Walking the Hardy with Craig Blietz

The 61st Annual Wall-to-Wall Juried Exhibit at the Hardy Gallery in Ephraim features the work of 165 artists, including 107 from Door County – probably the largest selection of local artists in one place. To take it in, I asked Craig Blietz, a highly regarded painter and the judge for the show, whether he would walk through it with me to talk about the art and how Door County art and the show have changed over the years. 

Tom Groenfeldt (TG): How would you rate the quality of the work in the Hardy show?

Craig Blietz (CB): Excellent. One thing that struck me immediately when I came in here versus other shows that I have judged or juried in the past is the quality of the presentation. I mean matting and framing and the choice – the craft is a big part of it, but the choice is key – how something harmonizes, does what a frame should do, which is to bring you into the piece without becoming a distraction.

Blietz noted the Door County influence in the show, which he said makes up about a third of the work on display: In “Sails,” by Adam Fulwiler, you can see there are pieces of canvas painted, and then adhered to the watercolor paper. They could easily be nautical signals, too. I know from the palette and from my experience of living up here for 24 years that at this time of year, certainly, yeah, this gives a very good representation of the county.

“Catfish by Objectification” by Maureen Mercier.

TG: What is your advice to visitors who come to see the exhibit?

CB: The first thing I would say to somebody is to slow down. Let things wash over you. I think you will find that something you didn’t think you would necessarily be intrigued by, or would resonate with you, will capture you, provide new insight into something.

TG: Were there any pieces in here that did that for you?

CB: This one here. (He gestured to “Catfish by Objectification” by Maureen Mercier.) Metal fabric. Plastic. Oil paint. Hanging from two rods.

TG: It’s just different enough to stop you?

CB: I think it’s a brilliant, brilliantly executed, conceptual piece of work. I don’t think you see enough of that [conceptual art]. I think we see a lot of really well-crafted paintings, sculptures and prints. What draws me to this is the narrative trail that happens here. And I think that everything from the title, to the way it’s hung, to what it’s hung with, and the descending order of things is impressive. 

TG: How does a visitor benefit from coming back for a second or third visit?

CB: I think deeper insight into the things that resonated with you the first time. It creates an openness to accept things that you might not spend a lot of time in front of. I think the tendency is, “Well, I like landscapes, and I’m gonna walk in here, and I’ll look at this, but I’m not going to look at that.” But if you come back again, you can revisit favorites, but while you’re at them, soak in some other things. Some of the work almost requires a closer look.

Old pickups are something of a staple for plein air painters, but the only example in this show is one with a difference.

Here’s a sumi-e drawing of an old pickup truck by Seth Taylor, who is coming to the county and bringing his background in Eastern art practice. [Taylor studied and taught art across Asia, most recently in South Korea, before moving to Sturgeon Bay and buying the Stroh Building, the location of the SŌMI Gallery and Third Avenue Art.]

Back in the day, Door County was lighthouse watercolors. It’s changed big time, as a visit to an exhibit like this shows. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with lighthouse watercolors, but that’s what we were known for, and now it’s gotten more diverse.

In a way, when you have a show like this, and it’s open to everybody, you’re going to get a pretty broad range. If it’s juried, now the end result has the stamp and taste of the jurors. This has the stamp of nothing but the people who made the effort to submit. That results in more diversity, which makes it more interesting for the public.

There’s more work, and the quality has gone up. Look at the photography that’s here, for instance. It’s wonderful. And you have big names like [photographer] Dan Anderson. For an open call, it’s great to have the big names coming in. And part of the Hardy’s mission here is to serve the artist community. The gallery is doing a tremendous service when it’s able to attract someone like Dan Anderson to put up his work.

I think landscapes still are the dominant Door County theme because that’s what’s here. But, when I go to shows now – and to some extent, this is true here – there’s more figuration, people, animals. There are artists here with just exceptional technical capability – really substantial artists.

In the northeast corner of the gallery, he singled out a fabric piece by Colleen Ansbaugh and what looked like an abstract painting that Dan Cross of Idea Gallery in West Jacksonport created through photography.

CB: To me, the thing that’s most stunning here in both cases is the painterly nature of the work. The painterly qualities of both, even though they are done with very different mediums. But as a painter, I can relate to what’s going on in both.

TG: It’s kind of a fun show, isn’t it?

CB: It is. And one of the keys is, we’re spending time. That’s why the first thing I said was that my advice to anybody visiting a show like this is to slow down.

The 61st Annual Wall-to-Wall Juried Exhibit is open Monday-Saturday, 10 am – 5 pm; and Sunday, 12-5 pm, through July 9 at the Hardy Gallery, 3083 Anderson Lane in Ephraim.

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