“We were interested in the more grotesque parts of art,” says artist Ben Bloch over lunch, sitting across from his creative collaborator and partner, Caroline Peters. “We were interested in the things that were shocking, but not just because they had shock value. We strived to provide a little electric spark [to Missoula] with our work and the ideas we presented.”
Peters adds: “I think we were kind of polarizing. The people that liked us really loved us. The others felt strongly the other way. But that’s how we wanted it—art should provide extreme reactions, either way.”
Bloch and Peters are feeling reflective because after six years testing Missoula audiences with contemporary art installations, new media presentations and live performances—the majority of which occurred in their Goatsilk Gallery from September ’02 to March ’04—the two are moving to Walla Walla, Wash. Bloch, who has also written a local arts column for the Entertainer, lectured at the Missoula Art Museum and taught at the University of Montana, has accepted a position as an art professor at Whitman College.
“It’s a real loss for us,” says UM art professor Valerie Hedquist. “What Ben and Caroline brought to the community was off the beaten path and very edgy and, really, very brave…They were challenging our ideas of what art is.”
Goatsilk presented approximately 12 public shows during its run. One, The eBay Show, displayed inexpensive art purchased online and was available in its entirety for auction, an exercise “revealing the Internet itself as a work of art.” Another asked members of the public to join in a “collective ring” of cell phones, promising a “poetic moment” connecting “human minds to moving satellites and back to earth.” Peters took part in many of her own live installations at the gallery, including Radiant Energy From Between Two Center Stars, where she “animalizes” herself by laying naked in the center of the space with a 60-foot fabric extending from her anus and her mouth. Hedquist remembers taking her 10-year-old son to one of the exhibits and watching a video titled Pressing the Vessel that showed a mouse dying. It made her son cry, and “it must have been good if it left such a mark on him,” she says.
“Nature is this great unknown that makes us feel small, it sets us in the world in a certain way, and art can do that, too,” says Peters, touching on how she and Bloch believed Goatsilk could prosper in Missoula. But Goatsilk ultimately buckled, struggling to support itself with such un-commercial and potentially divisive showings. For some, the gallery’s closing last year, coupled with Bloch and Peters’departure, raises the issue of whether experimental contemporary art is sustainable in the local scene.
“There have always been a certain number of artists here interested in more than just buffalos and landscapes,” says Victor Sheely-Morales, proprietor of MARS, which stands for Musicians and Artists Resource Society. “I see a lot of similarities between what Ben and Caroline have done, and Goatsilk, and some of the other venues we’ve had in town, like Eating Cake, farm art and Blue Empress. All of these places have helped Missoula look at so-called modern art, and away from the safe and reassuring works we typically see. I’m hopeful that someone else will come along and extend the cause.”
Peters and Bloch believe someone will.
“The only thing that made it not successful was we didn’t get more people coming through the door,” says Peters. “Work like what we did will continue to happen through the university and through other artists, just maybe not in one central place.”
More recently, Bloch and Peters have followed that model as they’ve focused on The Bowhead Project, which takes advantage of a mask Peters made of decorative bows. With no gallery to showcase the prop, the two have displayed it in different media—a movie called Avalon Bowheads screened twice this month at MARS, live performances have been held across town and an extended photography display appeared at Food For Thought this past March. The project, which hopes to provoke and study varying human reactions, has arguably been their most visible and successful work.
“It’s a work that’s informative and intuitive at the same time,” says Sheely-Morales. “While watching Avalon Bowheads, I saw an intellectual and biting satire about common people’s outward struggle for identity. It was completely different and unique and beautiful and funny.”
Looking back, both Bloch and Peters consider their efforts in Missoula successful and don’t rule out a return as they focus on distributing more original work from Walla Walla rather than running another gallery.
“With Goatsilk, we basically had nothing and managed to do something,” says Bloch. “I feel good not to be in the mix of all the difficult times and the frustrations, but what we did made a mark—I really believe that. It seemed to linger. Even after the gallery closed, people talked about it. That’s what all artists hope for.”