Artist features personal, collaborative pieces at Lulu

Sept. 6, 2007

For most people, Bar Lulu, 2261 S. Howell Ave., is place to meet friends, enjoy a beverage and grab something to eat.

For artist Charles Dwyer, it's all that and a bag of research and development.

Dwyer said he "self-appointed" himself as art curator for Bar Lulu after he arranged for the "Lucky Strike" show by his friend and fellow artist, Gary Pollack, in late summer 2005.

"It's kind of my place to work large," Dwyer said.

At the moment, the gargantuan unsigned pieces on exhibit at Lulu are collaborations between Dwyer and another friend, photographer Mark Brautigam.

Many of Brautigam's photographs from his "On Wisconsin" portfolio are focused on slightly unsettling scenes from around the state.

"He's fearless," Dwyer said. "He just gets in his car and just goes and finds locations that are just odd, but have an underlying meaning."

A piece that chronicles the interior of the University of Lawsonomy on Highway 41 in Sturtevant is a case in point.

Brautigam found a room that appears locked in a Twilight Zone time warp, with an orange and gray linoleum floor, cement block walls and patriotic ephemera decorations. A framed portrait of a man in a bowtie looks out from above the brick fireplace, flanked by a pair of black-and-white photographs of biplanes.

It's as if the viewer has stumbled upon the headquarters of some secret subculture.

Adding story and irony

Dwyer's contribution to the piece adds to the mystery.

The first step is making the photograph look like it was old and mislaid, perhaps stumbled upon by a relative sorting through old boxes after a death in the family.

The back story is that whoever found it "had the nerve to put graffiti on it," Dwyer said.

After printing the photograph on an inkjet printer on three strips of archival paper, Dwyer soaks the sheets in Roundy's coffee. It's a better stain than beverage, he said.

He pelts the piece with gravel and stones and rubs it with sandpaper until it has the texture of an image from a time and place long ago forgotten.

Dwyer then turns to his walls, loaded with vintage books, to find inspiration. For this piece, he found it in a report of a UFO sighting near the Illinois-Wisconsin border, not far from the University of Lawsonomy.

Using blaze-orange paint that matches a cap hanging on an industrial coat tree in the photograph, Dwyer inscribed the words of the report over the image.

He used the same type of technique on all of the pieces in the exhibit, including a Brautigam photograph of Jones Island on which he superimposed an image of Cassius Clay (later known as Muhammad Ali) battling Sonny Liston in the ring.

"It reminded me of what it would be like to be inside a boxer's head," Dwyer said.

He added lyrics from Sun Kil Moon: "Cassius Clay was hit more than Sonny Liston," and finished it with what Dwyer sees as irony - he gold-leafed the piece.

The Ali piece is already gone, purchased by a collector from Bayside, Dwyer said.

Break from the usual

Every piece remaining on exhibit at Lulu tells a story. The viewer can fill in the blanks.

Dwyer relishes the chance to experiment with art for exhibit at Lulu because it frees him from the demands often placed upon him by publishers, agents and gallery owners.

Dwyer has built a successful full-time career as a fine artist, based not just on talent, but a bit of luck.

After graduating from the Milwaukee School of Art (now known as the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design) in 1984, Dwyer went home to West Bend and began working on his art in his parents' basement.

He hung around at the library and the West Bend Art Museum (now the Museum of Wisconsin Art).

When the art director of the museum asked him to drive a set of paintings to a gallery owner in Barrington, Ill., he also suggested that Dwyer take along slides of his work.

The gallery owner booked him for a one-man show. It sold out.

"All artists need is this boost of momentum; this pat on the back," he said.

Since then, Dwyer's work has been sold at galleries in New York, Boston, Chicago and across the country.

His career included a stint working exclusively for Special Editions Ltd., a division of Playboy Enterprises.

Why Bay View?

He doesn't mind questions from gallery owners and artists who question his choice to live in Bay View.

For one thing, he said, the winter weather is conducive to working. He loved this last rainy spell.

"You can kind of hide out here in Milwaukee," he said. "I like that it's blue-collar and kind of 'underdog' and you don't have to be influenced by other cities."

Dwyer shares his eclectic home/studio in the 300 block of East Lincoln Avenue with his friendly dog, a Bouvier named Napoleon; two cats he found abandoned in Arizona when they were kittens; and a goldfish named Jerry Seinfeld.

The work he shows at Lulu is more personal than the paintings he sends to galleries in other cities.

He said he likes the fact that it stays in the neighborhood and he can see the responses to it.

"And what's cool is I can walk it up here, too," Dwyer said.

Dwyer's work can be viewed at Bar Lulu and at dwyerart

.com. Brautigam's work can be seen at

Nan Bialek keeps tabs on the South Shore's creative side. To contact her about an art topic, call South Shore NOW at (262) 446-6632 or send an e-mail to

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