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Waste Not: Five Regional Self Taught Artists

July 26 - September 22, 2013

Opening reception: Gallery Night, Friday, July 26

Portrait Society presents five Wisconsin self-taught artists in its summer/fall exhibition, Waste Not. Known as a frugal state that privileges independence and industry, Wisconsin is considered a “hot bed” of self-taught art and hand-built environments.


Is it our isolation, our respect for the idiosyncratic and handmade, or the long hours of solitude during winter months that foster this condition of invention? Who knows? But it is an unassailable truth that the state breeds artists who productively and often privately work outside of conventional, professional systems. The Milwaukee Art Museum now has one of the largest collections of international self-taught art of any museum in the country.

Three new artists are being introduced in this exhibition at Portrait Society.

Roger Koenke (Brown Deer, WI) worked as a vocational rehabilitation supervisor until retiring in 1999. He had always wanted to be an artist, but did not feel that he could prosper at it. Once he had ample free time, however, he turned his basement into a studio and began filling sketchbooks with geometric designs and notes that led to the creation of large wooden sculptures. Mostly using 1/8 inch dowels, Koenke meticulously pieces together towering structures that are both geometric and organic. The thousands of tiny wood pieces that comprise each monumental sculpture twist, spiral and arch upward to form tall monuments. Both his sculptures and sketchbooks will be included in the exhibition.

Romano Johnson, 35, is an African-American artist who was born with a cognitive disability. He lived on the North side of Chicago until moving to Madison at aged 12, which is when he started making art. “Mano,” as friends call him, works out of the non-profit studio in Madison called Artworking, Inc. His large, acrylic and glitter paintings are packed with pattern and color creating exuberant compositions that electrify his larger-than-life subject matter. Recent paintings include portraits of Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Martin Luther King, Jesse Jackson, Jennifer Lopez and Ice T. Portrait Society will feature several large, mixed-media paintings as well as drawings. Johnson recently had a solo show at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Memorial Union Porter Butts Gallery. This is his first exhibition in Milwaukee.

Jeremy Ward, from Horicon, Wisconsin, makes masks out of plain, geometric pieces of wood. There is an elegant and intelligent simplicity to his compositions as he mathematically pieces together the various planes of a human, cartoon or animal face. His favorite subjects are from popular culture such as Bart and Homer Simpson, Humpty Dumpty, and Fred Flintstone. Perhaps because Ward feels socially awkward at times, designing masks fulfills a natural extension of his desire to negotiate human interaction.

Rudy Rotter (1913-2001) was a dentist in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. He began carving wood sculptures in 1956 when he was 43, while still operating his full-time dental practice. For the next 25 years, he spent his spare time making art and by the time he died at age 88, he had filled all three floors of his studio/museum. The Rudy Rotter Museum of Sculpture, long a landmark to art enthusiasts in Manitowoc, was closed two years ago and all of Rudy’s work was moved to a new location. Rotter, whose estate is represented by Portrait Society, has not had a show in Milwaukee for four years. Gallery assistant Sean Heiser has selected and installed an exciting new body of work, focusing on Rudy’s later, Surrealist infused drawings. 

A collection of Rudy Rotter’s work was acquired for preservation by the Kohler Foundation and I had the pleasure of working directly with Rudy Rotter on that project in 1997, which also culminated in a major exhibition at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan.


Bernard Gilardi’s work was introduced three years ago by Portrait Society Gallery. Gilardi, who died in 2008 at the age of 88, had produced about 400 oil paintings in his basement studio over a 45-year period. He had never shown or sold his work. Matter of fact, few of the paintings ever traveled up the basement steps. A printer by trade, when Gilardi retired he was able to work even more consistently on his paintings. His inventive, figurative compositions often have a pun lingering beneath the surface. Gilardi liked words almost as much as images. He fits into Wisconsin’s potent interest in Magical Realism, stemming from UW-Madison in the 1940s with artists such as John Wilde, Karl Priebe and Sylvia Fein. (Gilardi did attend art school there for one semester in the 1940s). There is also a touch of Chicago Imagism in his work, as he shared an affinity for underground comics, satire and popular culture sources.


Since the gallery first showed Bernard’s work and published a catalog, his paintings have entered the collections of the Museum of Wisconsin Art, the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Chazen Museum of Art, as well as numerous private collections. He is destined to become one of the most important artists coming out of Wisconsin, according to Chazen Museum of Art director Russell Panczenko. This show will feature a group of Gilardi paintings that have never previously been shown.

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