and text function as a kind unanswerable puzzle. The artist states, “I used to say that the work is half joke, half prayer. I’m poking fun, but it’s also very serious.” For Fred Stonehouse, doubt is at the crux of the human condition, and, as conveyed through his imagery, those who acknowledge it are infused with an imperfect nobility and humor. According to the artist, his works are not necessarily intended as warning signs or to prompt activism, but rather as insight into a shared process of human revelation - a way to view the confusion, self-doubt, and conflict in contemporary society today.
Fred Stonehouse received his BFA from the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and is currently an Associate Professor of Painting and Drawing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has exhibited his work throughout the United States, as well as in Puebla, Mexico, The Netherlands, Rome, Italy, and throughout Germany. He has received the National Endowment of the Arts Midwest Fellowship, the Joan Mitchell Foundation Individual Artists Grant, and the Milwaukee Artist’s Foundation Fellowship, among other esteemed awards. Stonehouse’s artwork is included in public collections such as the Block Museum at Northwestern University, Evanston, IL; the Chazen Museum of Art, Madison, WI; the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Madison, WI; the San Jose Museum of Art, San Jose, CA; the Spencer Museum of Art, Lawrence, KS, among others, including several private collections.