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Energy is His Medium
Gresl's artworks make bold statements

by James Auer, Milwaukee Journal art critic

Energy loves company -- at least in the wildly eclectic found-object sculptures of Gary John Gresl and John Balsley.

Balsley most likely won't be present from 1-5 p.m. today at the Wright Gallery, 922 E. Wright St., where Gresl is having an ingenious, if somewhat overblown, solo show.

But the spirit of this influential University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee art-faculty member will be--in Gresl's big, geographically oriented pieces, brilliantly confected out of the objects and oddments to which he has access as a partner in the Mid-America Antique Center.

Gresl, who doubles as vice president of the Wisconsin Painters and Sculptors organization, freely admits his spiritual debt to Balsley, a widely exhibited proponent of energy made visible.

But Gresl takes Balsley's drive, self-assurance and resourcefulness and channels it in the direction of narrative and ethnographic, rather than kinetic and apocalyptic, art.

Gresl's thrust, in the larger part of this major personal statement, is to play around with the idea that anthropologists and archeologists, in the year 2,087 A.D., are reassembling assorted fragments of American culture into a whole that makes sense to them.

This, in turn. leads to the creation of big visual statements with flash, bite and cogency, not to mention wit.

In some ways, then, these enormous assemblages--which bear such titles as "Brood Piece," "Arcade Piece" and "Children's Piece"--are the summation of Gresl's life to date.

Certainly, he is making intensely personal comments on his experiences as a youth growing up in Manitowoc, WI.

Self-revelation is a major component of his "Cult Piece," whose central element is a bear's head surrounded by bones and warmed by votive candles, and his "Moose Piece," a curious bit of acerbic nostalgia outlined in ironic neon by light artist McKim Stropes.

But there's more to Gresl's vision than that.

By taking commonplace items like barbed wire, cow horns, deer antlers, human hair and toy soldiers and weaving them into a thematic whole, he is making a surprisingly coherent statement about the materialistic nature of American culture, and its odd but enduring relationship to our philosophical roots.

Somehow, it seems to me, there is more of the real America locked up in a single snapshot of a successful deer hunter, his fallen prey tied to the running board of an ancient Chevrolet, than there is in all the stories you can find these days about the writing of the US Constitution.

Nor can one examine Gresl's "Arcade Piece," with its polka-dotted cows and miniature jet planes, without appreciating the curious mixture of fantasy and gross reality that is life in our United States, circa 1987.

He has a fix on American life that is far fresher and more pertinent than most media-oriented neo-expressionist paintings, and fully as appropriate as the rivulet of appropriated images that runs from Harnett and Peto in the 19th century, through the Magic Realists and their mainstream kin of our own day.

The entrepreneurial energy and self-directedness that Gresl admires in his mentor, Balsley, are intensely American qualities, and both men have a nice sensitivity to the light that cast-off objects can shed on the culture that first gave them birth, then abandoned them.

Gresl's solo exhibit concludes after this afternoon's showing, but his work will be on display starting April 4, as part of a four-person show at the Rahr-West Museum, Manitowoc, and later this spring at the West Bend Gallery of Fine Arts.

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