“Did you smell it?”
Artist Brad Allen is referring to the centerpiece of his current exhibit: a 16-foot-long, 6-and-a-half-foot-tall bridge framed in wood and coated in 65 pounds of pure, sweet beeswax. He asks the question as if avoiding the organic aroma of 65 pounds of beeswax was even an option when viewing his enormous, golden-hued structure.
“I think the smell was important,” he says. “It’s such a visceral material. It’s the type of thing that will draw people in and make them stand and stare. At that point, it’s no longer just a bridge.”
This piece of work, titled “Bridge With No Ends”—also the title of Allen’s February exhibition at the Gold Dust Gallery—is a perfect example of the sculptor’s calculated mix of material, meaning and eye-popping presentation. His work can be dissected for deeper commentary—and Allen is more than willing to kick around the varying degree of politics, consumerism and rampant development that permeate the exhibit—but he doesn’t sacrifice aesthetics for analysis.
“I’m always looking to give people a couple of ways to get on board,” says Allen. “First, I want [my sculptures] to be visually hardy. I want them to be sexy enough for people to want to keep looking. Then, I want there to be some sophistication, something that makes them think. And then, hopefully, I want there to be a little bit of humor.”
“Bridge With No Ends” offers “hardy” and “sexy” with its sheer size and scope, not to mention smell. As for sophistication, Allen constructed it to illustrate the gap between an increasingly progressive, always-on-the-move society and a more present, natural environment—hence the use of beeswax as a finish. The humor of the work lies in the bosom-like lumps placed on either side of the bridge, a nod to the most basic of comforts in a frantic world.
“I’ve felt so caught up in everything the last two years,” says Allen, who moved to Missoula in July, immediately following grad school, to accept a teaching position at the University of Montana. “I’ve realized we’re in constant transition, always going, and you never really get there. That’s why I wanted the bridge to not really have any clear ends.”
The bridge is just one example of the literal and figurative layers Allen puts into his work. In the center of the gallery he erected a tower of road chunks, titled “Asphalt Ziggurat.” By itself the pile is a crude contemporary structure—as Allen says, “a Mecca of modernity”—but he surrounded it with talc and then carefully etched patterns similar to animal fossils in the powder. Without roping off the space, viewers inevitably trampled through the talc; some of Allen’s patterns remained visible, but intermingled with footprints and smudges as the talc was spread across the entire gallery floor.
“By the end of the night I could trace the audience,” he says, excited about the impact of the interaction. “It was beautiful. It’s as if the piece was picked up and taken someplace else, like a seed. You could even see brand names, like Reebok, in the floor.”
Not all of Allen’s work cloaks its meaning in talc and beeswax. On the back wall of the gallery hangs “Empty,” a simple statement in six sets of unused gun racks. The artist considered how to use the metal fixtures before deciding that just presenting them as is was all he needed to do.
“I wanted to talk about the war in general,” he says. “A lot of people don’t recognize [the racks] with no guns, but when they do it’s subtle: they’re all in use right now.”
Allen, 28, refers to his exhibition as a transition. When he completed graduate school in Illinois he intended to stay away from “cynical work” and wanted to focus on stretching the definition of sculpture by adding new forms, such as film and performance, to the traditional repertoire. Instead, his recent move, new teaching position and adjustment to life in the Rocky Mountains influenced him to create work for Bridge With No Ends reflecting an unsettled society.
“These symbols are composed through the eye of a contemplative observer who verges on [a] saddened, but accepting, critic,” he writes in his artist statement. “…I understand this body of work as a personal admittance to my own relentless and dissatisfying state of ‘going’, and allow it to anticipate a later sense of having arrived somewhere restful.”
Allen’s almost apologetic for the tone—“I felt like I needed to pull this one part of me back out of myself for this one show,” he explains—but is satisfied with the final product. The meaning behind the work, after all, is just one way for people to “get on board” with his art, and Allen recognizes that it’s the look and feel of Bridge With No Ends that will ultimately attract viewers.
“Ideally, I want it to haunt them,” he says. “Not in a creepy way, but for the designs to stay with them, to linger after they’ve left the gallery—the size of the bridge, the smell of the beeswax, those things. There may be specific reasons the work is there, but those are the things you remember.”
A closing reception will be held for Brad Allen’s exhibit, Bridge With No Ends, Saturday, Feb. 11, from 5 to 9 PM at the Gold Dust Gallery. The gallery is located on Missoula’s north side at 330 N. 1st St.