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Press Release

MOWA to display work of Neo-Pop painter Lon Michels

Exhibition October 1, 2023

(WEST BEND, WISCONSIN) – The Museum of Wisconsin Art is proud to present Lon Michels: Disrupting Patterns. The exhibition opens with a special event on October 28 and runs through January 21, 2024. The opening party is from 2:00–4:00 and features light bites and a special presentation from the artist. Guests are encouraged to dress colorfully.

The exhibition is a mid-career retrospective of the Lodi-based painter. Early works date from Michel’s twenty-something years in New York after he fled a repressive childhood in rural Wisconsin for the freedom—creative and otherwise—promised by the Big Apple. His magnetic personality and distinctive style caught the attention of the art establishment: Michels spent his days as an assistant to sculptor Louise Nevelson and his nights hobnobbing at Andy Warhol’s Factory. From Nevelson, Michels learned the significance of scale and the power of constructed environments. Warhol’s conception of celebrity affirmed his penchant for brilliant color and his inclination to highlight the individual.

Michel’s Neo-Pop figuration intuitively navigates the boundaries between framed, staged, and the projection of self through pattern. He captures members of his social circle informally at home or at work, such as The Gallerist, surrounded by the seemingly banal ephemera of daily life. Within the ordinary aspects of their lives, Michels highlights their idiosyncrasies and emphasizes their fragile, approachable humanity. The exhibition will feature forty-five paintings displayed within a re-created lounge environment of leopard-painted Buddha sculptures, a taxidermy bear, a 1961 camper van, a VW, and plush household furnishings.

Re-creating the “Masterpiece”

Michels’s boldly patterned portraits along with his re-imagined “masterpieces” from the Western art-historical canon reflect common tendencies of queer art practices. In part as a tribute to that canon, Michels elevates his sitters by placing them in his versions of works by Botticelli, Manet, Matisse, and Picasso while simultaneously dissolving personal identity and art historical significance into complex patterns and bold colors.

The artist’s vibrant patterns and colors are often so intense that his compositions read like collages of flat wallpaper, disrupting traditional ideas of form and perspective in favor of surface decoration. This push-pull between figural representation and surface pattern creates a tension that both arrests the viewer’s gaze and challenges conventional ways of seeing and understanding.

In New American Gothic (Tribute to Grant Wood), the artist re-invents Grant Wood’s iconic American farm family in his depiction of a young couple embracing country life. Similarly, Artist Garden Party (Tribute to Manet) assembles painters and friends in an outdoor setting meant to evoke Edouard Manet’s Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe.

Exhibition Catalogue

The exhibition catalogue includes a biographical essay written by Executive Director Laurie Winters and a scholarly essay by Lex Lancaster, professor of art history at Cooper Union in New York.


Image credit: Lon Michels, Michelle and Her Daughters, 2022