“That weird dog boy” is how Milwaukee-area artist Fred Stonehouse refers to the figure in Perko, one of his 13 bizarre paintings and drawings at Gescheidle. And why are hot water bottles floating above the pine trees? “They’re vessels, like bladders and stomachs,” he says. “Earlier I was doing paintings of see-through mythical animals, showing the stomach and esophagus, and they sort of escaped from the bodies. They also echo the word bubbles in cartoons.” Though the title came from the label on a package of hinges Stonehouse bought at a garage sale, he thought it sounded like the name of a sideshow freak: “The premise of my painting is that this is a mythical animal captured in the wilds of Wisconsin.”

Growing up in the 60s and 70s, Stonehouse went regularly to the Wisconsin State Fair, where he saw sideshow banners advertising “Penguin Boy” in an arctic landscape and “Lobster Boy” at the bottom of the sea. Of course these “attractions” were just human beings born with deformities, but they fascinated him nonetheless. Stonehouse already had a “terrible fear of ghosts and hauntings.” As soon as it got dark after Sunday dinner at his Sicilian grandmother’s house, his aunts and uncles would tell frightening tales: “In one story, somebody paid their bill at my grandfather’s bar with an ornately carved cabinet. My grandparents woke up the day after bringing it home to find their baby sleeping on the floor in front of it rather than upstairs. This happened several times. So my grandfather decided to put him to bed down there, and he ended up upstairs.” The “iconography and voodoo magic of Catholicism” also had an effect on him. “It’s pretty exotic, the bleeding and tortures and miracles. People probably don’t think twice about the sacred heart, but here’s this disembodied bleeding heart surrounded by a crown of thorns, as weird as anything in surrealism,” he says.

Stonehouse’s childhood home was decorated with prints on cardboard his mother had gotten free at the supermarket: “There was a cubist Picasso in our kitchen, a Rembrandt in our living room, and really bad paintings, a puppy dog and big-eyed children. To me it was all equivalent.” He was studying to be an auto mechanic in high school when he discovered the Milwaukee Art Museum. That was “like finding Tut’s tomb. I started going to the library, getting books on artists.” Guided by TV how-to shows, he began teaching himself to paint–and by his senior year was doing surrealist-inspired work and decided to try art school. The first person in his family to go to college, he did “the good blue-collar thing, satisfying your teachers.” Because the reigning aesthetic at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee was abstract expressionism (“‘I don’t think this brown is right’ is the kind of nonsense we had to talk about”), he switched to biomorphic abstraction. But he had a “life-changing moment” while still in college, when he saw a Philip Guston retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in 1980: Guston had shocked the art world with his abrupt turn from abstract expressionism to cartoonish figuration. Later the Chicago imagists, neo-Expressionism, and Latin American magic realist fiction helped bring Stonehouse back to surrealism, as did folk and outsider art.

Stonehouse is an obsessive collector of images. He first felt that impulse, he thinks, when he was very young and drew with his favorite crayon over an encyclopedia illustration of the planet Saturn half submerged in an ocean: “I think I was completing it, making it mine.” The face in Dream of Ming is painted from an old Chinese cigarette ad, while the body is a bird’s holding a snake. Surrounding the figure are glowing colored dots and speech balloons that contain the title in fragments. “I got this idea of sound becoming visual,” he says. “My mother is deaf, as are four of her six siblings. There would be these silent conversations between people who would lip-read.” This figure, like most others in the show, is crying–“as if overflowing,” Stonehouse says, “with inner stuff, turmoil, pain, joy, humor.”

Fred Stonehouse

When: Through Sat 2/25

Where: Gescheidle, 118 N. Peoria

Info: 312-226-3500