Every three years, Madison gets to witness the artwork of some of Wisconsin’s most exuberantly creative minds.

The 2016 edition of the “Wisconsin Triennial,” opening next weekend at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, will feature the work of 40 artists and artist-teams – handpicked to show some of the innovation happening in art studios throughout the state.

One of those is glass artist Helen Lee, for whom the timing of the 2016 Triennial has a lot of significance. It marks three years since Lee moved to the Midwest, after a lifetime on the East and West Coasts, and settled here to become head of the esteemed glass program at UW-Madison.

The 2013 Triennial “was freshly mounted” on the walls of MMOCA when Lee arrived in town, she said. So having a work in the 2016 Triennial “seems like a very formal marking of my time here.”

Lee, 38, is among 14 artists and collaborative teams from Madison in this year’s Triennial, which will take over most of MMOCA’s vast building adjacent to the Overture Center at 227 State St.

Those whose work has been seen in past Triennials include UW-Madison faculty Stephen Hilyard (video installation), John Hitchcock (printmaking), T.L. Solien (painting), Laurie Beth Clark and Michael Peterson (of the performance art duo Spatula&Barcode) and Derrick Buisch (painting; his work was also seen in the 2013, 2010 and 2007 Triennials).

Madison newcomers to the exhibition include Lee (glass), Emily Arthur (printmaking), Victor Castro aka TetraPAKMAN Man (social sculpture), Helen Hawley (multimedia installation), Romano Johnson (painting), Meg Mitchell (sound installation), Christopher Rowley (painting), SAYLER + SCHAAG (performance) and Gregory Vershbow (photography).

The monumental, cut-paper artwork titled “Brave New World” by UW-Whitewater art faculty member Xiaohong Zhang, of Fort Atkinson, also will be featured, along with new works from artists based in Milwaukee, La Crosse, Sussex, Forestville, Sheboygan, Shorewood, Appleton, Green Bay and elsewhere across the state.

Those artists were selected from among more than 600 who applied for this year’s show. As part of the selection process, MMOCA curators visited artists’ studios to talk with them and to see their current work. All the pieces in the Triennial have been created in the past three years.

Two notable themes that emerged in 2016 are the state of the environment and storytelling, marked by an exploration of personal identity, said MMOCA senior curator Richard Axsom.

“All of modern and contemporary art is first-person singular. So it’s personal from the get-go,” Axsom said. “What distinguishes this moment in storytelling is the aspect of narrative – sometimes not linear, sometimes not chronological, but nonetheless a story being told.”

“What we saw emerging (in the studio visits) was – here is another artist who is concerned personally with the environment, or with cultural identity, ethnic identity, political identity,” he said. “It seemed to step forward.”

Lee’s work in the show, for example, is a glass sculpture more than 5 feet tall, pulsating in pink neon. Titled “OMG,” the work depicts three Mandarin Chinese characters that vertically spell out “My Day!,” or the equivalent of the ubiquitous American expression “OMG!”

Lee, who grew up learning Chinese from elder relatives and today speaks the language “like a 5-year-old,” she quipped, became fascinated with the “My Day” expression on a trip to Taiwan. It both surprised and amused her that an expression seemingly “so American” was a part of everyday Chinese vernacular as well.

Lee, 38, whose background is in blown glass, didn’t really start experimenting with neon until she came to teach at UW-Madison – another reason that having “OMG” in the Triennial is meaningful for her, she said.

Lee “found it interesting (to translate) it into this language that she associates with her ancestry, and the crossover and confused meanings that go along with that,” said MMOCA associate curator Leah Kolb, who along with Axsom, education curator Sheri Castelnuovo and MMOCA director Stephen Fleischman participated in the studio visits.

“She sees it very much as part of her identity, which she’s now passing along to her daughter. It’s an interesting way of using neon to address that very kind of personal relationship with language and heritage.”

Kolb and Axsom point out the range of ways that Wisconsin artists in the Triennial tell their own visual stories about identity. There’s an almost Rembrandt-like self-portrait by Daniel O’Neal of Stevens Point, painted in oil in his art studio with a magical — and yet almost photographic — realism. And there’s the video “Pacel Galvu” by Ted Brusubardis of Milwaukee, inspired by the Latvian folk songs of his ancestors.

Milwaukee video artist Portia Cobb created a piece for her series “Performing Grace” showing her 94-year-old mother shelling cowpeas, a ritual from her youth in the South, as the two women tenderly explore the meaning of grace. Sky Hopinka of Milwaukee also used video and recollections from his father to explore his identity as a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation in his work “Jaaji Approx.”

About a third of the artists in the 2016 Wisconsin Triennial identify as Native American, African American, Asian American or Latino, according to the museum. Diversity – in medium, artistic style, geography and artists’ backgrounds – was a stated goal of this year’s show.

A MMOCA Nights reception held from 6-9 p.m. Friday will kick off the 2016 Wisconsin Triennial. The show opens Saturday and runs through Jan. 8. Admission to the museum is free.


Gayle Worland is an arts and features reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.