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A gift from The Giver’s Lois Lowry

“You’re lucky you don’t have braces,” Lois Lowry remarks when I tell her I’m calling from Isthmus. She says the newspaper’s name is a tongue-twister.

We both chuckle. I remember being a metal-mouth when I was 13, about the same age as Jonas, the protagonist of her Newberry-winning young-adult novel The Giver. It’s hard enough to speak eloquently as an adult, without any dental hardware. I’m thankful I’m not one of the kids in the book, who are punished when they misspeak, whether mispronouncing a word or choosing the “wrong” term for what they’re trying to describe.

This problem is especially troublesome for Jonas, who is chosen to become the Receiver in his orderly dystopian community. No one remembers the distant past, except for the person chosen to “contain” all of the pleasures and horrors of history. This person, the Receiver, is the only one who knows of foreign things like color, animals and even snow. He must experience them, and the feelings they generate, all by himself. Not a soul — except for the few others who’ve held the title — has the slightest notion of what he’s going through.

Jonas often wonders how he’d try to describe the memories of the past he’s begun to contain. They’re transmitted through the touch of the outgoing Receiver, who has grown old and weary. To Jonas, this man is known as the Giver. Through this mentor, Jonas receives his first sled ride and his first rays of sunshine.

“What words could you use that would give another the experience of sunshine?” Jonas wonders. Not that he’s allowed to speak of the memories he’s receiving. Or that anyone would understand or believe him. But he can’t help but ponder.

This question is similar to the ones facing Children’s Theater of Madison as it prepares The Giver for the stage. Lowry will visit Madison on Jan. 31, sharing insights on the book’s transition from the page to the stage to the silver screen in a free presentation at the Central Library. She recently traveled to South Africa, where parts of a movie based on the book were being filmed. Starring Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep and other Hollywood heavyweights, it’s sure to cause a stir when it debuts in August. So is CTM’s stage production, which hits Overture Center’s Playhouse Feb. 15-23. After all, the story is one of the most controversial in Y.A. literature. Parents have tried to ban the book from the curriculum in school districts across the country, often in response to a scene involving euthanasia.

Still, The Giver is a popular novel among teens and tweens. Ask a group of them what they think of the book’s ending, and you’re bound to spark a debate. It’s open to interpretation, to say the least. It’s also incredibly moving, which should help imprint the story on theatergoers’ minds. That’s just how Lowry wants it to be.

Comfort vs. security

I first experienced Lowry’s writing through her series of Anastasia books, which follow the trials and tribulations of a girl “just trying to grow up.” They’re funny and poignant, and I see hints of them in the film Ghost World, the TV show Daria and the comedy of Aubrey Plaza. Lowry gets awkwardness and the angst that often comes with it. These qualities also apply to Jonas in The Giver, but the story is much more chilling.

At first, Jonas’ community seems like a utopia, but it soon becomes clear that much has been sacrificed to prevent risk and pain. Individual differences are frowned upon, for the most part, and sometimes result in death. Adults apply to receive a marriage partner chosen by the town’s leaders, and approved couples can adopt up to two kids, a boy and a girl, rather than creating them the old-fashioned way. Though families must share their feelings with each other daily, in a setting that resembles a support group, they do not experience intense emotions like love and grief. Not unless they’re the Receiver. Elements of Jonas’ community have an Iron Curtain feel, but by and large, the tale’s themes apply just as much today as when the book was released in 1993.

“Teachers love using the book, mostly in grades 7 and 8,” Lowry notes. “It describes a future time in which people have achieved comfort and security by making terrible compromises. Kids can think about questions like ‘What would you give up in order to have something else that matters to you?’ That’s important, because these are the kids who are going to create our future. They’ll be the politicians and the voters and so much more.”

The theme of control appears in many forms in The Giver. Lowry knows that making her story available for theatrical adaptations means diminishing, even relinquishing, much of her control over the story. Fortunately, she’s satisfied with the adaptation playwright Eric Coble debuted in 2006. It has been performed by children’s theater troupes in Milwaukee, Nashville and several other cities.

“I adapted one of my other books for the stage, which is something I’d never done before. I put in all these stage directions, and the director of the theater had to gently tell me, ‘We have other people who take care of that,'” she says with a laugh. “A play depends not only on the script but the other people who have input, like the director and the set designer. It’s always fascinating to see what they do with the story.”

In other words, Lowry knew to keep her distance when she released The Giver‘s film rights more than 15 years ago. Several big movie studios have expressed interest since then, and Bridges spent years advocating for the story, but nothing materialized until 2012, when Australian director Phillip Noyce (Clear and Present Danger, Rabbit-Proof Fence) picked up the story and ran with it. Lowry was surprised how many times he and the producers asked for her advice.

“I’ve given my suggestions, and they’ve often taken them and just as often ignored them, as they should,” she says. “I’ve never made or written a movie, and I’m not conversant enough with the changes that are necessary to make The Giver into a film.”

Lowry says one of the biggest adaptation challenges is turning thoughts into actions. She’s likely to discuss this topic at the Jan. 31 event, where she’ll read a portion of the book and then invite actors from the CTM production to read lines from the same scenes in the play.

“This is an introspective book. The dialogue is relatively unimportant, and there’s not a lot of action,” she says. “There need to be visually exciting things to watch, and I would be too locked into what I put in the book. I’ve been excited to see how meticulously directors and designers create the visuals.”

‘The Dude of CTM’

So how will CTM bring Jonas’ thoughts to life on stage? Artistic director Roseann Sheridan says the troupe’s approach centers on “essential experiences” Jonas has in the book.

“The playwright sets up Jonas’ family relationship and the ceremony where Jonas becomes the Receiver and then the experience of going to the Giver for training,” she says. “It’s not embellished with a lot of narration or asides to the audience. It’s more about how the two main actors are reacting visually and emotionally to the events that happen as the story unfolds.”

While CTM hasn’t unveiled the entire cast list, Sheridan knew from the start that she wanted American Players Theatre’s Paul Bentzen to play the Giver.

Though he hadn’t read the book, Bentzen fell in love with the character while reading the script.

“There’s nothing histrionic about the part, and there’s almost a cinematic quality to it,” he says. “Jeff Bridges is playing the role in the movie, so I’m basically the Dude of CTM.”

But the story’s biggest appeal is its humanity, Bentzen says.

“Sometimes you can only appreciate a thing by embracing its opposite, like how it takes pain to know pleasure or death to experience life more fully,” he says. “The overarching theme is love, and how life, love and humanity can be swept away in favor of ideals that turn out not to be so ideal. These are important lessons for everybody.”

Communicating these ideals — and their shortcomings — is one of the production’s steepest hurdles. Jonas realizes his community discourages choices when he discovers color. Though people can no longer experience rainbows, they no longer start wars over racial differences. Sheridan points to a key scene from the book, in which Jonas sees red for the first time, when tossing an apple to a friend.

“You have to figure out how to deal with an apple that’s gray one minute, and then red, and then gray again,” she says. “Sometimes we’re able to do that with an effect like lighting, and other times, we just say, ‘This is Jonas’ story, and everything on stage is seen through his eyes, so how do we get that across?'”

Sheridan and director Patrick Holland discussed adding projected images to the production but ultimately decided on a simpler mode of storytelling. She describes designer Mike Lawler’s set as “a lot of monolithic and dark” elements, with a few familiar objects such as bicycles.

“It has an architecture that suggests the type of future you read about in the book, where there’s not much in the way of colors and defined shapes,” she says. “It’s not decorative, but it’s functional.”

Bentzen is curious to see how the play’s setting differs from the ways young readers have imagined the setting of the book. He and Sheridan are also eager to watch them ask questions about the story’s most difficult and controversial moments.

Fielding such questions has become a way of life for Lowry, who writes letters to readers who assume The Giver‘s depiction of euthanasia is an endorsement of the practice.

“This interpretation has always puzzled me,” she says. “I think of The Giver as a highly moral book. My protagonists always come to my imagination with a name attached, along with a few defining characteristics. It’s almost always a kid who’s introspective and who has great integrity. That’s what I value most in a character, and I also value that in real people. You develop these qualities by reading and thinking through problems, and by imagining what might make the world a better place.”

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Randomness Unites in Cage and Cunningham

Composer John Cage, the man responsible for the world’s first song that consisted entirely of a man sitting idly in front of a piano, adored randomness in its many forms. So did choreographer Merce Cunningham, one of Cage’s most important collaborators and his longtime boyfriend. Though both men were pioneers of avant-garde art and teachers at the super-experimental Black Mountain College (also the home of artists Josef and Anni Albers, Willem De Kooning, and Robert Motherwell), neither focused on visual art. It’s their shared love of randomness that unites the visual works the Madison Museum Of Contemporary Art has assembled in Cage And Cunningham: Chance, Time, And Concept In The Visual Arts, on display through May 9.

A lack of structure and formality becomes the show’s common thread, forging connections among pieces from the Bauhaus school, the conceptual art movement, and the ’60s “happenings” of the New York City counterculture. It’s not always clear how exactly the works should be associated with Cage or Cunningham (with some exceptions); perhaps the show’s curator wanted it that way.

Sol LeWitt’s 1991 etching “Vertical Not Straight Lines Not Touching On Color” consists—surprise, surprise—of a smattering of white vertical lines, some more squiggly than straight, on a black rectangle of background. Each line is pencil-thin and hairlike, and several of them veer so close to one another that they appear to touch, despite what the museum’s notes about the piece say. As the title suggests, this piece is more about absence than presence. LeWitt’s idea becomes more important than the execution of his idea, illustrating what conceptual art is about.

Cage And Cunninghan also offers a roadmap for understanding how things such as noise and found sounds have become the musical staples they are today. Two pieces by George Maciunas show how the multimedia Fluxus movement of the ’60s, a precursor to the modern noise-music craze, among other things, used games and chance to create a new set of rules for art and music. “Single Card Flux Deck” displays a deck of 52 cards, all of which are spades. Three sets of four tens are turned up, as if to illustrate a winning hand in a game from another culture—or another dimension. It’s as simple as it is mind-boggling.

“Fluxshop Sheet,” on the other hand, is both a game and an advertisement for one. A poster made of black ink on old, yellowing paper that gives it an old-timey feel, like a wanted poster in a saloon, it contains two blocks of text, one horizontal and the other vertical, that spell out a manifesto (or something like one) for such Fluxus artists as Yoko Ono, Ay-O and George Brecht. It spouts activist terms like “nonprofit” and “nonparasitic” while an old-timey cartoon character entices viewers with “games, gags, jokes, kits.” Sixteen faces at the bottom of the piece hold letters on their tongues (or perhaps their chins) that spell “flux orchestra.” It’s yet another example of how Cage and his followers blurred the lines that separate literature, visual art, and music.

“Weather-ed II,” a color photoetching by Cage himself, ventures into the territory of meteorology. With abstract lines rendered in grays, blues and purples, he doesn’t examine the raindrops and lightning but the randomness of weather patterns, from the way they take shape to the way we interpret them. These lines are framed by two boxes that function as windows for watching one storm happen and another one brew. At the same time, they’re a bit like music players as well, with Cage’s lines forming shapes that look suspiciously similar to sound waves. Perhaps this is a chance resemblance, but if so, it’s one he would probably have appreciated.

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Imagination Installation

It’s easy to equate the term “paper arts” with grade-school crafts such as paper dolls and papier-mâché piñatas. Thankfully, Aries Tjhin’s new exhibition at the Project Lodge, on display through Feb. 20, is designed to put these images through the shredder, both literally and figuratively.

Tjhin, a 2008 graduate of UW-Madison’s printmaking MFA program and a member of the Milwaukee-based White Whale Collective, carves miniature murals out of paper and cardboard. The process is a meticulous one that involves a steady kitchen table and some impressive skill with an X-Acto knife. From afar, many of the pieces resemble collages of paper doilies and snowflakes, but up close the dark truth comes out: They’re hacked-apart pieces of fairy tales and children’s storybooks, deconstructed, rearranged, and butched up with spray paint.

“The show is about stories—and different kinds of stories—especially stories I’ve read throughout childhood and that flash through my head at these really random times,” says Tjhin. “The way the pieces are made forces you to look at the stories in detail and study the nuances of how they’re made.”

The centerpiece of the installation—a long, horizontal piece called “Hieroglyphics”—fills the gallery’s west wall with glimpses of African folk tales. Familiar figures such as jungle monkeys and a guy who just might be Anansi The Trickster peek out from from a lattice of carved leaves and feathers, vanish into a haze of geometric abstraction, then re-appear in different forms throughout the piece. Some areas of the composition are made entirely of black paper, while others incorporate layers of cardboard and paint, suggesting the many voices and layers that go into the telling and retelling of a story.

Across the room, a piece titled “Door” acts as a portal to an imaginary landscape of horses, clouds, and ninja-like figures that are strung together with a vine straight out of Jack And The Beanstalk. A more abstract piece called “Untitled Yellow” seems like the introduction to a storytelling session—the kind that begins with the incantation “It was a dark and stormy night.” A sky of precisely carved shapes, dusted with tiny yellow paint drops, seems to be breaking apart on a misty evening. Whether it’s a hopeful or ominous story is up for debate: The clouds and stars have been sliced apart and collaged, as if the world is taking a new shape—or history is caving in on itself.

 

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Union Cab Is Driven to Create

Jazz is playing, the sky is dark, and a bright yellow taxi pulls up outside Parthenon Gyros on State Street. “Y’know, I don’t know much about politics. All I know is that we just need a good, hard rain to wash the scum off the streets,” says the man behind the wheel.

It’s not the beginning of Taxi Driver. The man uttering those words isn’t Robert De Niro. He’s Fred Schepartz, local writer by day and driver with Union Cab of Madison Cooperative by night. And the scene is from “You Talkin’ to Me?” — Commie Taxi Drivers in Wisconsin, a DVD extra for Michael Moore’s latest film, Capitalism: A Love Story.

While Commie Taxi Drivers sprang from Moore’s imagination, there’s plenty of creativity inside those yellow cabs. Schepartz is a great example. When he’s not writing books, such as his 2007 novel Vampire Cabbie, he’s taking photographs and editing Mobius, a journal dedicated to literature, poetry and social change.

Without Union, this trifecta of creative output might not be possible. It’s hard to survive as a novelist if you’ve never published a book, and this was Schepartz’s situation for two decades. To pay the rent after college, Schepartz tried secretarial work and furniture sales, only to find himself with a pink slip — not a book deal — a few years later.

Then he heard about Union, a local, worker-owned cooperative brimming with artists, musicians and writers. Twenty-two years and several novels later, he’s still driving for Union. Like many fellow drivers, he’s discovered that you don’t need an MFA degree to make art, and that creativity and cab driving go hand in hand.

Of course, this combination doesn’t work for everyone. Cab driving in Madison requires a high tolerance for drunk people and the ability to stay cool when other drivers are texting and tailgating on the Beltline.

Plus, not every cab company offers a structure or vision like Union’s. Its mission statement includes a commitment to paying workers a living wage, whether they drive cabs, crunch numbers or clean toilets. For drivers, pay is based on a commission that’s a percentage of customer fees. The more hours drivers log, the bigger cut they get.

“Over the last 30 years or so, median wages for most working Americans have dropped, but the way Union Cab is set up, your real wage actually increases. And this helps the artistic life if you don’t have to work 60, 80 or 100 hours a week just to eke out a living,” Schepartz says. “And when you leave your shift, you don’t take your work home with you. To make art, you need a lot of time to think.”

Culture club

For Union Cab drivers, contemplation can even happen on the job, while waiting at an airport or a stoplight. For Mark Adkins, leader of Subvocal, a psych-folk band formed at Union Cab, an epiphany at the corner of State and Gilman streets led to one of his most memorable songs, “11303.”

“I saw this student walking by who was very pretty, except her nose was missing. I wondered how she dealt with her lot in life, and I began thinking about how people wear these different masks,” he recalls. “I came up with the song’s first line, ‘I see nothing but sorrow walking down the street,’ and I realized I was writing down feelings about my brother, who’d recently committed suicide. It was a real turning point.”

The album containing “11303,” Nikkis Room, was a turning point as well, winning Subvocal the 2005 Madison Area Music Award for best CD.

Good pay and ample downtime aren’t the only reasons creative people flock to Union. The co-op takes pride in its nontraditional philosophy about work. As a result, its culture isn’t typical.

“People are exactly who they say they are there, and it’s a very comfortable place to work because you don’t have to worry about what other people think,” says Jai Ingersoll, Union alum and vocalist for local goth-tronica group Sensuous Enemy. “I have tattoos and piercings and red hair, but it didn’t matter there. A lot of other places it would.”

Plus, if you talk to Union drivers at length, you’re likely to hear them refer to fellow worker-owners as family, not coworkers. As Adkins puts it, “We’re all writers and musicians and politicos, rebels and radicals and misfits. But even those of us with crappy attitudes will still get out of the car to fix your flat on a snowy day.”

This isn’t because Union workers are more compassionate than others; it’s a function of an environment that eschews competition and promotes empowerment, Adkins says. This type of atmosphere can also help talented people truly pursue their gifts, whether it’s music, metalworking or mime.

John McNamara, the co-op’s marketing manager, says a humane work environment simply encourages people to do their very best, whether it’s in the office, in a cab or at their after-work pursuits.

“We want people to like coming to work, not feel chewed up and spit out, which is the case at many companies. And because of the camaraderie that exists here, there’s a natural tendency to share and collaborate,” he says. “We work on teams and solve problems together. There’s not a lot of selfishness here, and that way of doing things spills over into other parts of people’s lives.”

McNamara credits much of this outlook to the zeitgeist of the 1970s, when Madison flexed its creative muscles in unprecedented ways. “People were really questioning the status quo and coming up with positive ways of changing the world,” he says. “The Union Cab people were part of this, along with WORT, the Willy Street Co-op, the Mifflin Street Co-op and Commonwealth Development.”

Problems plaguing the cab industry were troubling for drivers and consumers alike, he adds.

“Everything was being done on the cheap back then. Vehicles were unsafe, and drivers were very poorly paid. That translated into poor morale and poor customer service.” And that’s one thing Union’s founders set out to change.

Creative folks soon caught wind of the co-op’s flexible schedules, which could easily accommodate a band’s cross-country tour or a two-month writing sabbatical, and began to fill the Union’s ranks. Pretty soon, Butch Vig, who would go on to found Smart Studios and the band Garbage, was driving a Union cab. So was Michael Feldman, who now hosts the comedy and quiz show Whad’Ya Know?, which is heard on public radio stations across the country. Local author and historian Stu Levitan and Latin-jazz icon Tony Castañeda followed, along with many others.

Feldman, who drove for Union from 1981 to 1983, after quitting his first radio show, says unemployment led him to the co-op, along with its reputation for hiring creative individuals.

“They were hiring people like actor cab drivers and writer cab drivers, and they took me because I was a minor celebrity. They thought it would be good for business, but I was a terrible cab driver.”

Though Feldman doubted his cabbie skills, the gig led to something useful: a new public radio show. “We taped radio bits in the cabs and called it The Dispatcher,” he says. As a dispatcher wrangled cabs, “I’d be trying to break in with a question, like ‘What caused the extinction of the dinosaurs?’ We’d tape that and put it on the air.”

Rearview visionaries

Since Union has more than 200 employees, chances are good that an artsy new hire will already know a few other workers from gallery night or the local concert scene. Once these folks find each other, collaboration ensues.

Take longtime cabbie Kelly Burns Gray. A visual artist, she made sure a new CD of music by Union employees past and present came to be. Some of this do-good spirit stems from her personality, but another motivation is thanking Castañeda, who mentored her on some of her first drives.

“One of the things he trained me on was how to hold a coffee cup between my legs and use my lap as a plate. That experience sealed the deal,” she recalls.

Gray had watched Adkins put together Rearview Visionaries, a disc of Union cabbies’ original music, in 2002, so she knew the project could be done if she connected with the right people. With songs by Model Citizen, Wayside, Subvocal and others, the album’s still talked about among cabbies, and many seemed eager to create a follow-up. According to Steve Pingry, cellist for Subvocal and the Getaway Drivers, the original idea was to create a Rearview Visionaries boxed set, so a second CD would mean that the project was two-thirds complete.

After soliciting submissions on Facebook and through the grapevine, Gray got in touch with local musician and fellow cabbie Lonnie Wild, who paid for duplication of the new CD. Meanwhile, Smart Studios’ Mike Zirkel volunteered to master it. The final product debuted in January, featuring tracks by Sensuous Enemy, the Stellanovas, the Getaway Drivers, Castañeda and many others. In addition to spinning in many cabbies’ cars, it won a Madison Area Music Award this spring.

Union Cab Art Show

Meanwhile, Kristin Forde, a visual artist, theater person and Union cabbie of six years, has been organizing art shows with a purpose similar to the CDs’: to highlight the co-op’s creative talent. The first show, featuring political posters, photography, blown-glass mixed-media pieces and more by 10 Union Cab artists, took place last summer at the Gallery at Yahara Bay Distillery. Another will take place at the gallery July 29 through Sept. 24 of this year, with an opening reception July 30.

Forde, a former middle school teacher, credits cab driving for sparking a personal artistic awakening, so organizing a show is the least she can do to give back.

“Cab driving has opened up my creative life tremendously,” she says. “There’s something about being in constant motion, with the scenery always changing, that’s important to the photographs I take.”

And this sense of moving forward, making progress toward destinations physical, political, psychological and spiritual, is crucial to what Union stands for. It’s only natural that cabbies show off the values they’ve taught and learned at the co-op.

“The co-op model attracts people who are interested in an alternative way of life, one that’s very participatory and has a strong creative element,” Forde says. “Those of us who work at Union own it, too, so it’s up to us to make sure it remains this unique place that nurtures things the greater society doesn’t always value: individuality, creative expression and, of course, union.”

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Lewis Koch: Touchless Automatic Wonder

Pieces of text often come disguised as debris–candy wrappers, discarded receipts, fading patches of graffiti–but they’re still saying something. It’s just a question of what. For photographer Lewis Koch (who speaks this Saturday afternoon at Rainbow Bookstore Co-Op), these letters, numbers, and symbols spell out poems. They might not form tidy stanzas or couplets, and they might not rhyme, but they share the spirit of Surrealism that has fascinated poets such as John Ashbery and Allen Ginsberg and free-jazz musicians like Sun Ra. They speak to us in a language that’s alien to our sense of reason, but familiar to our emotions and even our memories.

YES

Koch’s new book, Touchless Automatic Wonder, a collection of what he calls “found text photographs from the real world,” creates a poem that’s both miniature and epic. Though these images contain just a handful of words, they say a lot and ask even more. They also represent nearly three decades of observation and creation by the Madison-based artist, whose work has made its way into the permanent collections of the Whitney and the Metropolitan Museum Of Art and appeared in exhibitions in New York, London, Seoul, and beyond.

The book begins with a black-and-white print of a window, viewed from the inside of a building. Plastered on the glass is the word “yes,” which appears to float above the street outside. A few pages later is a long-division problem, spelled out in sticks–or pretzel sticks, perhaps–on a table peppered with napkins and coffee cups. Other words and letters pop up like guests at a surprise party: The word “dream” (emblazoned on some large, decaying object) hides behind a chalkboard of children’s drawings; a broken record surfaces in a field, among the unruly leaves and flowers. A painting of a lady revealing her garter points at the word “almost,” while a television with a man waving his finger reminds everyone to “wear suspenders,” as if neglecting to do so is a very serious transgression. Meanwhile, a deserted car lot sprouts four signs from its cracked concrete, all of which say “OK,” even though business clearly isn’t booming.

What’s most fascinating about these photos, however, is that they’ll likely mean something different to each person who sees them, dredging up a unique combination of memories and associations. In the introduction to the book, Koch says it’s the images’ fragmented nature that creates a “sometimes deliberate, sometimes accidental account of one’s life.” But rather than reading them like a novel, they can be read like a diary, a riddle, or even a dream.

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Safety in Numbers

Notes From Places, L.A. artist James Boulton’s show of mixed-media collages on display at Project Lodge through July 9, doesn’t include any written notes whatsoever. There’s nary a title or price in sight, and certainly not an artist’s statement. It’s a refreshing dismissal of the gallery world’s attempt to turn artistic works into retail merchandise that can be compartmentalized and explained.

Boulton uses collage as a code for the tension between order and disorder. His works using paper, many of which were created onsite, are chaotic: sheets of paper splattered with oil paints and images clipped from old magazines and what appear to be found photographs. Yet they are arranged in a precise grid on the Project Lodge’s east and west walls, giving visitors the illusion of safety when they first enter the space.

On closer inspection, it’s clear all this tidy geometry is misleading. In one panel of the grid, a photo of a naked woman splayed on a dirty-looking bed in an even dirtier-looking room floats on a black background, like a character in a video game. Around her are angular shapes that resemble gemstones, rendered in primary colors, along with softer, flower-shaped scribbles. Whether the shapes are out to destroy the woman or help her is debatable.

In another collage (an excerpt is pictured above), Boulton’s scissors have decapitated a photographed woman in a sleeveless dress. A messy square of white paint covers the space where her head should be, and a photo of a mountain—perhaps her last pleasant thought—lingers next to it. An even more puzzling panel features a black-and-white grid within the grid, on top of which orange shapes converge into what looks like a cartoon map. Below, a man in orange hazmat gear is being mauled by a wild animal with a flame bursting from its head. This strange beast isn’t just torturing a human figure, though; it’s also biting the butt of another animal, which is perched atop a huge magazine image of a young girl. Even though this child is the most peaceful character in the scene, she’s also the queen bee since she’s the largest. Underneath her hovers a cutout of children’s underpants and an image of a screaming monkey, adding an extra-absurd twist to the madness. Whatever place this composition is recalling isn’t one you’ll want to visit alone.

Even household objects get twisted and collaged in a collection of cardboard sculptures in the center of the gallery. Each displays a picture of an item you might find at the local Dig ’N Save outlet: a thermos; a broken coffee cup that says “Big Hug Mug”; a creepy, legless Bratz doll; and an upside-down bicycle. Beyond the surface, however, the items from the pictures hide inside the cardboard, as if they’ve transformed from tangible objects into imaginary ones. You could be next.

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What’s Your Function?

The Madison Museum Of Contemporary Art’s Return To Function show, on display through Aug. 23, raises a question that many folks unfamiliar with art-gazing ask: Shouldn’t these so-called works of art do something?

In other words, the show encourages viewers to wonder whether art should move beyond its usual functions—decorating a space and promoting high culture, to name a few—and offer us a tangible service other than simply making us think more (or making other people think that we think more, deeper, and better).

Of course, this is all a bit of a sham, because the aim of these pieces is still to oil people’s mental and psychological axles: While a lamp make out of old kiwi containers can, in fact, light a room, its main function is arguably to make viewers consider the nature of consumption and the many possibilities for recycling and reuse.

You’re not likely to wear Lucy Orta’s “Refuge Wear Habitent” unless you’re shaped like a bloated pyramid: The piece begins as an REI-style windbreaker, complete with a drawstring hood, but takes on the shape of a pup tent rather than a human being. Pockets form the windows and the front zipper is an invitation to explore, perhaps, the wearer’s innards or to take shelter in a space that resembles a womb—one that not only keeps you warm, but repels various forms of precipitation.

orta

Ralph Borland’s “Suited For Subversion” repels not only wind and rain but also Tasers and police clubs. The large red object, which resembles a supersized, heart-shaped life jacket, has enough padding to shield the wearer’s own heart from spills on city streets, multitudes of sharp objects, and the myriad forms of brutality that might occur during a protest. A picture of how to wear it, featuring a man (presumably the artist) in a sporty pose by a brick wall, mocks the culture of catalog shopping while a sound recording mimics a heartbeat with eerie urgency.

Joe Scanlan’s “DIY” boasts a functional theme that’s both a death wish and a sales pitch: “How to Kill Yourself Anywhere in the World for Under $399,” printed in a book that overlooks the rest of the piece from the safety of a simple wooden frame. The museum staff actually had to build this Return To Function selection according to the artist’s instructions, using a bookcase from IKEA to form a coffin. Fake plastic flowers and a cheap pillow provide the finishing touches on the statement, making The A.V. Club wonder if there’s anything the Swedish home-goods retailer wouldn’t try to sell you by exploiting your desires to be self-reliant and thrifty.

Undocumented immigrants’ desires for self-reliance, as well as respect and upward mobility, are examined in Ricardo Miranda Zuñiga’s “Vagamundo: A Migrant’s Tale,” a video game housed in an old-fashioned ice-cream cart. Each level of the game reflects a move toward the questionable goal of assimilation. The character must transcend violence and heavy drinking in the first level, Culture of Poverty; he works as a grocery-store bagger, fending off giant cockroaches and tricky English grammar rules, in the second level, Culture of Assimilation; and in the third level, Culture of Prosperity, he must satisfy the whims of wealthy patrons at the restaurant where he waits tables. “Your English is much improved,” the game says sarcastically, “but someday you might be able to buy a home in Jersey.”

While, in theory, you can touch this game, its function is still to grab you by the heartstrings, the synapses and, rather disturbingly, the funnybone.

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Stopping Time with Design

It’s no surprise that “design” has become synonymous with “web design” in many people’s minds as the influence of the Internet grows. While the aesthetics and functionality of websites are certainly important, the folks at UW-Madison’s School Of Human Ecology (SoHE) realize that they’re only the tip of the design iceberg—and that some works of art can’t be reproduced online without losing something vital.

The Design 2009 show, on display at the school’s Design Gallery through April 26, is a prime example. Showcasing student projects from apparel, textile, and interior design studio classes each year since 1992, SoHE’s watched technology evolve while providing viewers a chance to experience design through tangible objects such as handcrafted scarves, couture-style gowns, miniature models of buildings, and sculptures.

While many of the objects on display were clearly created with the help of computers, they are also tied to the physical (read: non-virtual) space in which they live and function. They’re also tied to an analog history—that mythical, pre-computer age that so many try to channel through crafting, vintage clothing, and hobbies like record-collecting and burlesque dancing.

“Half Metal Jacket” by Amanda Larson, the winner of the best-in-show prize for textiles and apparel, merges this longing for the future and yearning for the past. A small military-style jacket, constructed from industrial mesh, hovers in the space, ghostlike. Tangles of wire, like unkempt vines, crawl up the front of the garment, budding with faux pearls. While the jacket appears minimalist and almost robotic at first glance, it’s more of a testament to knights’ armor and ornate Victorian gardens than cyborgs and IKEA.

Elsewhere in the gallery are garments made of Hefty cinch sacks (“Garbage Bag Evening Dress” by Ariel Arnson), surgical gloves (“Glove Dress” by Rebecca Schafer) and the strange stuff that undergirds wooden floorboards (“Underlayment Dress” by Kate Flood), highlighting the tension between the extravagance of high fashion and the fashionable status of recycling.

The best-in-show award for interior design went to Julie Foote’s concept for a Japanese restaurant, Nousatsu Peppanyaki Buffet. Instead of veering toward computer-generated anime, Foote fused traditional Asian design elements with Japanese fairy tales and bits of gothic gloom. Abstract cranes, filled with light, float from an ink-black ceiling while glowing orange carp slink through a shadowy koi pond. The result feels modern due to its sleekness, but is more of a tribute to the color of the past and a looming uncertainty about the future.

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SuperBug Buzzes with Hypochondria

SuperBug

During flu season, it’s easy to develop a touch of germ-inspired obsessive-compulsive disorder. Even if you’ve invested in a gallon of hand sanitizer, SuperBug, on display at the Overture Center’s James Watrous Gallery through March 8, is likely to transform your anxiety into full-blown hypochondria—in the name of art, of course. The installation’s creators, UW-Madison professors Jennifer Angus and John Hitchcock, use both text and textiles to exploit those fears of infection and contamination that bubble just below the surface. The show begins with an essay that portends a viral pandemic more deadly than the 1918 influenza outbreak—the one that killed more than 25 million people—then makes your skin crawl by juxtaposing screen-printed patterns of virus-ravaged cells with creepy images of locusts. All 36 of these prints are downright soothing, though, compared to the sculptures that surround them: real specimens of freak-bugs—long-legged moths, supersized beetles, and mutant butterflies with vampire fangs—plucked from nature and preserved in glass domes that seem to be on the verge of shattering. It’s enough to make you sprint to the local exterminator—or to the drug store for a glue trap and a flu shot.