Artist Feature: Gregory Klassen & Review: Back to School at Villa Terrace

Nature_Floor_©_Gregory_Klassen_Detail Nature Floor © Gregory Klassen, Detail

Nathaniel Stern is an awkward artist, writer, and teacher who likes awkward art, writing, and students. He is author of Interactive art and Embodiment: the implicit body as performance, and the forthcoming Ecological Aesthetics: artful tactics for humans, nature, and politics (July 2018). He is an Associate Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a Research Associate at the University of Johannesburg. For more on Nathaniel, check out his website.


The only disappointing thing about my visit to Gregory Klassen’s studio a few weeks ago was that I hadn’t, rather, visited with him years ago, so as to include him in my upcoming book,Ecological Aesthetics: artful tactics for humans, nature, and politics. Just… wow.

I define an ecological approach as one where we take account of, and speculate on, agents, processes, thoughts, and relations – together. We concern ourselves with how humans and nonhumans, matter and concepts, things and not-yet-things, politics, economics, and industry, past, present, and future, for example, are all actively shaped in, and as, their interrelations. We wander and wonder around “How?” and “Why?” and “Where to?” for each. I argue that it is both an ethical and aesthetic practice to think- and act-with in such a way. After all, we must look and see, sympathize and desire, as part of thinking and acting and making decisions with and for our world, with and for and each other.

And Greg’s work approaches ecology and relation in precisely this way. It embodies and amplifies the generally imperceptible “actions” of “things” around us, so we might sense and perceive what they do, and want, and are – what they could be, how we might be, and what we might all make, looking towards the future.

Nature Floor

The above image, for example, pictures a snapshot result of Klassen’s studio sweepings. I kid you not; for Nature Floor, he continuously swept piles of dirt and dust and garbage from the floor, into one large mound, and let that build. Over months, as he fancied, he also began to sprinkle it with water, some seeds, some interesting bits he found walking outside around the studio, and gift it with light. And… there it is, teeming with life and signs, compositions and decomposition. At stake here are our understandings of, and interactions with, the fields of influence, the potentials and capacities for birth and transformation, which are a part of each and every thing.

Greg sets up systems that help us to see and feel these forces, and just a fraction of their outcomes. Or, sometimes, he just puts extant systems (and/or their results) on display.

Retrospective Aggregate, photo courtesy of the Museum of Wisconsin Art

Retrospective Aggregate was more of an “accident,” and what, in part, set him on this path of ecological framing. Klassen spent almost a decade attempting to coerce paint – through splashes, drips, and swings of both the paint and canvas – into organic movements about… well, mostly, organic movement. And the results were indeed beautiful, written about brilliantly in this review by Mary Louise Schumacher in the Journal Sentinel. But it was when Greg rolled up his studio carpet, which he had been working “on” (in the more literal sense, as in, “on top of”), and found paint that had actually escaped to its underside – seeping and drawing, pooling and crawling, saturating and evaporating – that the artist felt he was really onto something. This became his solo exhibition at the Museum of Wisconsin Art: an eight-year work of art, where the paint itself did all that he had been trying to urge it to do, and more, but without his explicit direction. Here, and elsewhere, Greg presents works that are less an expression of human gesture or symbolism, and more a result of what paint, or plants, or dirt, themselves, do and want. Klassen encourages life and non-life as they are: growing, decaying, and growing again – and exhibits how they move and are moved.

For Greg’s Nature Table, he had the help of artist Brent Budsberg in constructing a wood structure to house and display dirt, and he gives it cycles of light and water, occasionally dropping whatever seeds are on sale at the hardware checkout over the top. Over years, it sees death and prosperity continuously emerging in and out of earth and rubber, grain and compost.

It’s nothing, really. It’s every-thing. It’s his interest or the lack thereof, the temperature in his studio, the light it gets or doesn’t, what’s on sale, what’s in the water, what people see and say, point out and ask him to enhance, and, and, and…



Currently, at the Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum, Greg is showing Plants: a room full of upended and upside-down, dead, potted plants, on tripods and dramatically lit, that mirror the strange, vintage, designer floral wallpaper in one of the upstairs rooms. Here is a forest of “dead media” in the most literal sense; it’s dusty and rigid, but also tangled between its own organic feel, and the sprawling desire to “be alive” from the papered shrubbery around the room.

Plants (detail)


At moments, it feels like Greg’s not-yet-decaying plants are bursting from the walls themselves. Infesting, propagating, taking over; aestheticizing, slipping through cracks, making strange; presenting, performing, redirecting; intervening, interacting, interesting.

This all “matters.” The etymology fits: all matter matters. Yes, I too am a life-long humanist, who spends more time worrying over the homeless than rainforests, thinking about American politics than recycling lithium ion batteries (for better or worse)… But Klassen reminds us that we humans are not the center of everything. Far from it. What lives in the dirt, comes from the sun, floats around the water… these “facts of the matter” are far more consequential. As a matter of fact (so to speak), there is nothing human at the center of a human. We are made of the same quarks and electrons as that table, the same liquids and bacteria as that yoghurt, are much smaller to the earth (universe!) as that rat or rock are to us. We are a habitat as much as we inhabit, and can easily fall prey to what we ingest or what infests us, to pollution or other environmental factors.

And we must start to think in different scales and times if we are to survive, together. Klassen asks us to attune to the usually softly-spoken life and non-life around us. He makes it sad but beautiful, quirky and ethical, humorous and loud. Attunement recognizes different notes and tunes we make and are a part of, which always resonate with and across one another in the everyday. We may not hear or perceive each and every note, we may or may not be in harmony, but there are always multiple songs and scales, improvisations, chords, and tunings. When we attune, we listen to and act on our and other resonances, creating purposeful harmonies and amplifications, interferences and differences, in dialogical, playful, and/or productive styles.

And while I’m on the topic…an exhibition review within a feature!

Tropical America


Greg’s Plants is shown alongside another work of his: Tropical America, a colorful drawing of a toucan, circa 1973 – a very early artwork for Klassen. Obviously somewhat tongue in cheek, Greg also not-so-subtly reminds us that we think about these things, though perhaps can’t articulate them quite so precisely, from an early age. Who among us has not played with life and death, with color and matter? What child does not wander and wonder on where they themselves, and their rooms, homes, and habitats begin and end? And… a tropical America. I mean, why not?

These two works are exhibited as part of “Back to School,” which, according to the organizers, “invited a select list of accomplished artists to display artwork from their current portfolio alongside work they created while they were in school, presenting unexpected juxtapositions of past and present that reveal insights into both the changing perspectives and the persistent threads of artists’ pursuits over time.” (Co-curated by Brent Budsberg.) It’s an impressive list of regional artists, several of whom I’ve already written about even in the short time since this blog’s relaunch: American Fantasy Classics, John Balsley, Demitra Copoulos, Nicholas Frank, Nina Ghanbarzadeh, Zach Hill, Jon Horvath, Greg Klassen, Kim Miller, Harvey Opgenorth, JoAnna Poehlmann, Miguel Ramirez, and Lynn Tomaszewski.

Conversations (Water Balloons) by Jon Horvath


What I like about this “back to school” show (launched shortly after the semester started!) is that it is almost like a bunch of abridged retrospectives. The reason why I love solo exhibitions so much is that these are less about a curatorial vision that is umbrella-ed by a current theme, and more about a kind of material research practice, over years, which we can engage with in an artist’s work. And here, we see some art from each artist (or collective) from decades ago, alongside their current inquiry, to see and feel a similar long-term quest. And each artist also writes about that trajectory, in a fun and free notebook/catalog as part of the show.

For example, there is Jon Horvath (my first reboot review!) and his ongoing and playful portraits of and with his father (recent video clip shown above as a GIF). Harvey Opgenorth shows his ongoing material/visuality investigations, which have become more subtle over time. And Nina Ghanbarzadeh explores life and materiality with/in paint, contrapuntally getting rougher and more physical over the years.

Check out “Back to School,” and especially Gregory Klassen’s work, at the Villa Terrace in Milwaukee until January 28, 2018 (Wednesday – Sunday, 1-5). The show overall provides several interesting, potential research narratives, and Klassen, specifically, asks us to listen to humans, nature, and politics, together and apart – then act in accordance. His is subtle and important work.