Two exhibits at the CVA take you to very different places

(First published in the June 6, 2019 issue of City Pages)

Just keep swimming

Contemporary meets classic in Swim Girls


Mitch Kezar

“Golden Swim Cap” by Mary Catherine Solberg

When stepping into the upstairs Vault Gallery of the Center for the Visual Arts in Wausau, you may think you’re viewing art from the Renaissance era, with the classic color schemes and elegant close-up portraits of Mary Catherine Solberg’s Swim Girls. The Winona, Minn., based artist is clearly influenced by religious imagery, the masters, vintage postcards and circus sideshow banners. The worn textures and deep reds, golds and blues in her artwork look like something straight out of a different time period. But as you continue viewing, you’ll notice all the fun, contemporary touches that make this exhibit sparkle—literally. The use of glitter and gold in this exhibit is truly wonderful.

     Swim Girls features around 20 large-scale moody portraits of women diving, contemplating and savoring the aquatic life. According to Solberg, “The metaphor of water is used throughout mythology, religion, and art to symbolize a psychological transformation or to express a dive into elements of the subconscious mind. In essence, she is diving into a new reality.”

     In “The Deep” a woman adjusts hear swim cap while standing aside a pool as she gets ready to go for a swim. Other pieces feature women who just got out of the water. In “What Dreams May Come” a woman has water dripping down her face as she finishes her swim. And in “Happy Hour” the woman is wrapped in a red towel, enjoying the setting sun while cradling a beaver.

     Other paintings show the subjects in action. “Free Fall” and “Airborne” show women in flight as they liberally jump into the water. The majority of pieces are close ups. The women’s expressions are thoughtful, contemplative and serene, making the paintings feel freeing and cathartic. Solberg captures those fleeting moments of water tranquility, and says this exhibit “is about transformation. It is also a meditation, a memory and a dip into the subconscious.”

     One delightful theme is found in the gorgeous, vintage-style swim caps. Some of them are textured with a swirling pattern that comes off the canvas. Others features speckles of red or green glitter; others are a gorgeous gold.

     Some of the backgrounds are drawn from Solberg’s life in the Driftless Area of the upper Midwest, as they feature the bluffs, cliffs, rolling hills and valleys of Lake Winona and the Mississippi River. You’ll notice that in the background of several pieces there is a formation called “Sugar Loaf” that’s found in Winona.

     Since creating the new Vault Gallery (after discovering the old vault door during renovations), the Center for the Visual Art seems to have amped up the exhibits showcased there. Previously, the main attraction always was the exhibit in the first level Caroline S. Mark Gallery. But exhibits shown in the Vault Gallery are just as awe-inspiring and awesome. They’re definitely worth a trip up the stairs.

     Hear Mary Catherine Solberg speak about her process at the exhibit’s opening gala on June 14 from 5-7 pm. Gallery hours: Tues.-Fri. 10 am-5 pm; Sat. noon-4 pm., 715-842-4545.

Don’t forget about me

Abandoned buildings make eerie subjects of Abandoned Wisconsin


Nathan Porath

“No Waiting” by Nathan Porath

When people move out of a building or house, you expect a new occupant to take their place. That doesn’t always happen. These abandoned spaces are the feature of this exhibition at the Center for the Visual Arts.

     Wisconsin-based photographers Nathan Porath, Katie Whitman, Emma Whitman, Cameron DePue, Randy Vongphakdy, and Zac Barrett share a common bond for urban exploration. In this collaborative exhibit, each artist brings their perspective to visually document a variety of forgotten places throughout the state. The 50 photographs document abandoned churches, schools, gas stations, houses, businesses and factories.

     Some places you’ll even recognize. In Nathan Porath’s “Phoenix,” you see a partially demolished building with bricks all over the ground as the well-kept Dudley Building stands tall in the background. You’ll also recognize the old Mountain Lanes amongst a pile of discarded pallets in Randy Vongphakdy’s photograph “Memory Lanes.”

     All these images are fascinating. Many show vacant homes, such as “Wrightstown” by Katie Whitman and “Victorian Derelict” by Randy Vongphakdy. Peeling paint, overgrown yards, caved in roofs and smashed windows show how easily houses can decay without a caretaker.

     Some photographs show the contrast between abandoned places and nearby populated surroundings. In Katie Whitman’s photograph “A+B Gas” a forgotten gas station, with the pumps removed and sidewalks sprouting weeds… and then working traffic lights, showing how these deserted places aren’t always in the middle of nowhere.

     “Flowers in the Window” by Emma Whitman also shows a contrast of surroundings—beautiful colors of an arrangement of faux flowers juxtaposed against the disheveled building with its rusty window panes.

     The photographs that show the interiors are more haunting. Porath says that he “loves digging deep into properties, seeing the way nature reclaims buildings, I’m fascinated by what the former occupants leave behind and documenting this history before it disappears.” These photographs absolutely record how the buildings and belongings change once they are abandoned.

     One of the most captivating photographs in the exhibits is “Bed Time” by Porath. It shows a rusty bed in a room with peeling wallpaper. You can’t even see the floor under the piles of discarded clothes, newspaper and garbage.

     “No Waiting,” another piece by Porath, shows four chairs in a line against a wall of green peeling paint with insulation and other garbage littering the floor.

     Zac Barrett’s photograph “Don’t Touch the Dial” also shows the inside of an abandoned home. Amongst many pulled up wooden floorboards you can see an old TV with a smashed-out screen, with all the inside mechanics visible.

     Abandoned businesses and factories somehow still convey a sense of personal loss: snow piling up inside due to a collapsed roof; a factory decorated with graffiti as sunlight shimmers through holes; a stage with a ripped backdrop, a random chair in the corner and a fire extinguisher on the floor.

     In “Full Court Press” by Nathan Porath, you see an abandoned gymnasium covered in dust. A garbage can and an industrial hamper are left right in the middle of the court as though the janitor just stopped cleaning and walked away, never to return.

     Abandoned Wisconsin is on view thru July 13. Gallery hours: Tues.-Fri. 10 am-5 pm; Sat. noon-4 pm., 715-842-4545.