Jack Metcalf approaches art like it's the third act to a magic trick: the reappearance of an object after its disappearance. Last summer the University of Montana art graduate student discovered fliers hanging on campus with a snapshot of a drawing: a tortoise with the head of a bird. Underneath the photo of the drawing a note said: "Have you seen this drawing? Last seen in room 401 in flat drawer." Metcalf didn't recognize the artist or the drawing, but he took one of the posters back to his UM art studio in the basement of the Fine Arts building and created a drawing based on the lost piece.
"From the black and white, low-res xerox supplied, I used the same subject matter and composition, redrawing the anthropomorphic imagery in my fashion," Metcalf says. "I enjoy the conversation being had between the two [pieces]."
Metcalf's studio walls show other evidence of reappearing acts. A colorful, newly-rediscovered drawing he created as a young boy of himself with a balloon in his hand standing at the base of a mountain hangs next to his new version of the drawing—this time with more advanced detail. On another part of the wall he's pinned the graphic photograph of a roadkill rabbit. Next to it hangs an illustration with two titles—"For Lack of Use of a Better Word" and "The Hand of an Anthropologist"—showing the rabbit alive and gracefully perched on the head of Metcalf's grandfather.
"I came across the dead bunny rabbit and it ended up being the hair of my grandfather," Metcalf says.
For another project, Metcalf wrote about and drew his dreams on a scroll of paper that unfurls from a dispenser. This project takes an extra step, however; the scroll of paper illustrating Metcalf's dreams connects to a paper shredder with instructions on how to shred them so, just like that, they disappear again.
Metcalf was born in Sheboygan, Mich., but he grew up mostly in the swamplands of North Carolina and Georgia where his father was a captain in the Navy. He recalls drawing as a kid but not really reading much until high school when he picked up Breakfast of Champions (or Goodbye Blue Monday) and fell in love with Kurt Vonnegut's combination of drawings and text in the ironic story of identity and alternate universes.
Metcalf's drawings carry that same down-the-rabbit-hole feel, with multiple titles and a playfulness coupled with more serious undertones. His upcoming exhibit, Considering Content, at The Brink Gallery this week, includes curious drawings like the piece "I have nothing to say/and I am saying it"—a drawing of a Tijuana Zebra or "zonkey" (a donkey painted with zebra stripes) balancing precariously on a stool with an incoherent talk bubble coming from its mouth. For Metcalf, this piece is about hiding behind a façade.
"I think we all have issues with that," he says. "Sometimes we try to be something we're not. In another piece I made a whole herd of these zebra donkeys and they blend together—all these things that are trying to be something they're not."
Not long ago Metcalf read Michael Ondaatje's Coming Through the Slaughter, which also had an impact on his art. The poetic novel tells the story of jazz pioneer Charles "Buddy" Bolden, about whom very little was written. In lieu of a straightforward biography, therefore, it's more of a visceral exploration of his life and descent into madness. It's a story about jazz written in the rhythm of jazz. The novel conjures up a man who, in the absence of other documentation, stands on the edge of disappearing from memory, and Metcalf identified with that desire to conjure up things that have been lost or disappeared.
"Bolden was never recorded playing anything but a lot of people still copy his music," says Metcalf. "The book is written like a poem—it blurs time and the prose emulates music. That's kind of how I approach my work."
The least obvious but most prevalent object of Metcalf's reappearance theme is a fish. Strange catfish-like creatures with double heads and colorful scales have appeared in several of his drawings since his undergrad years.
"When I was young I caught 31 fish one day in Hollywood, N.C.," Metcalf says. "I was by myself and I was using Kraft's singles cheese. The fish really smelled bad and I threw them all back in but I never really took a picture or anything. It was a surreal day."
In a previous art installation he drew several individual fish as separate drawings and designated them each with the names of every losing presidential candidate in history. His most recent fish piece titled "How am I not myself," shows a large fish with individual scales each made of intricately drawn fish heads.
As much as he likes making things reappear, Metcalf also is drawn to the act of disappearing. In one of his new works he cut up an old piece of his art that was no longer precious to him and sewed it back together in a different form—completely erasing its original. Fleetingness doesn't only apply to his art. When his two years of grad school is up, Metcalf plans to uproot himself from Missoula and disappear to somewhere new. It's one way, he says, to always find new inspiration.
"I like making the unfamiliar familiar," he says. "But I do like to move about every three years, I decided, just when things start to feel stale. The subject matter I choose comes from happening upon images or drawings and letting those direct the work, so I'm always intrigued by chance."
Jack Metcalf's Considering Content opens at The Brink Gallery Friday, Jan. 7, with a reception from 5 to 8 PM. Free.