Perceptual prisons 

Visual Arts

We are all in bondage to something: an idea, someone else’s perception, our own belief system, our financial status, perhaps our health. Wisconsin artist Fred Stonehouse, whose exhibition Family Land is on view at Ruschman Art Gallery through Saturday, drives the notion of bondage home, but enigmatically, and carefully.
-‘Virtues’ by Fred Stonehouse, part of the exhibit ‘Family Land,’ currently on view at Ruschman Art Gallery; 634-3114..-

Stonehouse’s work, which has been exhibited and written about widely, is not obvious in its intentions; nor am I sure my interpretation is even correct. But art is such that one person’s response can be as different from the next person’s. Put another way, Stonehouse’s work seems to carry certain propensities that speak to one connotation but on closer inspection carry an entirely different meaning. His symbols, then, are his own; they may or may not be universal.

But if the universal can be gleaned, Stonehouse’s interests seem to be religion (as opposed to spirituality) and oppression when it comes to one’s voice. While the former is more or less expressed by means of figures in monk robes and those skintight black hats, the latter is manifested by way of racial stereotypes. Stonehouse, I was once surprised to learn, is not African-American, although many of his figures appear to be. They, like all of us, are in bondage — at one time, of course, literally so — and Stonehouse seems to explore this from an introspective vantage point rather than a sociological one.

The work itself is carefully rendered and carries an aura of dreamscape or ancient landscape; these are the grey-green spaces in which all manner of creature wander, including humans who are half cow, or pig. In one such painting, the figure is “drawn and quartered” — or prepared to be quartered — as in an animal carcass. But the face is of a black man. Here, perhaps Stonehouse questions what it means to be human. Is this an existential exercise? Are we simply flesh, or are our spirits ephemeral? Stonehouse employs text as part of his images: “The silence was unintentional. He tried to speak, but was not able to produce a sound.”

With this exhibition, Stonehouse would appear to be at the top of his form, both aesthetically and in terms of honing his ideas. His voice is developed, his brush fine-tuned and, thankfully, he has something worthwhile to say.

Family Land, paintings by Fred Stonehouse, is on view through March 6 at Ruschman Art Gallery, 948 N. Alabama St., phone 634-3114 or visit for information and gallery hours.

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