PRINT November 2021

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View of Eugene Von Bruenchenhein works and partial home facsimile, Art Preserve of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan, Wisconsin, 2021.

“ONE CANNOT KNOW EVERYTHING about the world, but one can at least approach closed knowledge through the collection,” observes Susan Stewart in her 1984 classic On Longing. “Although transcendent and comprehensive in regard to its own context, such knowledge is both eclectic and eccentric.” Add “exuberant” to that alliterative pairing and you’d have an apt description of the Art Preserve, which opened this past summer in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. A satellite of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, the preserve, housed in an impressive concrete-and-glass building by the Denver firm Tres Birds, is fixated on a singular mission: the collection and display of “artist-built environments.”

Named for an Austrian immigrant who settled in Sheboygan and made his fortune in plumbing fixtures, the center opened in 1967 as an outpost for works primarily by self-taught or folk artists. In this sense, the institution might be considered kin to the American Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore, which defines itself as “the official national museum, education center, and repository for intuitive, self-taught artistry,” and the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland, which was initiated by a donation from Jean Dubuffet and leans heavily on the trope of mental illness as artistic motivation. With its emphasis on environments, however, the preserve deftly sidesteps what curator Lynne Cooke refers to as a “minefield of nomenclature” in the catalogue for her provocative 2018 traveling exhibition “Outliers and American Vanguard Art.” Cooke’s own use of the term outlier was intended to disrupt the presumed hierarchy of inside(r) and outside(r), a categorization often adjudicated by museums and reinforced by critics, historians, and collectors.

Peter Jodocy, untitled, ca. 1957, antler, metal, paint, plaster, wood, mixed media, 72 1⁄2 × 25 1⁄2 × 71 1⁄2".

The Kohler collection spans the mid-1800s to the present, roughly paralleling the development of modernism and its aftermath, though the museum seems largely indifferent to that historical narrative. (But if Duchamp’s Fountain plays an at best insignificant role in the story the preserve is telling, it must be mentioned that the venue has the most compelling bathrooms of any museum I’ve been to, with commissioned installations by artists Beth Lipman, Michelle Grabner, and the duo Joy Feasley and Paul Swenbeck all obliquely responding to the collection.) What links the artists in this museum that plumbing built is obsession, which manifests in a variety of ways, though it’s clear that none of them were obsessed with the art world or belonging to it: They were all too busy constructing their own worlds to worry about such things. There is a heavy emphasis on artists from so-called flyover country, with the first floor of the preserve primarily given over to local artists. On occasion, some of these works—say, Peter Jodocy’s untitled deer, ca. 1957, made of plaster and wood and adorned with actual antlers—resembled objects I might have seen in someone’s front yard on the way to Sheboygan. The perceptual continuity with a woodsy northern-Midwest vernacular is part of the fun here. Likewise, the thicket of towering timbers that marks the entrance to the new building echoes the surrounding landscape and serves as a storybook-style portal between states of consciousness.

The purview of the preserve may be unique, but the arts center is not in itself, nor does it aspire to be, an “outsider” institution.

Not far from that threshold, one encounters a dense constellation of objects by one Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, mostly contained within a partial facsimile of his candy-colored Milwaukee house. Essentially a first among equals here, Von Bruenchenhein is represented in the arts center collection by about nine thousand objects, including countless cosmological or apocalyptic paintings, oodles of leaflike ceramic vessels, a trove of erotic slide photographs of his wife, Marie, and dozens of miniature thrones constructed from chicken bones. These objects are so exquisitely but densely displayed that their sheer plenitude takes a few minutes to apprehend. The paintings hang edge to edge, from floor to ceiling, on sliding panels of expanded metal five layers deep. Von Bruenchenhein’s vessels and thrones fill elegant vitrines, which stand atop locked cabinets presumably filled with more unseen goodies. Here and throughout the preserve, the line between collecting and hoarding is shown to be awfully thin. (One empathizes with the registrars, who toil in view of visitors.) The often mind-boggling sense of profusion is perhaps the point; the word preserve is Midwestern nice for “indefinite storage.”

In some cases, the environments have been extricated from their original sites and meticulously reconstructed. See for example the bedazzled walls and porch from the Beautiful Holy Jewel Home, ca. 1985–90, of Mississippian Loy Bowlin (1909–1995), who embraced Glen Campbell’s 1975 country-glam anthem “Rhinestone Cowboy” with missionary zeal. As with Von Bruenchenhein’s house, architectural fragments—whether relocated or re-created—are a frequent motif here. But most of the environments are necessarily partial, fragments or core samples serving as metonyms for larger, more totalizing artistic endeavors. For example, the Kohler acquired the house and property of Mary Nohl (1914–2001) from the nearby town of Fox Point; it is represented here by an arsenal of the artist’s tools arranged on a replicated garage wall, along with an array of her paintings, ceramics, and sculptures. The spirited sculpture garden Nohl created in her yard has been deemed an eyesore by some in tidy Fox Point and occasionally vandalized; the Kohler’s stewardship of such contentious sites recalls Dia’s maintenance of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, 1970, and Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field, 1977. The preserve also recalls Dia’s focus on long-term and permanent installations at its converted-factory setting in Beacon, New York.

The purview of the preserve may be unique, but, as its parallels with Dia suggest, the arts center is not in itself, nor does it aspire to be, an “outsider” institution. Programmatic aspects of its architecture borrow from a number of recent high-profile art venues, including the Herzog & de Meuron–designed Schaulager in Basel, literally a display warehouse that blurs the line between storage and exhibition. On the opposite end of the spectrum is David Wilson’s venerable Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, in which the wunderkammerisch exhibition design is shaped by the idiosyncratic objects (and subjects) on display, rather than demanding they submit to a curatorial logic imposed from above. A similar sensitivity to both artworks and visitors guides the design at the preserve. Graciously scaled, the building balances visual density with airy circulation space while providing comfortable lounge chairs (in lieu of the typical stern museum benches) and ample views of the surrounding landscape.

View of Ray Yoshida collection, Art Preserve of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan, Wisconsin, 2020.

Despite the thoughtfulness apparent throughout the preserve, at moments during my visit I wondered if any institution devoted to the display of “artist-built environments” could avoid leveling some individual eccentricities. A few of the thirty-some artists are presented in such close proximity to one another that it’s hard to contemplate them in isolation. And the preserve is unusual in its lack of didactic explication; artworks are largely untagged. In most cases, there’s a single text panel for each artist, and these tend to emphasize biography over interpretation or art-historical contextualization. There are also touch screens—surprising in the midst of a contact-averse pandemic, and without a QR code in sight—but these prove cumbersome when attempting to identify discrete objects in the dense installation. This was particularly frustrating in the case of the reconstructed environments of Ray Yoshida and Lenore Tawney—both artists with an expansive yet highly selective taste in objects, artistic and otherwise. Tawney is represented by an approximation of a whitewashed New York loft (she lived and worked in several), in which her own textile works cohabit with a rack of millinery molds, little Shaker chairs, duck decoys, and tiny animal skulls. The replicated walls of Yoshida’s Chicago home positively teem with drawings by Lee Godie, Martín Ramírez, and Joseph Yoakum, paintings and collages by Yoshida and his Chicago Imagist peers, masks, toys, silent butlers, bottlecap baskets, memory jars . . . So much cool stuff! In both environments, recognizable items serve as Easter eggs to reward those who can place them. For everyone else, will it be enough simply to observe how specific a collection can be, even in its wild eclecticism?

View of Lenore Tawney works and collection, Art Preserve of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan, Wisconsin, 2021.

The artist-as-collector is an important figure here. In some ways, Yoshida and Tawney are stand-ins for Ruth DeYoung Kohler, the director of the center from 1972 until 2016 and an artist-collector whose own mania for accumulation parallels or exceeded that of the artists assembled here. At times, her role as the granddaughter of the museum’s founder, and as an artist who collaborated with the architects on a series of concrete blocks (based on glyphs used by hobos for coded communication) incorporated into the stairwells, is similarly blurry. What some might consider a breach of the proper boundary between administration and philanthropy also speaks to the “family style” ethos of a regional art institution far from the beaten path. Sadly, Ruth DeYoung Kohler died in 2020, before the metaenvironment she imagined and built could open its doors to the public. Her apparent relentlessness is preserved here, along with the outliers and their beguiling bodies of work. In On Longing, Stewart articulates the profound relationship between a collector and the space(s) they occupy: “Each sign is placed in relation to a chain of signifiers whose ultimate referent is not the interior of the room—in itself an empty essence—but the interior of the self.” In the case of Kohler’s Art Preserve, it becomes impossible to untangle the self of the longtime director from the other eccentrics who so exuberantly fill these interiors. But one wouldn’t want to anyway.

Michael Ned Holte is an independent curator who teaches in the art program at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia.