The strange, imaginary world of Fred Stonehouse
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Like a lot of major figures in Wisconsin art, Fred Stonehouse can be described as a landscape painter. Inspired by his surroundings and living at the southern fringe of the Horicon Marsh, Stonehouse has dedicated much of his art to the local flora and fauna. He laughs as he describes his work as “nature paintings,” but his images also rely heavily on the imaginary landscape that emerges through Stonehouse’s dark visions of an alternate world—one equally inspired by the animals he views wandering through his backyard, and what he imagines to be lurking in the shadows. This Saturday at the Tory Folliard Gallery, Stonehouse will stage Marschmeister, his first solo exhibition in Milwaukee in nearly a decade.
For those familiar with Stonehouse’s past work, an onslaught of superstitious imagery drenched in the traditions of Catholicism and sideshows immediately comes to mind. Always taking from his personal experiences, Stonehouse explains that a lot of his images come from growing up with a mother who was Sicilian and Catholic, and a father who was from orphaned circus stock. Along with influences that evolved through traveling and exploring outsider and folk traditions, Stonehouse is able to weave a visual vernacular that pulls at the imagination of onlookers. He creates a world that asks more questions than it answers, and he’s fine with that.
Stonehouse’s newest series inspired by life in the marsh is no different. Moving to Slinger has had a profound effect on the evolution of his imaginary world, and the narrative contained therein. “It’s like opening a book where I’m God and can create everything,” says Stonehouse. “I can change the color of the sky. That’s where I am most of the time: this imaginary place.”
“Maybe that’s sad,” he adds with a laugh.
The paintings and drawings included in the new exhibition have been influenced by the culture of rural Wisconsin, the mysteries of vast wilderness, hunting culture, and the spaces where man and beast exist in nature simultaneously. Most are accompanied by Stonehouse’s ambiguous text, complicating the puzzle existing within each piece. Marsh Diver is a 3-foot-by-3-foot panel with the text “DREAM OF THE MARSH DIVER” surrounding a bearded and tattooed swamp dweller catching perch in his mouth, with civilization peaking from over the hills. Bubbles burst around the figure, and the water on his face could be tears just as easily as it could be the splash of a nearby fish.
Most individuals portrayed in this series seem eerily like portraits of Stonehouse himself. Although he dodges the question by explaining that the viewer sees what the viewer wants to see, he goes on to explain that while he never uses a mirror, the bearded man in the paintings seems to be a default face he uses. On The Habits Of Manipulating Time, with its multiple bearded men surrounding a crying stag while wearing only white briefs, seems more like a Renaissance-styled mural than a simple landscape painting. In this case, Stonehouse admits to inserting himself into the scene as a metaphor for practicing painting in a narrative fashion and having the ability to be more places than one. The ambiguity comes with what these tiny Stonehouses are actually accomplishing—all seem to be playing God while perhaps taunting a frightened swamp dweller who bears the word “time.”
This major exhibition—with all of its curious ambiguities—will undoubtedly transfix any onlooker who has the time to venture into the galleries of the Third Ward. The breadth of the show alone will be well worth the trip. But if it’s simply geese flying over cattails that you’re after, you won’t find it here. Although landscapes dominate the exhibition, they’re the sort that come from the mind of a person more interested in exploring the psychological netherworlds and dreamlike visions that only exist in the shadows of the swamp.