The beautiful and the practical collide at the Museum of Wisconsin Art.

The Museum of Wisconsin Art is gorgeous, almost eerily so. Jutting up from the banks of the Milwaukee River, the Jim Shields building (yes that ubiquitous Jim Shields) constitutes its own work of art, according to the museum, but it’s more practical and less indulgent than the Calatrava addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum. MOWA strikes a closer balance between gallery space and grandeur.

That being said, it still feels like a spaceship moored in Downtown West Bend, which isn’t really known for high culture. A new show at MOWA, “Handmade for Home: The Craft of Contemporary Design,” deals with a similar struggle between the practical and the beautiful. According to a quote that greets you at the door, the home should contain objects either beautiful or useful and nothing else.

Fred Fenster, “Taco Teapot,” 2004

The small exhibition focuses on the work of Wisconsin artisans who create furniture and other home pieces in rustic, industrial and modern registers, and most of what you see in “Handmade” is both beautiful and useful.

However, one unusual set of pewter serving dishes challenges both elements: Are they beautiful or ugly, and could you actually eat with these things? Created by Jeffrey Clancey in 2014 as part of his “Enduring Decadence” series, they look like slag imitating platters and decanters and don’t look entirely alien nor natural.

Way on the other end of the practicality spectrum you have Emily Graf’s “Felted Stone Rug” from 2018, a large pillowy rug made of woolen stones that represent both the texture of their material and of rocks. Whether or not you’d want to walk on this rug very often, it would still be useful for lying down and daydreaming. Then maybe you could appreciate the irony of lying comfortably on stones.

Patrick Burke, David Carpenter, Julie Gunderson, and Randy Sahli’s “The Manitowoc Cabinet,” 2018

Different pieces in the show have different relationships to wood. Some achieve beauty by taming it and making it glossy, like Charles Radtke’s “Stepped Cabinet #2,” which glides forward with a slight visual momentum, inviting one to open its doors. Household objects demand touch and intimacy as we have such close relationships to them, but with this being an art gallery, you have to keep your mitts to yourself.

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Items representing another approach to wood are clustered at the front of the gallery: the rustic. The furniture, often made of whole tree limbs, has the texture of nature but also the grace and wonder that comes from nature’s most artful species. A stout dining table included in the exhibition (by Cathy and Mario Costantini) and other pieces have a storybook quality, a frozen narrative. They look like places where something interesting should be happening.


Go See It: “Handmade for Home: The Craft of Contemporary Design” runs through May 19 at the Museum of Wisconsin Art.

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