Live with mystery 

Artist Terry Karson turns advertisements to mosaic

Terry Karson doesn't believe in inspiration.

The Bozeman artist easily cites his influences, including the mosaics of Turkish mosques, that have pushed and guided his art. But the idea that artistry comes from some divine consignment is one that he doesn't put much thought into.

"I'm not out to figure out where that stuff comes from," Karson says. "I think a better approach is to live with the mystery."

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  • Model detail of Karson’s MAM installation, Commons.

So it's impossible to pinpoint an exact reason why he chose to cover every vertical surface of one of the Missoula Art Museum's galleries with nearly 13,000 4-by-6-inch multicolored cardboard panels. It's simply a vision he's had since he first saw the space in 2007, and one that he's devoted a considerable amount of the last two and a half years bringing to fruition.

"I walked into this room and I knew exactly what I wanted to do," he remembers.

The installation, Commons, is an impressive feat of dedication. Each tile of Karson's colossal mosaic was cut from the packaging of everyday grocery store items, then sanded with a random-orbit sander until just a specter of the original advertisement remains. Ritz cracker boxes and toothpaste brands are scattered throughout. Round imprints from cans and bottles representing dozens of different beer and soda brands still appear on some panels. In one corner, a metallic glint catches my eye amidst the dulled labels, which turns out to be the text outline from a box of knockoff Raisin Bran.

Karson first presented his idea to MAM as a scale model, which took a considerable amount of work itself. A change of studio spaces made things harder and a divorce derailed his focus, though it ended up fueling his concentration in the long run.

"I could have become an alcoholic real easy," he says. "Instead, I worked on this model. And it was like therapy for me."

The MAM agreed to do the show, funded by a grant from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, which allows the museum to commission work specifically for that space. Then the real work began. After years of compiling the materials, Karson cut up the tiles, individually sanded each one and sorted them via color. He affixed the tiles to 4-by-8-foot foamcore boards, which he trucked up from Bozeman and spent the better part of a week installing in the gallery, complete with several similar columns, two feet square and 10 feet high.

His piece has a lot to say about the effects of consumerism, the waste of which is captured in every tile. He scoffs at some of the panels in his piece that lend a green hue to his color palette due to "eco-friendly" advertisement.

"Most of the advertising on these things is pure bullshit," he says. "It's good that people recycle, but at the same time they have to understand there's more to it than that. This is a reflection of that unconscious wasting that we do."

Allied Waste, which is instituting no-sort curbside recycling in Missoula, also got behind Karson's installation by granting MAM a business sponsorship.

Karson will add at least another three months to the life span of the resources used in Commons. The installation will stay in MAM until the end of December, after which the artist will pack up the panels and put them in storage. Since Commons is so site-specific, it is nearly impossible to display anywhere else, so seeing the piece at MAM is a unique experience.

What is the greater meaning behind his mosaic? Karson doesn't offer one; much like his aversion to "inspiration," he's content with his art just being art.

"If I knew what I was doing I wouldn't do it," he says with a laugh. "It would take all the joy out of it. It's exploring the mystery that's the fun part."

Terry Karson's Commons opens at MAM Thu., Sept. 20, during the museum's Artini Redux event, which includes live music, ice cream and art projects 5 to 9 PM. Karson gives an artist talk at 7 PM. Free.

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