Before I went to see the Lela Autio exhibit at the Missoula Art Museum I decided to refrain from perusing the words of any other critic or journalist. I figured, why let the subjective ideas of a few certain so-called experts dictate what I think or feel about the art of this woman whom I’d never met and knew nothing about? Art is, after all, reactionary and best when the reaction comes untainted.
When I strolled into the art museum last Friday for the public reception, bright yellows and greens and blues and reds—like nothing I’ve seen roaming the hills and valleys near town—immediately saturated my heavy eyes.
I skirted around a few people and went in for a closer look. Plexi #1 and Plexi #2 are collages of sewed and stuffed bright vinyl and painted and colored Plexiglas mounted behind two panes of clear glass. Stray pieces of vinyl pop out from behind the separation falsely created by the glass, and that seemed to bring me closer into the art. Next to these pieces is a similar piece entitled Pink Patch. Other works followed. They all seem to exhibit that same sense of ordered chaos, or a finely crafted jumble of color. They made me smile. And then, pasted on the wall, words interrupted the art: More often than not, her activated colors strike the viewer with the force of a sudden thunderstorm rolling across the plains of eastern Montana…
I’m not feeling that.
Her works frame and compress dense packages of emotional time…
Avoiding the “experts” was a bit harder than I reckoned.
Most of the pieces in the main gallery were either sewed vinyl collages or sewed and stuffed cloth collages. Some combine both. Others are backlit by florescent bulbs, which I didn’t much care for; fluorescent light gives me a headache. One piece, Plastic Circles and Tubes, 1975, actually scared me. This hanging piece consists of a white life ring-shaped cloth form with a sheet of metallic fiber that fills the hole. The hole is then covered with clear plastic. Out of a slit in the plastic, long intestine-like tubes spill right onto the floor in a messy pile. It looks organic, like innards, raw and sickly.
Off to my left, a crowd surrounded a small, older woman who seemed to be bouncing with the same energy as the rest of her art. Clearly this was Lela Autio; the bubbly artist has a dark as well as humorous side.
I then found myself in front of another placard filled with more words. This one told me that Autio was from Great Falls and that her biggest influences were the neon lights of Central Avenue and the thick carpet and velvet curtains of the movie palaces. She studied art at Montana State and later at the University of Montana, and then spent many dedicated years raising a family, managing her husband’s art career, and teaching young artists in the Missoula public schools. Then I moseyed back in front of an abstract landscape called Plastic Wall. It is big and broad with clean lines and large areas of solid and vibrant color. The piece is warm and inviting. Another sign nearby reads:
Her work transitioned away from narrative and has been steeped in her own expressivism…which it then goes on to explain was…art connected to the demonstration of emotion, action, and expression. As expected, these words muddled my experience.
UFO, another piece that spills onto the floor, is less organic, and more organized. It is colorful and symmetrical. I sat for a minute to watch it, feeling like it might move. Maybe I was sensing expressivism, but I didn’t necessarily see the transition away from narrative.
Autio’s early works from the 1950s and ’60s—also represented in this retrospective collection—consist mostly of paintings. Many are portraits of family and friends and offer only a glimpse of the beginning of her creative presence. Arnie and Lisa, Gennie with a Guitar, and Jam Session, all from the mid-1950s, reminded me of early Pablo Picasso drawings. In these pieces, Autio, like Picasso, used a minimum of thin and thick lines and the curves of a guitar to accent human curves. Almost 30 years later, she did Plastic Calligraphy, another vinyl collage, but this one is built in three rows stacked one above another. To me, it is abstract but every bit as narrative as the early portraits and line drawings.
Upstairs I found Painted Quilt, 1972, the piece that, for me, connects Autio’s paintings to her sculpture. It looks as if one of her abstract oil paintings grew fat and, for the first time, crept into the third dimension. It still has the muddy, flat colors of her early work, but also the cloth tubes and pillows of the pieces yet to come.
And then there is the Blue Room, or, what I call Zizi’s shrine. In 1975, Autio created You’ve come a long way baby, a larger-than-life stuffed woman dressed in her signature vinyl, which sits in the center of the small upstairs galley that’s painted blue. Ten years later, Autio made Zizi, a hanging vinyl sex goddess (of sorts) with flowing hair, long skinny legs, and a California beach party flair. Dresses, capes, robes, and a surprisingly provocative pair of boots Autio designed with Zizi in mind surround the fictional women.
It is one thing to be on the cutting edge in New York or Los Angeles. It is quite another to be on the cutting edge in Montana producing works of great integrity outside the contemporary world of fashion and high art.
Why make the distinction, I wondered, between LA and Montana when the work doesn’t see any difference? Autio’s work is original, simple, warm, full of life and energy, or at least that’s how I felt about it. But never mind what I say. Likely you’ll feel differently.