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For Stephen Fleischman, it doesn't matter if he likes a painting or a photograph in the Wisconsin Triennial. It doesn't matter if the work is beautiful to look at or technically perfect.

Each piece of art in the 2013 Triennial must simply be a Wisconsin work made in the past three years that needs to be seen.

"A question people ask is, 'What's Wisconsin about it?'" Fleischman said of the 2013 Triennial, which opens at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art on Sept. 21 and runs through Jan. 5, 2014.

"It's becoming a harder question to answer. The fact of the matter is, we're not picking images of dairy farms and red barns and rolling landscapes," he said. "We're finding a sophisticated group of artists who are connected to the globe.

"They know what's going on, not just in Wisconsin ... in Berlin, in London, in Miami and L.A. and New York. And they're putting it to use."

This year's Triennial features 35 individual artists and five collaborative pairs, including performance artists Spatula and Barcode, who, with several other performers, will present work in local cafés outside of the museum.

It is the 13th statewide survey of art, which began as a biennial in 1978. Fleischman has been the director of MMoCA since 1990, when it was still the Madison Art Center. This year's show was chosen by a four-person curatorial team, which reviewed 530 applicants and made 113 studio visits.

The Capital Times: How do this year's Triennial applicants reflect the overall state of Wisconsin art? 

Stephen Fleischman: The quality of applications has continued to rise during my history with the Triennial. The number of applications has increased and their quality has greatly improved. 

In terms of changes, we're seeing that most clearly in the types of media that artists are selecting. Video, photography, installation work and performative elements are on the rise in Wisconsin.

There's more artistic collaboration, more use of new media. Those are all hallmarks of this most recent Triennial.

When you visit an artist's studio, what are you looking for?

What I want to know is, what's at the core of this work? What drove the series, where did you take inspiration from? I'm interested in whether an artist is conversant in the sense that they have an understanding of the history of art and where their body of work fits into that.

I'm interested in whether they're taking influence from other aspects of the world. I'm interested in the trajectory of their career — where the work was, where it is now, where it might go, whether it represents a new direction for them.

You've said the goals of the Triennial are to highlight artists who are up and coming, and to showcase new directions of established artists.

I'll add a third category: Artists who are incredibly talented who have not been in a Triennial for a little bit. We pay attention to a number of factors — new work, we'd like to have geographic diversity, we'd like to have cultural diversity. But it's not like we have to count lists in order for that to work itself out. It seems to take care of itself. The work is what makes the Triennial.

After the studio visits we make, we have to come back to the table and advocate for the people we saw. You met them, you know them, you have respect for what you saw. But everyone knows that two out of three of the people that you went to visit can't be in the show.

That's hard.

It is hard. The reason it's hard is we want enough room for artists to really show what they're up to. We're not interested in an exhibition that's one work, one artist, 100 artists in a show. It's less meaningful to an audience in the end. It's more interesting for an audience to see several examples of an artist's work, or a major piece by that artist.

I can imagine that for some artists, the response might be "not yet," or even "not this year."

I come from an art background. Being an artist sounds like a glorious job, a glam thing that people think is some sort of wonderful, bucolic luxury.

The truth is that being an artist is often a very lonely job. You're doing a job you love, but sometimes it's the only thing you can do, you're driven toward an artistic career.

And it's a job where you're putting your soul out there to critique. It's like bearing yourself and waiting to be judged. That's a humbling and, at times, painful experience.

I try to be sensitive to the fact that for the sake of the show, we're picking few from many. But everyone deserves a lot of respect.

Do you run into artists that you put on a short list, like — these are the people we really want to reapply?

We encourage everyone to reapply. We want to see where the work goes.

We used to have a lot of stereotypical work, work that would come from individuals you might describe as "occasional painters." There was very little that even vaguely resembled that (this year).

There's a place for everything. But a museum is not a place for everything, and a concert hall is not a place for everything. I'm not saying you have to like what they're doing. I'm simply saying there's a degree of professionalism that makes (an artist) appropriate to play in a concert hall, that makes it appropriate to have a show in a museum. There are many things that are appropriately installed in coffeehouses.

In Madison, we don't like to distinguish; we feel that that makes us snobbish, not the sort of populist, democratic people we would like to be. But there's an important role for art critics and for curators who are willing to make a distinction in quality, because if you don't, everything is the same — there's no way to distinguish (among) everything.

Some artists who are showing in coffee shops might love to show in a museum. 

You start somewhere. And hopefully the work keeps improving, progressing.

I would tell you selecting the Wisconsin Triennial is not about personal preference. It has much more to do with, this work needs to be seen by a broad audience.

It's relevant. It's packed with ideas. It plays off other ideas in the history of art. It's well-executed; it's well-conceived.

You can have great respect for an artwork and know for certain it should be seen, and maybe it doesn't speak to you personally.

For an artist, especially a young artist, getting into the Triennial could feel like validation.

It's not a bad word to use. We recognize your growth as an artist, your accomplishments as an artist. Somebody recognizes and says to you, we think what you're doing is really worthy.

That's like a big hug.


Since 2008, Lindsay Christians has been writing about fine arts and food for The Capital Times. She loves eating at the bar, going to the theater, fine wine and good stories. She lives on the east side with her husband, two cats and too many cookbooks.

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