I was Art Critic for the Rock River Times from 2003-2007. Through this job, I saw incredible art work, got to know creative, fun artists and gallery personnel, and even started my "Artists and Patrons" painting series. Most importantly, I was forced to evaluate my understanding of contemporary art. Writing these reviews and my book expanded and enriched my view of myself as a visual and literary person. Here are several of my reviews.

Norm Knott at Kortman Gallery

Norm Knott defines his art and his objectives with both humor and irony titling his current show at Kortman Gallery "Knott for the Faint at Heart." Knott's work is something that grows on you. To revel in his frank use of glitzy materials, you need to let go your stuffy, middle-class upbringing, for, visually, this work is pure and funky fun. But once you let your guard down to laugh, you realize that you have stepped into the artist's mind and, perhaps, into another lifestyle. This dichotomy is the making of fine art.
For instance, his "Question Authority (The Abbie Hoffman Piece)" is a hinged box with a map of Rockford on the lid. A yellow, bejeweled, Wizard-of-Oz road curves down over the map. On the road are two matchbox cars–one is a car that definitely evokes the 60's and the other a police cruiser. Authority. The sides of the box are covered with Knott's traffic tickets! Questioning authority. And on the inside a young Abbie Hoffman also defiantly questions. Like many of Knott's pieces, "Question Authority" has a recent, historical undertone. But knowing of Hoffman (actually, this radical was on the lam when I taught his daughter, a second grader) isn't a prerequisite to enjoying and digesting the work.
Norm Knott addresses and outdoes the heritage of assemblage with his hilarious "Salvador's Athletic Cup." Despite its early twentieth-century origins, assemblage didn't really move above ground until the 1950's. One eminently rememberable work from this period was Marisol's fur teacup, saucer and spoon. A woman working in the macho world of mid-century art, she took dishes from her kitchen and covered them with fur, the fifties status symbol. This ground-breaking piece has stood the test of time, but Knott took her idea and twisted it one more time. His "athletic cup" is soft, fur lined and luxurious on the inside with jewel encrusted photos outside. Knott's cup-art is referencing other art, and that is a very contemporary idiom.
Extending the life of found objects, photos and costume jewelry is central to Knott's artistic concept and inspiration. For instance, one button over the door on "Woodpecker House IV" is from a computer. It says "enter," but the side of that same button admonishes one to have "control." A favorite piece of mine is built around an old autographed photo of a "Working Woman (Zoretta)." She writes "To the only one who gives a f... about us old broads." And "Rain Forest" dangles a dozen necklace chains from its small canvas. Together with their shadows, these chains unmistakably denote rain.
Three word pieces explore the Civil Rights movement. "Child" is written in black beads with a photo of Emmet Till and articles about his death which sparked the Montgomery bus boycott and brought Martin Luther King Jr. to prominence. "Dignity" enshrines Coretta Scott King, and "Teach," a multi-colored piece with a family photo, is dedicated to Harry T. Moore. The Civil Rights movement certainly empowered Gay Rights, a topic central to this show. But remember, King had no such fantasies, to him it was incomprehensible that women deserved equal rights. And Gays were in the closet.
Norm Knotts has created a show that is equally charming, funny, thoughtful and controversial. What more could an art lover ask for? The exhibit continues through February 28th in the Kortman Gallery, upstairs at J.R. Kortman Center for Design, 107 N. Main Street, Rockford.
Susan Webb Tregay is an artist and author living in downtown Rockford. Her new book and DVD, Master Disaster 5 Ways to Rescue Desperate Watercolors, will be out in mid-March.
Collected Visions: African American Self-Taught Artists from the Southeastern U.S.
Figurative works, found materials, and anguished brush strokes unite the works of the new exhibition at the Rockford Art Museum, "Collected Visions." While lives of struggle provide the backdrop for these works, it is the creative urge that pulsates though this show.
Much has been said about the "outsider art" of self-taught artists, but none of it properly describes the power of pieces created from everyday materials that "demand" to be made into expressions of life. None of it properly describes the artist's obsession with exposing thoughts in raw and candid ways. It is always difficult to really understand others, but in viewing this exhibition one comes away with a visceral empathy toward the circumscribed lives of these artists and a profound admiration for their creative momentum.
A tree root, complete with big, flat feet, anchors Bessie Harvey's untitled assemblage (1987) into our memories. One figure climbs on the shoulders of her friend, lover or, perhaps, an ancestor. With beads, breasts and dreadlocks, these people share the burdens of their lives as this piece twists and leans precariously–and menacingly. Art should never reveal itself easily, and some art never reveals itself completely. Years after its creation, I bet even Bessie Harvey is still gaining new understandings from her own piece.
A familiar size, shape and depth. A familiar "chrome" pattern. Theodore Hill's pay phone is his direct link to God. "If You Need Me," from the collection of Steve and Susan Pitkin, has a small, red-felt receiver attached by a cord to the mirrored, red and wooden phone. A hot line. "Pick up this phone if you need me tell me your troble I will make everything allright," he writes. No dime is needed.

Anchored by soaring white buildings on the left, "Night Business," by Thornton Dial, Sr. drops precariously and then steadily climbs toward the dark right side dominated by a church-like image. It is night, but just not any night. The dark sky possesses a panther with blood-red claws pushing on a steeple of the church. A woman prays inside. The imagery in this painting tells a compelling story, but it is the techniques that deliver the work that make you shiver. Carpet roping outlines each building with a thick border giving the painting a third dimension. Layers of white-on-white, gray-on-gray or black-on-brown paint build up the surface and encapsulate the rope. What emotion Anselm Kiefer embodied in his post World War II German fields, Thornton Dial, Sr. has created with an American city.
Pervise Young has expressively painted a large head looking down to the excited mass of people. The benevolent personage's red chin directs you eye to the crowd. They are leaping and calling out. There is a railroad track. Did they labor over it? Have they travelled it? Which side do they live on? Then the red spot on his forehead brings your eye back to the main figure. Young's design of this untitled painting holds everything together so firmly that all of these questions–and more--can't put it asunder.
Many artists in this "Collective Visions" show, have gone beyond the Outsider Artist label to be shown alongside formally trained artists. Their work, at first shown because of being self-taught, is now being exhibited despite being self-taught. Of particular note, Harvey's work appeared in the 1995 Whitney Biennial in New York City, and Dail, Sr., followed her in the Whitney 2000.
This exhibit was selected from the collection of Steve and Susan Pitkin and acquisitions from the collections of John and Diane Baisley and Jim Hager. These Rockford and Milwaukee area collectors were influenced by Atlanta collector, Bill Arnett, who has been one of the most active promoters of the self-taught genre. Artist and commercial photographer Steve Pitkin was first drawn to the style while photographing works from the Hagar collection at the Rockford Art Museum. His enthusiasm led him to Alabama where he sought out Arnett and artist Lonnie Holley to learn more about the work that he had photographed.
Come and share his enthusiasm. Step back and absorb the paintings, assemblages and sculptures. See their raw power as these collectors did, and go home and create.
"Collected Visions" will continue at the Rockford Art Museum, 711 N. Main Street, 968-2787, through April 25. Museum hours are Tuesday-Friday 11-5, Saturday 10-5, and Sunday 12-5.
The 2004 Rockford Midwestern Exhibition, A Celebration Artistic Diversity

May 14th the Rockford Art Museum opens its exhibition of new work from artists throughout the Midwest region. James Rondeau, a curator of Contemporary Art at the Art Institute of Chicago, faced the daunting task of pulling this show together in a time when fresh perspectives in art are celebrated by diverse art strategies. Realism is returning, painting is alive and well, and drawing, and even watercolor, is taking its rightful place along side sculpture and oils. Rather than being defined by trends, this show explores ideas, formal traditions and the creative uses of materials.
Margaret Whiting, in her construction "A New Set of Ground Rules," dares to address what is on the minds of the American public. The assemblage alternates pages from a book entitled "the Laws of Nations" and the spines, and flimsy remnants of pages, from destroyed books. Circled in the visible text are the words of wisdom for this difficult time. This piece is simple, gutsy and gracefully beautiful.
Her second contribution to this exhibition is in equal parts fun and profound. Imagine law books, volumes one through ten, rolled into what one might interpret as oversized rolls of toilet paper. A Sam's Club special.
Mark Sladen, in his The Americans.new art, defined art of this new millennium as, in part, labor intensive and positively anti-technological. In exploring these realms, Matt Irie won Best of Show for his compulsive use of handwriting as both a media and a technique. Developing quilt-like patterns by varying pencils and ink, Irie's dense verbiage repetitively explores our thought making processes. Contrasting these two large pieces is one simple page torn from a spiral notebook. It is a folded note offering help–something Irie must have been dreaming of as he labored over these graceful, hypnotic pieces.
"Accident Victims who Didn't Listen to their Mothers" is fun photography at its best. Judy Langston recalls this admonishment from our childhood and places it squarely in into horrific, adult detail. A grid of small, torso photos show men in pantyhose, heart-decorated boxers, women's undies and the like, while women embarrass themselves with sock-stuffed bras, curlers and holey stockings. No mother could resist saying "Didn't I tell you?"
Paul Clark and Bill O'Donnell use their cameras to find sublime abstractions in their worlds. Clark's linear, black-on-white works entrance you while you pull from your memory what you are actually seeing, tomato cages resting in a layer of snow. Inspired colors and shapes, on the other hand, arrest the viewer before O'Donnell's pieces. Knowing that these are photos and must "be" something are but passing thoughts, easily dismissed in the works' simple design.
Several pieces rely on photos of figures from the 20's or 30's for their story. Two seem to use portrait photos that gay couples had taken to signify their devotion. Doug Smithenry's men leaving farm country hand in hand are fractured, then reassembled slightly out of alignment. This gives his work both a distinct, even joyous, rhythm and a broken, uneasy feel. Norm Knott, on the other hand, combines glitzy materials with a photo of a gay couple swinging on a crescent moon, a common pose for these types of photos. His statement in this work, though, is punctuated by two rough-hewn boards nailed to the front that bar the viewer from entering the private scene--and keeps the couple from moving out in the world.
The 2004 Rockford Midwestern Exhibition is full of treasures and surprises from a pair of nylon-clad legs coyly posed in a corner to a series of cobalt-blue glass bars leaning against another wall. Explore the talent and imagination of today's artists at the Rockford Art Museum, 711 North Main Street. The opening is May 14th, 7-8:30, and the show continues to July 25th. Museum hours are Tuesday-Friday 11-5, Saturday 10-5, and Sunday 12-5. Phone (815)968-2787.