At Jay Schmidt's log cabin on the outskirts of Bozeman, you'll find a wild display of chainsaw art and paintings that look like something out of Mad magazine. His wood sculpture, "Mascot," is of a giant two-faced ratone smoking a long cigarette, the other with a bulbous red nose and breastsnext to a wooden sculpture of a large Pabst Blue Ribbon bottle. In another piece, "Ratfink Nation," he's painted a green rat with bloodshot eyes clutching an item in each of its several arms: a gas pump nozzle, an eight-ball, a gun, the face of President Barack Obama.
But the scene inside Schmidt's cabin is nothing compared to how the artist creates his work. The 61-year-old is part of a collective called Paintallica whose whole schtick is engaging with art through an aggressively rambunctious process. The group's artist statement reads a little like a warning sign on a logging road: "Work usually involves chainsaws, wood in many forms, drawing, beer, paint, fire and a wide range of motor vehicles, occasionally guns and neon."
Paintallica started with a bunch of grad students from the University of Iowa, and most of the members live in Portland, Ore. There's a blue-collar, redneck jubilation to the group's style, but the 15 or so artists fill galleries in New York lofts and Vegas hotels just as much asif not morein small western towns.
Schmidt joined the group only a couple of years ago, after he retired from his position as an art professor at Montana State University. (He also used to teach at the University of Iowa). His first show with the group was in a Los Angeles parking lot where they chainsawed and painted a large log in front of a busy gallery.
"I've always seen a relationship between painting and sculpture," Schmidt says. "When I saw this log and I saw the potential of painting on it, it just seemed to really click. It took a year or two after seeing them work with chainsaws first to do it on my own, but I see those logs as blank canvases now."
In 2011, Schmidt and the other Paintallica members were commissioned to do an installation in the window of Barney's department store in New York City to promote Adam Kimmel's designer Carhartt line. At the art party on the night of the show, Paintallica showed up with wood, chainsaws and blowtorches and created four sculpturesall inspired by images of mice and ratswhile guests looked on, sipping cocktails. In a video shot during the Carhartt party, you can see one Paintallica member in a mesh baseball cap guzzling PBR from a plastic gas can and another melting a CD over a burner. The improvisation is artsy enough for a New York art studio, but the authentic energy of the scene feels like a Montana bonfire.
Paintallica's art sessions get even more crazy than the New York event. When the group gets together on its own, the artists sometimes spend 24 hours or more doing all-night work sessions where they drink beer and ambush each other's projects.
"You work on something and then somebody else can come and tear it apart and paint over it," Schmidt says. "Usually you embellish somethingyou work on it to make it betteror you edit it, which means you wipe it out. You can be painting on something and someone will come over and smear paint over the whole thing. Then if you really liked what you were painting you paint it back again. Sometimes I've done that three or four times. And the interesting thing is it really gets better each time you repaint it because you're always fighting for it. It becomes rich in that history of activity. That rawness and aggression becomes part of it."
Themes that arise from these all-night sessions often make it into the group's gallery shows. The sculptures for the Carhartt clothing line, including Schmidt's two-faced rat, were inspired by a series of drawings based on a Mickey Mouse S&M mask that one member drew and the other members riffed on to evolve their own images.
Another part of the Paintallica culture involves almost every member getting tattoos of the themes they come up with, which means some of the artists have been accruing new, strange tattoos for years. Last October, the group did an art installation at Cosmopolitan Hotel in Las Vegas. The theme was clowns, and was partly based on the Insane Clown Posse's Juggalo culture. The clown image served as a metaphor for the clownishness of U.S. politics, Schmidt says. Like most of their shows, the group created the art on-site in a 24-hour period. And afterward, Schmidt got his first tattoo ever.
"I tell people I'm 61 years old and I got my first tattoo in Vegasand it's a clown on my ass," he says.
"I always say what we do is asinine and juvenile, but I think what we do is really serious art-making," he continues. "It's a kind of a reactionary force against seriousness and pretentiousness in the art world. There's something really pure about that experience of an art free-for-all in a short period of time. And I try to carry that energy over into my own work."
Jay Schmidt's solo show, Warning Shots, opens Friday, June 7, at MAM with a reception from 5 to 8 PM and gallery talk by Schmidt at 7 PM. Free.