Von Milwaukee exhibits work from the legendary, controversial Bob Watt
Jimmy Von Milwaukee, a local artist, writer and curator, started collecting Bob Watt's art about 30 years ago and today can't put a number on how many pieces he owns of the late folk artist's work. But Von Milwaukee was more than Watt's patron, he also showed his work in the '80s in his anti-art art gallery, Leo Feldman, Inc., served as his campaign manager when Watt ran for mayor in 2000 (his slogan was "Watt ever!") and considered him a good friend.
Watt, who passed away in 2012 at the age of 87 from heart failure, was an eccentric, high-profile Milwaukeean known for his "Indian" paintings, "folk photos" which were mostly home-shot Polaroids of young women in various states of undress, rambling and crass poetry and regular columns in the local, underground newspaper "Kaleidoscope" published from 1967 to 1971.
"Some people don't get Bob's art and that's really a compliment," says Von Milwaukee. "He always started something different, something new and people either loved it or hated it."
Ten of Watt's "Indian" paintings – all from Von Milwaukee's personal collection – will soon be on display at Grove Gallery, 832 S. 5th St., in a show called "The Last of the Bohemians – Bob Watt (1925-2012)."
The show opens on Friday, Oct 21 from 5 to 9 p.m. in conjunction with Gallery Night and will feature free pizza from Transfer Pizzeria & Cafe. "The Last of the Bohemians" will also be viewable on Saturdays from noon to 5 p.m. and weekdays by appointment through Dec. 10. Nine of the 10 paintings are for sale, and start around $2,000.
Watt's paintings feature crudely abstract Native American "chiefs" painted over cheesy replicated art that usually hung above living room sofas many decades ago. Although it's sometimes questioned whether or not Watt was part of the folk art movement, he is considered a pioneer in the practice of "reclaiming" and recycling art.
All of the paintings provoke dueling feelings of whimsy and loneliness; strength and sadness. They are easy to look at and yet uncomfortable to look at. They are creepy and familiar, especially to those of us who grew up in Milwaukee and frequently saw Watt's work in bars and shops around town. They also brew nostalgia because the paintings underneath Watt's paintings simultaneously mask and expose the art we remember from an aunt's or a grandparent's wall long ago.
"All of the pieces in the show were picked because they have an autumn feel," says Von Milwaukee. "That was really important to me."
N. Adam Beadel, who owns and operates Team Nerd Letterpress in the space next to the exhibit, also manages the gallery. Beadel also created Bob Watt 'zines which will be available on opening night.
The 1883 building is owned by artist Celine Farrell, who restored the cream city Victorian over the past 40-plus years. Farrell named the gallery after Grove Street, which was the former moniker of 5th Street.
"Last of the Bohemians" is the first solo show of Watt's work since he passed away in 2012. After the show, Von Milwaukee will donate one of the paintings to the Museum of Wisconsin Art (MOWA) in the late Julie Lindemann's name. Lindemann, a celebrated artist and educator, was a friend, fan and colleague of both Von Milwaukee and Watt.
"Bob was always controversial in his thoughts and he always laid it all out," says Von Milwaukee. "He had a punk sensibility in that he truly did not care what other people thought. He was purposely being bad, purposely being cliché. Bob was fearless."
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