This article originally appeared on the Shepherd Express website HERE.

 

By Dave Luhrssen

Jean Roberts-Guequierre "The Weight of Grief Makes Downward Dog Difficult"

 

Artwork by one of Wisconsin’s most distinctive oil painters, Jean Roberts-Guequierre, has seldom been displayed in Milwaukee in recent years. “I’m told by galleries, ‘You’re not our style,’” she says. Fortunately, one of the city’s newest art venues, Kim Storage Gallery (207 E. Buffalo St., 4th Floor), is hosting a major exhibition of her work, “Dreamworlds: Exploring the Past and Present,” through June 8.

Although she graduated with a fine arts degree, Roberts-Guequierre considers herself a “self-taught artist” for running opposite from her art instructors. “They told me that the figure is dead,” she recalls. “But I like figurative, narrative, storytelling art” and was drawn especially to the “Flemish primitives,” those strange visions of Hieronymus Bosch and Brueghel the Elder. Their subject matter famously included a hellish Garden of Earthly Delights and a doomed Tower of Babel, but also “domestic scenes that tell bigger stories,” Roberts-Guequierre says. “It’s my own version of it. It allows me to do detailed drawings (her first love as an artist) and build them into a painting, evolving it onto boards, making changes, glazing it with color, using the depth and color of the boards themselves.”

Jean Roberts-Guequierre "Damned If You Do Eat Cake"

 

During a turbulent period surrounding the ending of her marriage, Roberts-Guequierre stopped painting. She credits Michael Flanagan, curator of a group show at the Haggerty Museum of Art, for bringing her back with an offer to paint a response to an artwork in the Haggerty’s collection. Choosing an image of the Holy Family, she produced Zoonotic Madonna, a set of four paintings in which the infant Jesus, in an allegory of injured innocence, is marked by smallpox, measles, mumps and diphtheria. The idea came from a history course at UWM, where she learned that 90% of the indigenous population of the Americas died from four diseases brought by the Europeans. Allusions can be made to Dürrer’s Four Riders of the Apocalypse.

The Zoonotic Madonna is included in “Dreamworlds,” which looks back across the last decade of Roberts-Guequierre’s paintings and drawings. Her human figures are gnarled, bony and hapless. Often costumed like Brueghel’s ill-tempered peasants, they are addicted to texting, smoking, work and afflicted with dangerous vanities. Monstrous vegetation (Bosch’s produce garden?) menace middle-aged men while angelic figures inhabit the iconographic space of middle-aged women. In Birth of the Middle-Aged Man: Post Separation Music Career, an unattractively naked player strums an unstringed lute, a raincloud over his head while the shine lights the world beyond him.

“My work is supposed to make you chuckle and think about things. My thoughts are a starting point for other people to reflect on themselves,” Roberts-Guequierre explains. As for Bosch and Brueghel, and their pessimistic depictions of social life, she adds, “The only things we have on them are immunizations and toilets. We’re still the same people with the same ridiculous sense of entitlement.”

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