The Missoula Art Museum is a small space as museums go. One traveler reviewing it on trip advisor said he would have preferred to stay longer in the museum, there just wasn’t enough to see. I can see his point, but for me, an hour and a half was perfect. With only four to five exhibits at one time, the museum allows you to view current offerings as a whole and invites you to make connections between the themes and styles of the different exhibits.
Interference Effects, with works by conceptual artist John Baldessari, was my first stop. To your left as you enter the door is an enlarged print of the lines “I will not make any more boring art” repeated down the frame, like the outmoded practice of having children copy the same sentence a hundred times as a form of punishment. The writing is not in Baldessari’s hand– for an installation in Nova Scotia he suggested students write the words on the walls of the gallery. Still, the piece issues a challenge as you step into the room, “What is non-boring art and how do you make it?”
Baldessari’s answer is a combination of movie stills and lithograph prints, altered with text and blocks of color. “Two Unfinished Letters” is two columns of hands holding letters, the shape of the paper replaced by a solid burst of purple, blue, or green. Another print shows the pieces of a photo of two lovers embracing, separated into two images along the lines where their skin meets. In other works, he completely obscures faces with colored dots. Your attention is drawn to the negative space in the image, the face behind the blank spot, the varied shapes of a letter when held, the man’s hand silhouette, absent and ghostly where it would otherwise blend into the woman’s skin.
I was not surprised to find that Colwin Clairmont drew inspiration from Baldessari for his Two-Headed Arrow/ The Tar Sands Project. This installation documents his commentary on the tar sands mining operation in Alberta, Canada. Traveling there from Missoula, Clairmont stopped every 25 miles to perform the same documentation rite. He used double headed arrows to represent the two choices we have when coming to a t-intersection. The gummy bears, which he placed on the four corners of the arrow and photographed at every stop, symbolize the wildlife hurt by mining.
I finished my visit with Totems and Stelae, featuring the work of Joseph Baraz. This artist had peaked my interest when I read that he trained as an acrobat in Hungary and that the exhibit featured a number of sculptures. Baraz often works with found objects like concrete and cardboard. With paint, he alters them, but not completely. A card introducing the exhibit listed questions to ponder while walking through. I let the suggestions about the artist’s paint strokes guide me in particular.
Look at the artist’s mark-making:
Do the marks look deliberate, confident, spontaneous or timid?
Were they made quickly or slowly? How did he let the paint drip and how do the drips add to the overall dynamic of the work?
Totems and Stelae was taken down the day after I visited, so I am glad I had a chance to see this collection of exhibits and in this order. Seeing Baldessari’s use of negative space before Baraz, I focused more on the space between the paint drips, as well as what was obscured underneath them. I would have to go back and reverse my order to know for sure, but had I learned of the Double-Headed Arrow journey before Interference Effects, I can imagine noticing the timeline of Baldessari’s individual pieces–trying to see the mental journey he took from one color-blocked group of faces to the next.