The event, up through May 31, brings together large-scale installations from 18 local artists.
Photo: A video installation by Adriana Barrios and a neon piece by Helen Lee are among the show’s highlights. Photos by Jon Hain Photography.
As Madison greets springtime, the city feels a bit less alive than it did during the long, cold months we’ve just weathered. Streets are emptier than ever before because people can’t hold big public events and need to keep a safe distance from one another. Visiting institutions that once scaffolded our day-to-day lives felt first like a luxury, then more like a fantasy. And the cultural events and celebrations that have come to represent the turning of the seasons—the Dane County Farmers’ Market returning to its rightful place on the Square, say, or the Terrace reopening—have either been cancelled or completely reformulated to remain viable during the pandemic.
Garver Feed Mill’s Outside Looking In drive-thru art exhibition, which held its virtual opening reception via Facebook Live on April 25 and runs through May 31, was born into this sort of cultural purgatory. The exhibit, intended as a way for the community to view local art and support local artists while continuing to practice social distancing, was conceived just two-and-a-half weeks ago as Garver began hosting a drive-thru replacement for the farmer’s market. Noticing the cars parked outside the mill with clear, direct views of the mill, building manager Bryant Moroder suggested using the building’s historic gothic windows to put on an art exhibit. Since then, Bethany Jurewicz of Garver Events (who has also organized arts events like the outdoor Makeshift Festival) has worked at a whirlwind pace to organize the show, which features 18 local artists’ work spread across 25 windows in the massive historical building.
Jurewicz didn’t mention any particular theme for the show in her call for submissions—the criteria she provided was large work without fine details that could be installed in the Mill’s historic windows and could be seen both during daytime and after nightfall. Yet she’s come to realize that coronavirus and responses to it have still become a unifying theme of the show. “There’s the artists who are trying to cheer people up, the artists that are just exploring what they’re going through, and the artists that are consciously using an aspect of the coronavirus as a jumping off point for new work,” Jurewicz says. “I didn’t say, ‘take the coronavirus as inspiration,’ but that’s what’s on everybody’s mind.”
Beyond providing an opportunity to see art when the ability to do so in physical spaces is severely limited, Jurewicz envisioned the show as a way of supporting Madison’s artist community, which has been dramatically impacted by a lack of opportunities in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. “It’s kind of a ‘let’s do something for the community but also find a way to support an important part of our community,’” Jurewicz says. Artists participating in the exhibition will be paid a stipend through a GoFundMe page organized by Garver and matched up to $1,500 by a grant from Madison Arts Commission. Any funds raised beyond the GoFundMe fundraiser’s $1,500 goal will go towards a general artist relief fund.
One of the goals for the exhibit was to create something that people can visit at any time of day, yet it’s much more deserving of a drive or bike ride out to the mill at night. While during the day the artwork serves as a nice enough backdrop to a bike ride or a quick trip to pick up some lunch, it’s hardly legible as a cohesive exhibit by any stretch of the imagination. After dark, with the exhibit’s video installations clearly visible against the night sky and its neon lights shining, it all starts to come together. When seen in the light of day, the way pieces are arranged throughout the exhibit, artworks with wildly different moods hanging in adjacent windows, feels, at best, coincidental. The lack of clearly present artists statements and other materials to provide some much-needed context for the exhibit make this feeling all the more glaring.
At night, though, there’s a new sense of mystery that comes to inhabit the giant multi-media collage of a building with all its soft lights and moving parts and make it feel truly captivating. Perhaps it’s something innate to the exhibit. Perhaps it’s something that boils down to the novelty of having something beautiful and shimmering to immerse yourself in during the quarantine at all. In any case, it makes the exhibit feel like a real celebration of and attempt to champion Madison’s arts community. One that’s certainly worth taking a leisurely drive or two (or bike lap or two) around.
It’s largely Adriana Barrios’ entrancing video installation, showing the ebb and flow of serene, pale blue waves, that lends this sense of wonder to the exhibit. The piece sits between Sara Meredith’s paintings of siphonophores—deep sea organisms that are formed when smaller organisms, called zooids, come together—and Helen Lee’s glass art—a sign that reads “HAVEN’T YOU ALWAYS WONDERED WHAT IT WOULD FINALLY TAKE TO STOP US IN OUR TRACKS?” Both Meredith and Lee’s work also come aglow at night thanks to their use of phosphorescent paint and neon, respectively. The three form a sort of triptych, calling for a moment’s pause to take in the meditative beauty of the waves and sea and reflect both on Lee’s question and the world we’ve found ourselves inhabiting as of late.
It’s all but impossible to tell what the future will hold for Madison’s arts spaces and arts community. The artists involved in Outside Looking In, many of whom have always created art with a focus on the community, are seeing new challenges in their approaches to art. Meredith is concerned by the recent lack of events that allow her to connect with others, citing this as the most difficult change that the pandemic has brought on. Victor Castro (AKA tetraPAKMAN), another of the artists involved in the exhibit, is concerned about how difficult it’s suddenly become to benefit the local community, whether by providing opportunities for cultural enrichment or otherwise. “Any project that was going to benefit the community on any cultural level, […] to hold people that need some support, all these things are being challenged right now,” Castro says. “It’s just making it impossible to operate on a regular basis.” Naturally, both Meredith and Castro are reshaping their art practices in response to social distancing measures, turning to new ways to display their art and engage with others.
Garver, which just reopened last summer as a hub for events and local food businesses after decades of neglect, faces a great deal of uncertainty of its own, with public events currently banned by Wisconsin’s Safer at Home orders and increasing wariness regarding public spaces. Jurewicz’s main goal is for Garver to be able to host the second edition of the art-meets-food event Femmestival again in February 2021. Still, the idea of hosting an event even this far into the future seems somewhat shaky. “I am wary of how things will change,” Jurewicz says, “I hope they don’t — I hope that perhaps everything goes back to normal quickly, but I think we’re looking to a new normal, so that may mean we approach events differently too.”