When Dane County had to pick an artist to share with the world, it chose Michael Velliquette.
Velliquette traveled to Germany this past summer as the county's representative to EUARCA, an elite group of artists invited to make artwork on-site during one of the world's largest contemporary art festivals. For two weeks, beneath a canopy furnished by the festival, Velliquette — the sole American invited to EUARCA — created a nearly 10-foot-high sculpture called "Power Structure" from intricately cut papers and other repurposed materials while an international crowd looked on.
"Power Structure" was stamped with Velliquette's signature style: layers of vivid color evoking mystery and whimsy, lavish imagery created from simple materials. It's the same aesthetic in Velliquette's work that is frequently showcased in galleries in New York and on the West Coast.
But now, Velliquette fans can see another side of his artistry in "Loose Strife," a collaboration between the artist and the acclaimed Madison poet Quan Barry, at the Edgewood College Gallery.
Inspired by "The Oresteia," a trilogy of Greek tragedies written by Aeschylus in the fifth century, "Loose Strife" examines issues of brutality, sorrow, revenge.
At its center is a large-scale collage by Velliquette made from cut paper, acrylic, ink and graphite fragments. The canvas teems with hands — an image Velliquette often uses in his work, but this time evoking chaos and desperation. The colors are stark: Black, white, gray, blood red.
An organic collaboration
The story of "Oresteia" ends with a trial, marking a move from a revenge-based system to a trial-based system of justice.
"Loose Strife," said Velliquette, is meant "to sort of reverse that — to mirror what we see as part of a world climate that is moving from a justice-based system to a sort of revenged-based system."
The motif came about when he and Barry met last spring to choose a theme for their collaboration that was "image-heavy and resonated," said Barry, a professor of English at UW-Madison whose work has won a Pushcart Prize and been published in places such as "The New Yorker" and "Kenyon Review."
She and Velliquette have been friends for more than six years, and this was their first collaboration. Previously, when Barry worked with artists, it was to write poems in reaction to artwork that had already been produced. Velliquette wanted a different approach.
"Michael wanted to try a collaboration that was more organic, where we were both creating work simultaneously in response to each other's production," Barry said.
Over the summer, both went their own ways — Barry to an artists' colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and Velliquette to Europe for his EUARCA stint. They stayed in touch via email.
"He would send me jpegs of things he was working on. I would send him documents of poems I had written," Barry said. "I'm really excited about what we came up with. I don't always have an idea of what I'll be writing about. So actually having a subject, I created a lot more work than I normally would in a short period of time because I was more focused."
Creating 'Power Structure'
In March, the Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission selected Velliquette from among 20 applicants to represent the county at EUARCA. The gathering of artists is part of the dOCUMENTA art festival, held every five years in Dane County's sister county of Landkreis Kassel, Germany.
Most of Velliquette's expenses were paid by the host festival, including the wood, plastic tarp, masonite and colored duct tape that he turned into "Power Structure."
"It was two weeks of not only being in this great place and meeting all these artists, but I was also able to make some work I was really, really happy with," said Velliquette, who will be working on a companion sculpture to "Power Structure" at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art during its March 1 MMOCA Night.
"It's one of the most creative opportunities I've had. How often do people give artists the resources, time and space to just produce work?"
A faculty associate in the UW-Madison art department who also teaches at Madison Area Technical College, Velliquette grew up in Florida and came to Madison in 1997 to earn a master's of fine arts degree from UW-Madison. He lived in San Antonio before moving back to Madison in 2007 to join his partner, UW-Madison organic chemistry professor Tehshik Yoon.
The elaborate paper works — he calls them "spectacles of the handmade" — that Velliquette is best known for "kind of evolved out of the recession, when it was all about scarcity," he said. "I started to try to counter that with my own work, unconsciously at first — but then it made more sense to make things that just seemed ridiculously rich and opulent, even though they're just made from paper."
But those detailed, brightly colored works are highly controlled, Velliquette said. By contrast, working on "Loose Strife" has given him "an opportunity to unloose a certain amount of wildness in my work."
Velliquette, 41, was invited to exhibit at Edgewood's new gallery by gallery director Paul Baker Prindle, who called the Madison artist "widely respected" and "prompting conversations about contemporary art." Many artists such as Velliquette are returning to the idea of "making," with an emphasis on fine craft, handwork and repurposing everyday materials in spectacular ways, Prindle said.
The fact that Velliquette is making a stylistic switch for "Loose Strife" is "really exciting, because I can talk to students about the role of a gallery in the creation of new work," Prindle said. It also allows Edgewood to provide an "infrastructure" for artists to try out something new.
"I'm never surprised when artists change," poet Barry added. "I think that's one reason (Velliquette) didn't want to just create work and have me write in response to it — because he probably would have stayed closer to what he had been doing. By structuring our collaboration the way that we did, it forced both of us to do things we normally would not have."