'Long Overdue' Exhibit Shines at Milwaukee Art Museum

A painter and pioneer of the No Wave cinema movement prepares for a starring role in the Milwaukee Art Museum’s big summer show.

The artist James Nares – who announced her gender transition this year but continues to make art under her birth name – is the subject of a major new exhibition at the Milwaukee Art Museum curated by director Marcelle Polednik. While best known for striking one-stroke paintings made using custom brushes and rigging that suspends the artist over large canvasses, her work is diverse and varied (Nares also made a feature-length film about the Roman emperor Caligula and played guitar in a band with Jim Jarmusch), and pulling it together into a single show required years of discussions. 

Nares and Polednik continued the conversation while walking through the exhibition, on view at the MAM through Oct. 6.

MP: I felt [an exhibition of your work] was long overdue. In 2011, we discussed having it happen at MOCA Jacksonville, and then I was appointed the director here, so I carried the project with me.

There was a tremendous connective tissue that bound various projects and various media together, but it wasn’t chronology. We came up with a series of nine galleries, each of which is a visual chapter in the story of the exhibition. So much of [your] work has been about rhythm, beat, syncopation, all of these great musical – but also movement-related – sounds.

JN: I did a number of [films in the 1970s that were part of a series called] Giotto Circle. There’s an old story that the painter Giotto proved his worth to some guy who was thinking of commissioning something from him, by painting a perfect circle. The first circles were a direct imprint of my body or my arm doing a circular motion, sometimes with a carving implement or a contraption that extends and has two points. I would leave them up on walls in the city as mysterious things that had appeared out of nowhere. There were lots of abandoned places in New York in those days.

MP: Especially in the mid to late 1970s, artists used a lot of these vacant, abandoned, derelict spaces as places to experiment.

JN: That was my graffiti, I guess. At the height of the [local] depression, New York City was bankrupt and had lots of abandoned buildings and just about every kind of social problem you could come up with. There was a feeling of negativity in the air. Something had to change, and we were also reacting against the art world as we knew it. We opened a cinema to show our own films and made paintings on pieces of cardboard.

MP: There’s something in the simplicity of this work, Red X, and the contrast between the mildly dilapidated cardboard and the confrontation of this red X on a black ground. There’s something nihilistic and at the same time very powerful and invigorating.

JN: The “Street” section [of the show] has a number of different works that I associate with my film Street that got a lot of attention. Here we have a collection of photos of scars made by trucks and machinery. The film Street was shot from a moving car using a high-speed camera, which has the effect of making the pedestrians seem almost stationary. You get to see things you normally wouldn’t be able to see: They happen too fast. Little expressions and nuances become dramatic events.

“Making Moves” appears in the August 2019 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning August 1, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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Matt has written for Milwaukee Magazine since 2006, when he was a lowly intern. Since then, he’s held the posts of assistant news editor and, most recently, senior editor. He’s lived in South Carolina, Tennessee, Connecticut, Iowa, and Indiana but mostly in Wisconsin. He wants to do more fishing but has a hard time finding worms. For the magazine, Matt has written about city government, schools, religion, coffee roasters and Congress.