The Art Museum of Missoula was abuzz with activity on a recent Friday morning. A piano tuner plinked loudly at a gleaming grand piano positioned in the middle of the first floor gallery. Workmen made a racket around the main doorway, and a Red Cross bus seemed open for business curbside, announcing its right to the space with an audible, air-conditioned hum.
A troop of name-tagged preschoolers marched down from the upstairs galleries, ready for more art. Before taking in the Rudy Autio exhibit in the main gallery (“Rudy: Montana’s Native Son”) they directed their attention toward the piano tuner and assumed their sitting-quietly-on-the-floor position, so well known to summer campers. (At any given hour, on any summer weekday in Missoula, children somewhere in Missoula are learning about butterflies, pond life, or Lewis and Clark.)
The piano tuner was preparing the big, black grand for an evening performance by jazz pianist David Morgenroth, the second in a series titled “Jazz at the Museum.” His strident step-wise hammering had been so much environmental noise up to this point, in the same category as the workmen’s sounds. But suddenly he was framed differently, as the children lined up in two neat rows, cross-legged, offering themselves as receptive vessels for a performance. He continued pounding a single key for a brief moment, getting it perfectly pitched, then obligingly launched into a bit of Debussy, and something more readily called music spilled into this space that had been tramped down in the ambient grass.
Around the children stood the large, freestanding figures that Rudy Autio is famous for: huge vases with curves and bulges that become human heads, shoulders, breasts, horses’ rumps, unnamed curves, swirling arms, hair and manes, shadowy genitals, knees. There’s a temptation to physically defer to these creations, to keep personal space between them and yourself as you move through the room, which has nothing to do with the fear of toppling one over. The children stared at them while they listened, respectfully interested.
This Autio exhibit focuses on “public art,” a term as contentious as either of its component parts. Is public art site specific? Regional? Does it have to do with the local? The locale? Is it the placement that makes it public? The publicity? Surely it was at least partly the children’s group agreement that the piano tuner was a musician that created a musical moment—as much as the piano tuner’s own switch from separate notes to a composed piece. (And was Autio’s art then imbued for the children with Debussy? Or was Debussy animated by Autio?)
A mesh of staring and listening went on at the jazz event that evening. By then the museum had been restored to order, but its usual semi-sacral state had been gently messed with. Folding chairs were clustered in angled rows around the piano. Over in the bookstore there was free punch in heavy punch cups, and wine and beer could be purchased for a modest price. The chairs were filled with people listening to David Morgenroth perform beautiful jazz, free of charge. While for some jazz carries its own erudite associations—because of its presumed insider (technical) language—it also has popular, secular origins, and an aesthetic based on tension, which makes it especially suitable for an art museum.
Anyway, the people listening to the jazz weren’t all the same. They were in a variety of dress and from a variety of occupations; it was hard to tell. Some of the people had their eyes closed, perhaps to hear the music better, or to rest. Some gazed at two disparate works of Autio art on either side of the pianist.
On one side was the long and narrow “St. Anthony and the Christ Child,” the work that can be seen at the front of St. Anthony’s Church in Missoula. Measuring five feet by 30 feet in its actual setting, this solemn, vertically linear work conveys a great sense of inevitability and resignation. St. Anthony, the patron saint of lost things, holds the Christ child in his arms and casts a gaze slightly sideways that could be either wary or jaundiced—it is an oblique glance of introspection, unease, suffering, maybe despair. His long face is reminiscent of a deer’s, the double-tiered halo could be rounded antlers. His extra-long hands appear as the appendages of some amalgamated animal, a cross between hooves, fingers, and fins. They invoke both immobility and great care, a kind of loving paralysis. (These idiosyncrasies recede when the work is seen in its architectural setting. There they merge into a unified, heraldic appearance, and the work’s dramatic height functions in the same manner as a church steeple—indicating, that is, more than expressing or suggesting.)
On the other side of the piano was Autio’s “Acanthus,” a vibrant work commissioned for the Nippon Beauty Academy in Tokyo. (The Art Museum features photos of the original pieces.) While bordered in rectangles, like St. Anthony and the Christ Child, and crisscrossed with the faint gridwork of tile, this work is a swirl of kimono colors and elemental currents, conveying pure glee. Interestingly, the horse that cavorts here with three human figures has a more human expression than Autio’s muse-like horses usually do. In fact, the horse seems a bit distressed and dismayed to be caught up in this playful vortex. Its nostrils are flared, its ears are laid back, and its eyes slightly roll, looking for a way out. Set next to the austere, chiseled St. Anthony (both viewed during the performance of an increasingly dense version of “Bye, Bye, Blackbird,”) it projected, similarly, a feeling of pained relinquishment, that phenomenal moment of both pressure and release, whatever it is that makes music out of pitches, and art out of a thing. #
A slide lecture and closing reception for Rudy Autio’s solo exhibition will be held Thurs., Aug. 30 at 7 p.m. in Room 356 of the Social Sciences Building at the University of Montana. A closing reception will follow at the Art Museum. Admission to both is free. For more information call 728-0447.