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Old School

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Fred Stonehouse is the personification of old school — literally. After recently purchasing the former St. Augustin school building, he set up his studio in one of its huge classrooms. He has created an interesting melange — massive paintings depicting weeping black heads attached to snake-like bodies abutting blackboards and eye wash stations. This juxtaposition captures the approach of Milwaukee’s internationally renowned (and often shamelessly imitated) painter. Many of his works depict humans and/or animals experiencing some type of pain or suffering, and yet he is an all-American dad who coaches his kids’ sports teams. “People can relate to the genuine or personal aspects of my work,” he explains, while sipping a can of Diet Coke with lime. “My work is fairly traditional — mostly figures and landscapes.” Stonehouse, however, is not interested in realism because he figures that’s what cameras are for. His interest is more about his personal idea of what something looks like. The vernacular art of hand-painted signs along the streets of Mexico and India encompass this idea, and are influential in his work. “The way they render these things is unnatural and unrealistic, but completely identifiable. You know what it is.” By placing recognizable images in a mythic context, however, Stonehouse elevates everyday situations to something separate from the mundane, or as he describes it, “the level of the gods.” It’s his goal to get people to see art in daily relationships. Painting is also his way to overcome some of the difficulties in communication that arise from the limitations of language. “Like any art form, painting is intuitive communication. You have to give in, and then you get it.” His use of foreign languages, such as Latin, French and Spanish, are another manifestation of this effort to facilitate human communication. “Art is so fast,” he observes, adding that the average viewer spends 3.5 seconds in front of a piece of art before moving on to the next one. Using slogans or captions in his work is a “strategy to slow people down so they can contemplate the meaning of the work — they get it, but it takes them a little bit because they have to read these things.” He also likes to preserve people’s sense of history, so when he’s not painting or coaching, he spends a good amount of time antiquing outside of Milwaukee. This is where he finds the majority of his heavy antique wooden frames, many of which are extremely distressed. Some are over a hundred years old. The flea market items also augment his collection of what some people would term “folk” or “outsider” art, a definition that has been used to label his work as well. He lives in West Allis and says he’s never been part of the big changes in the art world — primarily because it makes no difference to him — nor is he tied to any fads. Good art is what interests him, art that moves him or sparks some feeling. As he pauses to adjust his chair, which has drifted away somewhat due to his vigorous rocking, we talk about artists he’s been thinking about lately. Most are self-taught, such as Cheri Samba, a painter from Zaire whose works are mainly political. “Some contemporaries that I admire are my friends Ed Hardy, Enrique Chagoya, and Manuel Ocampo, all from the Bay Area, and Mike Noland of Woodstock Illinois, to name just a few. Most artists I admire have rejected their formal methods and training,” he says. In fact, he describes his formal training at UWM as “four years of teaching you to argue and defend your work. I didn’t learn to paint. You have to figure it out and develop your own techniques.” At this point, he excuses himself to start cleaning his brushes, a task few artists enjoy. We discuss his upcoming show in Rome and the Chicago art fair this spring. Fall will find him exhibiting in New York and possibly next year he’ll do something in Milwaukee, before leaving for Rome and his solo show. And he’s thinking about doing a book about Milwaukee’s old hand-painted signs. Maybe some film work. “I have a lot of ideas in the back of my mind,” he admits. “We’ll see what happens once the kids are grown.” (This summer, Fred Stonehouse will curate an exhibit of his works and others of his ilk at Walker’s Point Center for the Arts)
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