This week I arrived at the same time as a busload of elementary school kids, maybe eight or nine years old. “What school are you?” I asked the closest little girls, pals sticking together. They had to stumble through the answer because their school is a consolidation and since no one would give up the name of the previous community school, they all had to be named, the small communities just to the south of Valier, shrinking because of diminishing numbers and increasing age.
Then the receptionist seized me. A late-middle-aged woman, she wanted to know nothing about me. She wanted to tell me how important everything was and how I should proceed through the exhibits and what I should think about it and she wanted to give me lots of brochures and slick postcards, though I resisted. It was no use. She wanted me to sign in. I did. I like the mailings. To deflect her, I asked whether she were an artist. “Oh, yes,” she said. She “dabbled in everything: pots, quilts, macrame. . .“ I walked off which made her raise her voice but by then it was time for her to lecture the teachers. She ignored the students.
The “theme” of the first floor exhibits was “place,” which was what I wanted to consider. The first room was “Theodore Waddell, a Montana native raised in Laurel, who studied at the Brooklyn Museum Art School, Eastern Montana College, and Wayne State University, Detroit (MFA, 1968). He taught at the University of Montana from 1968 to 1976 and has since been a full time artist and rancher. He has had over ninety one-man exhibitions, including a major survey at the Eiteljorg Museum, Indianapolis.” He had been included in the survey video lecture about Western artists given by the founding director of the Eiteljorg that I posted the address for a few days ago.
I didn’t want to look at Waddell’s paintings so much for the sake of place as for the concept of “seeing,” because his subject is so often herd animals spread out against the land. In an abstract way, he manages to make his “animals” supply the eye with the same information that makes it possible from a distance to separate scattered buffalo from cattle from horses. This includes the way they space themselves. My first lessons were administered by Bob Scriver every time we went through Marias Pass, across a river from a burned hillside where elk and deer grazed among the skeletons of trees and brush. “What do you see? How many?” It took practice to find the animals. http://www.theodorewaddell.com/
The hallway exhibit was Neil Jussila: “Joseph in Montana: the Nez Perce Epic,” very large and brooding expressionist works in the Rothko manner. Jussila is a prof at Montana State University, Billings, where war trauma is a theme. He was born in Butte where the population was largely first generation immigrants for a long time. The title work for the exhibit is “Pogrom,” and though the whole attitude is an eruption of European concepts of genocide and Vietnam War veteran emotion (Wounded Knee Syndrome), the paintings looked to me like Montana storm skies, so dark and heavy that they crush you against the ground. The guiding concept, of course, is the futile flight of the Nez Perce across Montana. http://www.the-square.org/PDF/JussilaCatalogWeb.pdf
The show I most wanted to see was by Jean Albus: “Rapture on the Plains.” She’s an eastern Montana person, working in photography, so what one buys is an archive quality inkjet print. The exhibit is here: http://www.the-square.org/PDF/AlbusCatalogWeb.pdf
The first image you get is “Feathers Before Wings,” a ball of assorted real feathers floating over a country road, maybe the one that is access to her rural place near Bridger. It’s a kind of meditation on creation, maybe. Highly evolved and complex things not quite organized into a creature yet. The rest of the show plays with a trope of dress-against-landscape, dream-like images about woman-on-grasslands, almost embarrassing in their directness, like “What Women Want,” a labially folded satin evening gown in lipstick red against a snowy overcast vista. A tattered and bedraggled commotion of crinoline strongly echoed Bernini’s sculpture of Saint Theresa, the nun that Simon Schama wants us to admit is a nun having an orgasm. This is very sexy stuff.
I grabbed the explanatory sheets and left, though the nanny-receptionist objected that I hadn’t seen the upstairs. Her idea of art is something that has to be explained and her idea of her role is to lecture people. Sod that.
Sometimes I wonder whether art education gets de-funded because it is considered trivial and inscrutable stuff that snobs brandish at the rest of us, or because it is so powerful at the gut level (all three of these artists were exactly so) that they are not safe to allow school children to see. (No one notices that.) The children’s first lesson was where the bathrooms were. The teacher tried to impress them that these works are not about THEIR lives, but only reserved for the important people -- who should show their importance by writing checks for the museum. A museum is an extension of a school, a place where one doesn’t get dirty, doesn’t get laid, doesn’t get killed. Of course, I disagree. It's denial.
And I can’t believe that those two little girls didn’t look at a sheer pale green dress, floating over the prairie and entitled, “A Memory of Grass,” didn’t get it. The folds of the red satin gown will haunt them until some day they discover what it means.