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For God and Country

Rafael Francisco Salas

Opening Reception: 
June 21st 6-8 pm
Portrait Society Gallery
Exhibition runs through August 3
Closing Reception:
Friday, August 2, 6-8 pm
Artist Talk at 7 p.m. 
Catalog is available: $15
Review: Shepherd Express, Milwaukee
Review: Newcity, Chicago

Portrait Society Gallery, 207 E. Buffalo Street (Marshall Building, fifth floor), is pleased to present “Rafael Francisco Salas: For God and Country,” a major solo exhibition, opening with a reception from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday, June 21.


The exhibition will run through August 3, 2019. The gallery is located in Milwaukee’s Historic Third Ward. 


For God and Country presents approximately 40 works in various media that reflect on the experience of living in rural America. In Salas’ work, mysterious figures play out ambiguous narratives on the cold ground of the midwestern landscapes to which he is native. Most of the paintings are set in winter, at dusk or dawn, where an ominous light signals a kind of loneliness. Salas grew up in rural Wisconsin, the son of a Mexican-American migrant farming family. While he was considered Mexican, he did not speak Spanish, and, like many bi-racial individuals, experienced a kind of displacement, a pervasive sense of otherness. Salas left the farm, completing his undergraduate degree at Macalester College and his MFA at The New York Academy of Art in 2003. He now teaches in the art department of Ripon College, not too far from where he grew up.


Long driven by currents and conversations on the coasts, the art world has not historically been interested in rural middle America, at least not since the 1930s and 1940s when the Regionalist art movement turned to the land and the sentiment of American pragmatism in response to European Modernism. Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry were embedded in a Midwestern ethos. But once the art world swung fully to New York via Abstract Expressionism, the lowly corn fields and farm troughs fell asunder. And they would not return.


Salas’ work explores what it means to be a farmer, an agrarian worker, or perhaps an immigrant. Country life is not an easy picture to render right now. It is as full of tension as it is draped in daily sunsets. Climate change, market fluctuation, immense factory farms and rising expenses have challenged the family farming business.


As Salas’ subjects — people, horses, country western musicians — come into focus with an assurance of pictorial truth they also confound direct readings through their dream-like moods and formal interruptions via moments of abstraction suggesting pixilation, TV test screen patterns or static. Disjunctions such as a harvest scene set in winter or men in suit coats working farm fields contribute to an ephemeral, moody sensibility, putting Salas in line with one of Wisconsin’s best known nature/Surrealist painters, Tom Uttech.

One recurring theme in these paintings is an enigmatic man in a black suit and hat, bending to touch the earth, riding a horse, or simply standing in a soft cascade of snow. Perhaps he is a migrant farmer forced to work someone else’s land, or the landowner himself, or a carpetbagging developer out to buy a family farm. This ambiguity might relate to the multiple identities of the artist, or an allusion to an allegorical other, not a person at all.


We wander through Salas’ meditations on country life while a record player in the gallery emits the music of George Jones, Emmylou Harris and Freddy Fender — the soundtrack of a winter day, frozen corn fields and uncertain futures, the anticipation of a late afternoon beer in the local tavern.


This is Rafael Francisco Salas’ second major exhibition at Portrait Society Gallery. He also has exhibited his work at James Watrous Gallery, Madison; Latino Arts, Milwaukee; St. Norbert University, Green Bay; Beloit College; Thelma Sadoff Center for the Arts, Fond du Lac; John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan; Walker’s Point Center for the Arts, Milwaukee; Minneapolis Institute of Art; Museum of Wisconsin Art, West Bend; Edgewood College, Madison. He is a frequent guest lecturer and was a contributing art critic for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

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