Now that he has concluded his 2013-2014 sabbatical, Professor of Art Wendell Arneson is playing his latest collection, “A Sense of Place,” in Dittman Center’s Groot Gallery. Its blend of abstract and figurative art calls upon themes of memories, experiences, ideas, time, reactions and discovery, namely, “place.”
While crafted over the course of ten months, the collection is part of a long legacy that drives its central theme.
“It took me probably 40 years to make it, in one way, because making work is relative to what you know and what you experience, two weeks ago, two months ago, and five years ago and ten years ago, so I couldn’t have made a painting five years ago the same way I made it and finished it this year,” Arneson said.
To Arneson, the concept of “place” has been important to him since the age of eight, when he grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin.
“My parents greatly valued and treasured the land upon which they were working and had purchased from my grandfather, so there was a history and a heritage there. So for 10 to 15 years after that, when I first was making work professionally, it was more directly related to the land, landscapes, grasses, water… but it was really about place. It was about a physical place. It was about the land, about land in southern Wisconsin and water and small streams and whatever was visually interesting,” Arneson said.
With time, Arneson felt a desire to infuse his personal growth and new cross-cultural awareness as a result of adopting his daughters from China and Vietnam into his artwork. He began a transition from “pure representation” to a marriage of abstraction and figuration. This new venue of expression allowed for the works to ask more questions of its audience than provide answers, with regard to literal meaning.
“The sense of place was a personal place, it was a place of memory, it was a place of observation, it was… paying attention to a broad, socio-political kind of context that’s not really obvious in the work,” Arneson said.
This ambiguity is indeed intentional, for a variety of reasons. Primarily, Arneson describes works as “conversations” between himself and the materials at hand. He often begins without a clear idea of what is to be constructed, but rather focuses on a word or theme he writes down, a color, a shape or whim to explore new palettes and grades of shading and begins to collage on a small scale to see what will happen.
However, the true meaning often does not emerge until the piece has been “resolved” for a period of time and the artist has had a moment to associate it with current events, philosophies or memories that speak to the nature of the piece.
“What you end up with on a wall is a visual residue of a series of decisions. The viewer can react to a variety of things they see, but only you the creator know how many choices you made along the way,” Arneson said. He advises students to trust their feelings.
“We sometimes get caught up in trying to illustrate a particular idea – just give yourself a place to start and go. Trust your intuition about how you find it interesting, but trust that in the making of it, art will lead you to the meaning,” Arneson said.
This is where the ambiguity returns: because everyone has his or her own plethora of experiences, Arneson restricts his own input, such that the audience can have an unbiased encounter with the works.
“Ultimately, I think, all art work that is well-made creates this window or door for others to enter with their stories and then it’s always alive. It’s not static, it doesn’t mean just one thing – it could mean a hundred things to a hundred different people,” Arneson said.
Because of this, he chooses titles that are abstract enough to provide the viewer with a jumping point but does not explicitly reveal what the piece is about. Upon hearing others’ interpretations and the stories they bring to their conversations with the art, Arneson has changed titles of past art pieces to honor these perceptions.
This particular collection shown in Dittmann, running from Sept. 12 to Oct. 26, reveals this evolution of practices, interactions with others’ stories and a thesaurus’ take on the word “place.” For all viewers, Arneson asks them to have an open mind.
“When you see a piece that catches your attention, study it for a few minutes and figure out what it is about that piece that captures your interest and why you like it,” Arneson said. “Find something that intrigues you. You can never not notice anything too small.”