It’s okay to smell Andy Brown’s artwork. In fact, he’ll sometimes invite viewers to hold the large, multicolored pieces up to their noses and take a big, sweet whiff. The paper smells of candy, or the head of a Strawberry Shortcake doll. The reason? Brown paints with Kool-Aid.
“It’s very vibrant,” says Brown. “And it’s very, very cheap. I’ve used Kool-Aid for a number of years and it’s just sort of progressed, it’s developed.”
Brown began using Kool-Aid out of necessity in the face of limited resources, just as Vincent Van Gogh once experimented on cardboard instead of canvas or linen, but Brown has embraced the sugary confection and continues to use it today. To color his paintings, Brown dabs them with water, then sprinkles the Kool-Aid into the moisture—the more he applies, the darker the hue—and spreads it with a brush.
“It took time, but I’m more comfortable with it now,” he says. “It’s enjoyable enough, and…it smells good.”
Brown’s Kool-Aid-infused artwork is part of a temporary First Friday exhibit at the old location of Missoula Bicycle Works. “The Cycle Show” is the brainchild of four recent graduates from the University of Montana’s fine arts program—Brown, Walsh Hansen, Casey Perry and Peter Whittenberger—and the goal is to make contemporary, conceptual art more accessible. Last year, Hansen and Perry held a similar one-night exhibit in a downtown parking garage, lining a path of duct tape from Missoula’s more traditional galleries straight to their modern installation.
“All of my influences are from contemporary artists and I’ve never had the opportunity to see them in person. All of the art that means something to me I see in this scale,” says Hansen, holding up his hands to outline a small frame. “We only see them in magazines…There’s this whole other art world out there and we want to make that accessible.”
Toward that end, Hansen is recreating or satirizing actual exhibits that have influenced him. In one display, he recreates the work of Damien Hirst, considered the most famous of Britain’s young artists, with a small-scale model of a show that included “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.” The work is one of Hirst’s most famous, a 14-foot tiger shark preserved in a tank, which recently sold for close to $12 million. In another display, Hansen mimics the work of Tracy Emin, another famous British artist. Emin made a splash on the art scene in the 1990s by revealing personal tragedies and incorporating them into her multimedia pieces. Hansen’s recreation is a series of photographs of himself draped in a handmade quilt that reads, “All Things Content,” a poke at Emin’s direness.
“In order to make contemporary work and truly call it contemporary, you have to reference something current,” says Hansen. “When I started to figure out what Emin was doing, which is really cathartic and about her emotions…I thought about recreating her work from a male’s perspective.”
Fellow exhibitor Whittenberger says of his digital prints: “I’m trying to make as much sense as possible. I’m just pointing something out that everyone deals with in everyday life.” Whittenberger’s work in “The Cycle Show” addresses stereotypes and identity in modern culture. He focuses on Social Security cards and driver’s licenses and other objects that can be read as predetermining who we are and how we are perceived in society.
Two of his most recent works incorporate similar themes, capitalizing on the ways a uniform can define a person. In “Search Uniform,” Whitten-berger used an Internet search engine to find three portraits of common iconic figures: a doctor, a police officer and a priest. Whitten-berger replaced the individual’s heads with CMYK halftones because, “if you take those colors, you can get anything.” He makes a similar commentary with another series of portraits of men in business suits, all posed in the same formal manner.
“When you see these uniforms, the human beings don’t even matter. We’re focused too often on what these people are wearing rather than who they actually are,” he says. “I really want my work to drive home the fact that everyone’s the same.”
Whittenberger has had his work featured in Boston, Berkeley and Los Angeles, including one solo exhibit. Among his friends, he is called “the success story” for achieving recognition outside of Missoula.
Brown, on the other hand, will be showcasing his work for the first time—“The Cycle Show” will feature his large-scale maps recreated from historical texts, depicting the changing face of our country, massive growth and overcrowding population. Despite any preconceived notions of the merits of Kool-Aid as a medium, each map is colored in rich, vivid tones, many streaking outside the traced black lines of the map. The pieces are eye-catching, and it’s almost unfair to harp on the fact that they’re created with granulated drink mix.
“I subscribe to a messy aesthetic, but I think it gives it character and history,” says Brown. “I like to know that something’s come through a process. It lets you know that it’s real.”
“The Cycle Show” will be held at 521 S. Higgins Ave., Friday, May 6, from 5 to 9 PM.