Generously Provoked, Vulnerably Confronted and Other Paradoxes in Group Show

By Marisa Wall

opening reception of Group Show photo by Sean Heiser

John Riepenhoff's inaugural solo show, an exhibition at Jackpot Gallery from June 18 to 30, 2010, could seem intimidating upon first glance. Group Show was the title of Riepenhoff's homage to artists he appreciates, a collection of his own creations —paintings, drawings, sculpture and performance—highlighting Riepenhoff's interpretation of the art influencing his development as a gallerist, artist, and human. Taking the risk to make and exhibit his own art work in the hometown where he has been a central figure in cultivating the contemporary conceptual art scene was bold in itself. Attempting to "embody the ethos of other artist's practices" i and share the tangible results of his studio exploration with the very community he continually seeks to serve as an owner and operator of The Green Gallery was brave and fresh enough to be a little disorienting. In the context of Riepenhoff's show "disorientation," similar to other complex emotions art can elicit, is just another tool we, the audience, can use to make meaning.

Group Show was a unique exhibit since Riepenhoff based each of his creations on the style of one of twelve different artists: James Franklin, Katie Kraft, Nicholas Frank, Paul Stoelting, Peter Barrickman, Santiago Cucullu, Sara Clendenning, Sarah Luther, Scott Reeder, Stephanie Barber, Steve Wetzel, and Tyson Reeder. He also chose to include the name of the artist from whom he drew his inspiration in the title of each piece. "Portrait of the Artist by Sarah Luther" is a framed sketchbook open to a page in which Riepenhoff drew, in the style of Sarah Luther, a portrait of Sarah Luther drawing him. Through the turned page to the left of the main drawing is another Luther-inspired sketch of Luther's face faintly seen, drawn on the other side of the thin paper. I felt specifically connected to the piece because I know Sarah Luther and have seen her sketch people whenever she has a moment to spare, but I also liked it because I carry a journal with me wherever I go, and seeing this framed book helped me reframe my own practice with reverence.

Although I have spent a lot of time at Green Gallery events and within Riepenhoff's community, my experience of the show as a whole wasn't limited to my ability to "get" the references the artist was sharing. I had to make my own meaning, just as I would at any art exhibit. As someone fairly new to Milwaukee and our art scene, I was familiar with the work of less than half the artists who influenced the show. I ended up purchasing "Portrait of the Artist by Sarah Luther," but I don't understand all of Riepenhoff's associations with it and never will, even if I had numerous conversations with him about what he was trying to achieve. My experience with Group Show taught me to question my own self-congratulatory impulses when I think I "get" something or my feelings of insecurity when I think I don't, to pay attention to the delicate ideas of ownership and authorship in art, and especially to celebrate my community and show gratitude for what inspires me.

opening reception of Group Show photo by John Riepenhoff

Riepenhoff himself can seem daunting at first. His physical appearance alone, with a shock of long blond hair and an almost all-white wardrobe, is a specific choice not many of us would dare to try or be able to wear so well. And his demeanor, with a constant smile behind his eyes, even when faced with a vulnerable situation like leading a discussion in critique of his work, could seem like he's in on a joke, or at least a mischievous understanding the rest of us might not be able to access. Group Show also could be seen, on the surface, as something clever, removed, designed to entertain the small group of people who could understand most of the references inherent in work of this nature. But those of us who were able to stop focusing on whether or not we were getting the right reading of the show, and take what Riepenhoff offered, were able to see that nothing about the show was denying us access to the subject matter Riepenhoff explored. Taking each piece of art and the whole exhibit as it was, without judgment of what we brought (or didn't bring) to it, allowed access into a special glimpse of what this particular artist and gallerist appreciates in his community, past and present. What Riepenhoff has created with his life and this show is far more valuable than something superficial, pretty or witty, even though his work is full of beauty and humor. He's consistently used his talent and energy to craft, with generosity and respect, a space for patrons, artists, and everyday people to explore, appreciate, have fun, and embrace—not be afraid of—the uncomfortable questions that arise regarding our own expectations about how we should interact with art, and to move through our zone of discomfort or disorientation into a celebratory place of curiosity and discovery. The reason why Riepenhoff's smile isn't intimidating after you get to know him is because once you know him you realize he doesn't look confident because he knows something we don't, he just seems to be smiling because he's living a life he loves. And this show was smiling too.

I visited Group Show for the first time during a concert Riepenhoff organized in the gallery space with three of his favorite bands: Best Friends Forever, Batten Revue, and The Not This Atrium. I then returned for a roundtable discussion he hosted with some of the artists represented in the show as well as other members of Milwaukee's art community. Oliver Sweet, assistant to artists Scott and Tyson Reeder, used the term “tenderness” to describe how he saw Riepenhoff's interpretation of the Reeder brothers' work, artists with whom Sweet and Riepenhoff share a special connection since Riepenhoff too, years ago, served as the Reeders' assistant. Other words used to describe Group Show at the roundtable were "generous" and "vulnerable" intertwined with "provocative" and "confrontational," a paradox most of us didn't know how to approach. We are not used to being generously provoked or vulnerably confronted. Many of us in attendance had seen parodies or imitations of famous works of art where the artist was obviously trying to send a message regarding his or her set opinions about the subject through the parody, but Riepenhoff wasn't mimicking artists with this show and he wasn't telling us how to feel. Rather, he was honoring his inspirations and, more admirably, the unexpected places his embodiment of their styles took him. By giving us a glimpse of his own exploration he was also honoring his audience by offering us something beautiful and new rather than condescending to what we expected when we saw a Katie Kraft piece or work by Paul Stoelting. Since Riepenhoff chose to face the challenge of finding his own authorship in a salute to others, he did force his audience to grapple with our misgivings about intellectual property. He didn't shy away from perplexing us with questions about where an artist's own ideas begin. When most of us are disconcerted by something, even a confounding thought, we often get defensive in response. It was nice to see our defenses break down when we moved into a closer reading of the show and started to notice the fundamental warmth of Riepenhoff's art.

Richard Galling, an artist shown at the Green Gallery earlier this year, likened the show to a mix-tape of different styles of songs created for a beloved someone. Riepenhoff clearly loves and is fascinated by contemporary art itself and the Milwaukee community of artists. Just as Monet loved water and light, and devoted his life to trying to paint the beauty he saw, perhaps Riepenhoff's subject, as an artist and not just a gallerist, is the beauty he sees in art and artists. It was strange to see the names of other artists in the titles of Riepenhoff's work, but if we look at Riepenhoff's titles as pure subject rather than just reference, maybe it's not any stranger than seeing references to the names of locations or objects in the titles of Monet's work. Riepenhoff admitted during the roundtable that he has a history of evading subject matter and often adopts a “meta” approach. But choosing to celebrate art as a subject isn't an evasion, it's a distinction. The peculiar choice does not de-legitimatize the essence of his work or the actual objects he created. His craft in trying a variety of artistic practices was impressive. Riepenhoff tackled a wide range of media, from traditional painting to performance, successfully. But again, what was most apparent about the success of his work, as the author or artist, and not a mimic, was certainly the tenderness and care that shone through his evocative, unusual subject.

One critique I heard echoed during the roundtable discussion was whether or not the show was insular. For example, if someone didn't know Peter Barrickman's work, would they be able to connect with Riepenhoff's painting "Sleep Center by Peter Barrickman"? If someone outside of Milwaukee saw the show, or if the exhibit traveled to another city, would the show as a whole have merit? My assessment of these questions, after listening to the responses in the roundtable and talking to other community members, was that some of us in Milwaukee might have an inferiority complex about the worth of Milwaukee art or even about ourselves as patrons. Riepenhoff doesn't share this point of view. Riepenhoff, who has exhibited his own art in Munich, Paris, Tokyo as well as around the U.S., and who brings artists' work from New York and Los Angeles to the Green Gallery, is not an insular person and doesn't keep himself in a provincial place. It's just that he values Milwaukee above other places where he could take his work. Some pieces certainly resonated for me beyond the context or gesture of the show, especially the delicate details in the miniature painting “Tutor by James Franklin” and the spirited multimedia choices in “Sleep Center by Peter Barrickman,” and I am curious to see if Riepenhoff will continue to create in these styles. The show too, as a whole, could be successful elsewhere because Riepenhoff has built trust in the art community outside of Milwaukee, and he is savvy enough to know how to market the concept to fit another venue. For example he could have taken the show to Chicago where he recently curated another exhibit at the Sullivan Gallery as a resident of the School of the Art Institute or to the next Milwaukee International Art Fair, which he previously helped cultivate in Cologne and New York. But Milwaukee has the most meaning for him. His chosen venue for Group Show was the Jackpot Gallery in Riverwest and his chosen first subject and audience for a solo show was his circle of friends, not because he couldn't achieve success somewhere else, but because he chooses to contribute to the lives of people here and values what he can learn from this community.

Nicholas Frank, another artist honored with a particularly humorous homage in "Uh-Oh by Nicholas Frank," described his take on Riepenhoff's show as, "subsuming [Riepenhoff's] own personality... interesting as a gesture, self-cancelling yet self-promoting." Riepenhoff undoubtedly sees his work as part of something greater than himself. Maybe that's what's so bewildering about Group Show. We expect artists to show us their greatness rather than helping us see ours, but those two outcomes aren't mutually exclusive. I for one am grateful to John Riepenhoff for taking a risk as an individual and thereby highlighting how we are all a part of each other. Thank you for offering us a strange show and disorienting us enough to help us orient right back into the heart of ourselves, to help us rediscover, or maybe find out for the first time, how valuable we are as creators and appreciators.

i John Riepenhoff, "Group Show," John Riepenhoff, 13 August 2010