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His curious curios tell mytical tales

by James Auer, Looking at Art

Gary John Gresl specializes in weaving myths around the curios he builds into his big-scale, object-oriented assemblages.

Or, to put it another way, he uses assemblages to create myths.

No matter how you look at it, Gresl's solo show of mixed-media sculptures, "A Personal Synthesis," is a densely packed exercise in fictionalized recall.

The show runs through Feb. 16 at Carroll College's Rowe Art Gallery in Waukesha.

An avid antique collector (he owns the Milwaukee Antique Center), Gresl obviously enjoys acquiring cast-off articles and recycling them to tell a story and evoke a bygone era.

"Tisch Mills Opera House" represents the kind of kitschy memorial a group of children might have done as a class project just before the venerable theater was demolished.

Practically everything that might be found in an abandoned, soon-to-be-razed auditorium is here: fading publicity photos, used-up circuit boards, frayed playing cards, a thermometer.

The elaborately crafted end product is a piece of art, true, but it's also astute mythmaking.

Where did the domino-garlanded deer's head? Who's the camera-loving opera star in the glamorized portrait?

The viewer is invited to decode the evidence, reflect briefly, then write the story personally.

Nearby are other pieces that suggest similar conglomerations of junk left over from an earlier time: "Uncle Jim's Granary," "The Old Boat House at Cone Lake," "Widow Fisher's Quarry."

Gresl has gone so far as to purchase a 35-million-year-old cat's scull for one piece, and rare, turn-of-the-century coins for another.

The result pays off nicely.

What's fun is the completed works do far more than amuse, bemuse, puzzle, and gently push the nostalgia button.

They work quite well in formal terms, too, with rich, varied textures, unexpected rhythms, a fluent pallette, and neatly asymmetric compositions.

And for once, a crowded gallery makes perfect thematic sense. The image-packed works standing together cheek by jowl hark back to a memorable, if unrecoverable, past that will be different for each viewer.

The Rowe Gallery, in the college's Humphrey Art Center, is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday thru Friday, 2 to 4p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Admission is free.

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