A new exhibition by Wisconsin painter Charles Munch takes up and expands on his natural themes – Isthmus
Simplified, colorful landscapes are populated with often stunned-looking people and animals, often deer. Something is happening here, but it’s not clear what. Wisconsin artist Charles Munch’s symbolic paintings tug at the viewer’s subconscious but defy easy explanation.
Both animals and landforms—hills, trees, bodies of water, even fire—are sketched, suggesting styles as diverse as pop art and Australian Aboriginal painting. Munch’s title upcoming exhibition Miracles and Mysteries at the Abel Contemporary Gallery in Stoughton sums up the vaguely unsettling atmosphere of his work.
“One of the reasons I do them is because they allow me to delve into issues I can’t put into words. Sometimes I discover answers through her,” he says.
Munch’s paintings were the subject of a major retrospective at the Museum of Wisconsin Art in 2019; another exhibition followed in spring 2021, “Parallel Worlds”, at the Tory Folliard Gallery in Milwaukee. “Miracles and Mysteries” will feature about 35 paintings, including 18 new works, Munch says, surrounded by many of these new paintings in mid-August, still in his studio on the second floor of his home at the Driftless.
The Wikipedia entry for Munch states that he lives on “a remote hillside near Lone Rock,” but it’s less than an hour from Madison’s west side and the road to his home is dotted with farms; He even shares part of his driveway with a neighbor. However, it’s a long drive from the road to his house. When asked how he plows it in the winter, Munch, 77, says he does the entire length himself with a snow blower, though he admits he may not be able to complete the task for too many more winters.
It’s a down-to-earth attitude that typifies his humble, single-minded approach. His studio has a venetian blind with a pulley system he designed himself, which he uses to regulate the light coming in through the tall south-facing windows. On a table is a stack of pieces of aluminum foil that Munch has formed into color palettes, with his mixed colors matching specific paintings, each in a separate indentation. That’s handy for touch-ups or other corrections – “if I can remember what goes with which painting.”
The wall space is occupied by the paintings directed towards Abel; The rest of the studio houses an archive of his older work, neatly stored in a vertical storage area. Garlic cloves from his garden lie on the ground next to the windows to dry. Elsewhere there are stacks of CDs, tubes of oil paint, brushes, an old lamp, sticks (from trees), crayons, watercolors and antlers.
This exhibition features more recent works, including several created during and in response to the pandemic, including Expulsion from Hell, which was painted fairly early in the shutdown. The pictorial language plays with a standard motif of Renaissance painting, the expulsion from Eden. A man, a woman and a deer standing upright face the viewer, behind them a wall of flames. “The idea is that they’re happy to be evicted and emerge into a new world, changed,” says Munch.
Another work from the pandemic period is called “Hope”. He’s less clear about what this is about, other than that he “was hopeful” when he was working on it. A man and a woman hug in front of a house. “But the clouds are still heavy,” he observes. “It’s not over.”
Munch is sometimes grouped with Upper Midwest artists like Tom Uttech, Randall Berndt, Barry Carlsen, and John Miller as a sort of “Northern mysticism” school of painting, but it’s really nothing so formal and he’s probably the least realistic of the lot them group. “It’s not just Nordic, it’s a certain take on the landscape,” suggests Munch.
Munch begins a work with a sketch made with good old Crayola crayons and watercolors, with the crayons outlining the objects and the watercolors helping him “think about color.” For his actual work, he paints in oil on unstretched canvas, which he staples to the wall. “It allows me to press against the wall,” he says. “I like the resistance.” He begins with large areas of glaze, very thin paint. Details and outlines are added later with a brush. The result is flat and smooth; the viewer can hardly see a brushstroke. He is looking for “clarity and freshness, as if I had done everything at once, even though I didn’t do it”.
He tends to paint the same tableau several times, as in a new painting intended for the Abel show called Deer vs. Wolf, which depicts a deer being chased through a forest by a wolf. “Freezing a moment,” he says, “is how you build suspense.” Considering the scene, he says, “It’s not clear that the deer will escape. I don’t want the picture to tell that story. I intentionally create the mystery.”
He starts with a small painting and then recreates almost the same image on a larger canvas. He painted this again, on an even larger canvas, which is more square than rectangular. Each features the same action but ends with subtle differences in sentiment or mood. “I try it until I’m satisfied,” he says. “With every expansion I have the chance to improve. It gives me great satisfaction to make the painting as I envisioned it.”
Other pieces, like his Mammal Polyptych, are not straight stories, but intended for meditation. “I wanted the human figures and the mammals to clearly confront the viewer,” he says of the four-part work, which shows a man, a bear, and a woman and a deer under a moonlit sky – all standing upright except for the woman, who sits. He likens it to altarpieces in Renaissance Italy, “but made for Wisconsin at the present time.”
There has long been a sense of impending ecological catastrophe in Munch’s work. He’s been labeled an environmentalist – “and I mean, I am, but I never thought of that as part of the paintings,” he says. He concedes that what’s happening is only getting worse, although he’s not sure if that’s affecting his work. “It’s nothing new for me to think about,” he says. “Maybe there was a time when I was more angry. Maybe I’ve softened.”
Looking at his work on the studio walls, Munch sums it up quite optimistically. “The beauty of nature, the growth, the animals – everything that happens seems like a miracle to me.”
Miracles and Mysteries opens September 16 at the Abel Contemporary Gallery in Stoughton with a reception from 5pm to 8pm. Munch will be giving an artist talk on October 1st at 2pm. The exhibition runs until November 6th.