Diana Bolander, For USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
Published 11:24 a.m. CT Jan. 2, 2019 | Updated 11:33 a.m. CT Jan. 2, 2019
One of the wonderful things about working at an art museum is discovering new artists. One such artist new to me, but certainly not to the Wisconsin art scene, is Gary John Gresl, who recently donated one of his assemblages to the Rahr-West Art Museum for our permanent collection.
An assemblage is a three-dimensional collage. Instead of a collection of paper and two-dimensional fragments, an assemblage is a collection of objects juxtaposed in an artful arrangement.
Contemporary assemblage art evolved from the Avant-garde artists of the 20th century, who pushed the envelope of what was considered as art by using found objects. A found object is what one would think — a natural or man-made object that is found (or sometimes bought) by an artist and kept because of some intrinsic interest the artist sees in it.
Marcel Duchamp contributed to this movement in 1917 when he famously shocked the art world with his piece "Fountain," in which he took a urinal, signed it with a fake name, and presented it as a work of art. Duchamp used the term "readymade" to describe this type of work, in which the choice of the object is what is important and the act of choosing the object is what makes it art.
Robert Rauschenberg used discarded objects like car tires, taxidermied animals, and bed quilts combined with painted surfaces. Rauschenberg called these works “combines.” Joseph Cornell’s work primarily took the form of small glassed shadow boxes with found objects arranged inside.
Gary John Gresl was born May 12, 1943, in Manitowoc, where he attended school. As a child, he began a lifelong passion for collecting with rocks and coins. He took art and art history courses at UW-Stevens Point and UW-Madison, where he would have been exposed to the art of assemblage as well as Abstract Expressionism. He has been very involved with the Wisconsin Painters and Sculptors, Inc., and has been the recipient of the Wisconsin Visual Art Lifetime Achievement Award as well as the winner of a Nohl Fellowship Award.
In 1964, Gresl created his first assemblage using found objects from an abandoned farm dump. He found himself drawn to old and aged preexisting human objects. Gresl says that “they were like treasures unearthed from the past, similar but different from what we use each day. Over the decades or centuries, they had changed in appearance, sometimes drastically as natural forces had affected them, eroding or adding layers to them … with oxidation, new coloration and textures, altering them like nature does to living things.”
Over the decades, Gresl became more and more interested in the ephemeral qualities of things, but his main inspiration, objects, remained constant. He operated an antique business, which allowed him access to a variety of potential items for his work. He often selects objects that have meaning to him, but is also attracted to objects that fit into a visual scheme. He is always interested in seeing the “unexpected rise of meanings” when shapes and objects join together or combat one another.
When creating art, Gresl follows his gut feelings to see where it takes him. He says: “There are as many reasons why artists choose their materials and subjects as there are thoughts in the mind. Sometimes there are unconscious motivations that we cannot put into words, and a visual language allows us to release these verbally inexpressible prods. Sometimes we are so affected by the actions of others, of directions in our cultures and societies and politics that we 'must' create something visual to release our own ideas and frustrations and desires.”
Gresl’s work "Treasure — By the Sea" will be on exhibit at the Rahr-West Art Museum through mid February. Come to the museum to see it and discover other transformative works from our permanent collection.
Diana Bolander is assistant director/curatorof Rahr-West Art Museum in Manitowoc. Art Forward is a weekly column by the Manitowoc Public Arts Committee.