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Outside Chance
Dean Jensen’s gallery has become a home for young local artists like Claire Stigliani, as well as a showcase for some unexpected “outsiders.”

Dean Jensen: Always looking around for young, local talent.
Photo by Adam Ryan Morris

Growing up in a large family, artist Claire Stigliani escaped to her bedroom for privacy, using her bed as a makeshift desk and her nightstand as a toolbox for colored pencils and paint. Years later, as the 29-year-old prepares for her second solo show at Dean Jensen Gallery, she still forgoes a studio, opting to paint while sitting in bed and dealing with the possibility of glitter between the covers.

It’s this unconventional process, and the resulting fantastical paintings, that mesh so well with Dean Jensen’s own curatorial style. Whether it’s Mose Tolliver’s primitivist house-paint renderings, Andy Warhol’s signature pop art or Milwaukee-born Fred Stonehouse’s Narnia-like creature paintings, nothing is too outlandish. He’s even featured collections of tattoo art and circus signage, and – because, why not? – vintage freak-show banners.

Portraits of the man behind the Dean Jensen Gallery.
It’s in this context that Stigliani’s work fits neatly. Her drawings and paintings depict young girls in domestic scenes, contrasting soft pinks and blues against severe reds and blacks, illustrating representations of women in folklore, pop culture and history.

This style, inspired by her childhood in Austria, could also be described as the destination of her spontaneous path of self-editing. Creating pieces without advance conceptualization and collaborating with what she calls a “magical energy,” she often tosses out 90 percent of her work before she’s satisfied. Where she eventually arrives contains myriad characters, both real and imagined, set in extreme environments to better examine the female identity.

“She works rather like a film director, mixing reality and the fabulous with past time and now time,” Jensen says. “Claire herself can be found in many of her paintings, but in the same settings, you might also see her imagined friends – Marie Antoinette, perhaps, but maybe also Rita Hayworth or Julie Andrews or Elle Macpherson.”

It’s artists like Stigliani that Jensen has tried to cultivate over the last 25 years, creating his own intersection at the doorsteps of “outsider art” and young talent.

Cozily situated among sandwich shops and corporate offices on Water Street, Dean Jensen Gallery looks much like those narrow New York City gallery spaces, with two-story windows, creaking hardwood floors and sweeping white walls. Inside, Jensen sits at his desk, greeting visitors, researching artists and responding to portfolio submissions that flood his inbox daily. His gallery is alive with crowds on opening nights, but sits soft and subtle during the week, providing Jensen a “cathedral” – as he calls it – all his own.

As curator and owner, he’s garnered a name in the “outsider art” community after spending years seeking out works made in isolation or at mental health institutions in the rural south. Not to mention the works he’s displayed by 20th-century greats, including Warhol, Julian Schnabel and Chuck Close.

But for Jensen, the local young artists are as crucial to the gallery as the established superstars. His eye for what he calls “the brighter talents in the area” has remained strong in the last 20 years, spawning group shows in which often half of the artists are locally based and exhibiting for the first time.

Stigliani, whose show contains more than 15 original works, is the latest proof. “He’s become a real champion for young artists,” she says.

Jensen’s trifecta of artistic pools – established, outsider and budding – has shifted, as his personal interest in “outsider work” has given way to the naiveté and freshness of emerging talent. And despite his taste for the individuality of the hidden and eccentric, there’s continuity in Jensen’s selection of artists. What he refers to as a “predilection for figurative art with an expressionist edge” can be seen in his appetite for pieces with a sense of psychological exploration.

Jensen cultivated these artistic preferences as a feature reporter for the Milwaukee Sentinel, eventually becoming an art critic. Prompted by a yearlong guest curatorship at the Milwaukee Art Museum and a fellowship in art history at the University of Michigan, Jensen left the Milwaukee Sentinel in 1987 to open his own gallery.

“When Dean opened, it gave artists another venue,” Fred Stonehouse says. “It’s long been one of the issues for young artists in Milwaukee, not having a place to show where people would pay attention. Dean’s gallery offered this because of his knowledge and experience. Journalists and buyers started paying attention.”

They still are. Stigliani’s show at Dean Jensen Gallery opens Jan. 18.

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