Crowns made of chicken bones: on Eugene Von Bruenchenhein

A show of the artist's work in Sheboygan is sure to spur more interest in his art and life

John Michael Kohler Arts Center

John Michael Kohler Arts Center

Eugene Von Bruenchenhein was a small, determined man. A wildly prolific self-taught artist, he applied his relentless imagination to everyday materials in a modest house in Milwaukee. Barely anyone knew who he was or what he did at home, yet his admirers have grown steadily in number since the first show of his vibrant work in 1984.

Now, the exhibition Mythologies at the John Michael Kohler Art Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin—which mounted the 1984 show and holds some 700 of his works—presents more of his art than ever. Around 450 objects are on view in an exhibition that marks the museum’s 50th anniversary.

Von Bruenchenhein claimed a noble lineage, but he worked as a baker—a suitable trade for a basement ceramicist. He lived quietly with his wife, Marie, the subject of years-worth of carefully posed photographs. When he developed a respiratory illness (allegedly through repeated contact to flour), the couple subsisted on social security and he scrounged for materials.

Too short for the US Army and too odd for local galleries, Von Bruenchenhein barely exhibited or sold any of his creations, which included paintings of the cosmos on cardboard, pottery decorated with vegetal patterns, metal crowns “gilded” with automobile paint, miniature thrones and towers constructed from chicken bones, painted in glowing colours and glaring visions of hydrogen bomb explosions.

As with other outsider artists, his work raises a question: why does so much of it resemble (and sometimes predate) work that would appear on the contemporary art scene, which he had little chance of seeing?

Von Bruenchenhein’s ceramics evoke a natural realm that might appeal to surrealists such as Salvador Dali or harmonise with American 1930s south-western landscapes. His photographs call to mind the work of Man Ray and his wife, and the self-manipulations of Cindy Sherman. His paintings of towers in radiant tones echo visionary 1920s Soviet architectural renderings. And his chicken bone constructions—built with carcasses salvaged from KFC trash bins—are personal twists on Arte Povera and on children’s ice cream stick architecture.

Yet the deeper appeal of Von Bruenchenhein’s work comes not from what it resembles, but from what it is. His semi-abstract paintings pulsate with dynamism. Curiously, some of he works were created with odd tools, like brushes made from his wife’s hair. In his handmade thrones and towers, chicken bones can feel like ivory. Crowns that he painted gold for himself and Marie have something to them that makes them closely resemble to the real thing.

The exhibition is a delicate microcosm from a frothing imagination, but not only that. Von Bruenchenhein’s objects are also a kaleidoscopic view full of unsettling endgame visions of nuclear devastation once contained in the bunker of his home. Here’s how he put it in a passage cited by his first dealer, Carl Hammer of Chicago, who still sells his work today:

"We consider ourselves so smart and yet after the great length of time man has lived on Earth he has just scratched the surface of knowledge... As far as science goes we have only looked in the mirror, not [at] what is concealed behind".

Von Bruenchenhein's work made a major splash when Massimiliano Gioni (one of his many curator fans) included him alongside other outsider artists in The Encyclopaedic Palace exhibition at the 2013 Venice Biennale.

There is sure to be new scrutiny of this enigmatic artist’s life as more of his dazzling work is shown. Was Marie a collaborator or merely a silent model in his thousands of photographs? Why was the end of the world the only outside event depicted in Von Bruenchenhein’s paintings, or in any of his art?The market is sure to follow those mysteries.

David D’Arcy is a correspondent for The Art Newspaper

Mythologies: Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan, Wisconsin, until 1 January 2018