On the farm 

Harvesting the inventiveness of the human animal

Close to the Wilma Building downtown is a brushed aluminum storefront with a green and white graphic on the window displaying the enigmatic words “Farm Artspace.” From the look of the place, all crisp white lines, state-of-the-art track lighting and no shadows, it is unclear whether this is the entry to a corporate office, a museum or a gallery. Inside is a narrow shotgun room and a white cubical reception desk behind which is a hallway that disappears, with equal whiteness, to who knows where. Just inside the door is a large white pedestal with about 120 feet of what looks like extra wide cash register tape curled in a gently meandering pile. The tape has a mountain range stenciled on it in seemingly endless repetitions. The mountains look vaguely familiar. There is no tag on the wall beside this artwork, no explanatory plaque. No price. Wes Mills, the owner of the Artspace and an internationally known resident artist, says the brushed metal exterior is an expansion of similar aluminum window frames adorning other businesses in the area.

“Farm Artspace,” he tells me, reflecting on the gallery’s name, “the word farm has a western feeling.” He shows me pictures of the orchard valley farm where he grew up in Oregon, green flowering trees and grasses, a wide blue river, and the stratified textures of dark bluffs against a bright sky. The pictures exude warmth. I begin to understand; a farm is a place that nurtures the growth of plants and animals. The coldness of the building’s exterior coupled with the quirkiness of the name says to me “enter here if you are serious about art, but don’t take this all too seriously.” That’s my take on it anyway. Like the rest of the Artspace it is open to interpretation.

Mills went to high school in Great Falls where he studied with Montana artist Jerry Rankin. Mills’ fascination with collecting art seems to run hand-in-hand with his desire to develop his creativity, two sides of the same coin. In high school he bought a small print by the notorious Dada artist Marcel Duchamp whose “readymade” art recast the conception of what the essence of art is. Mills is also fascinated by the work of Joseph Beuys, whose radical performance art included suspending himself in a canvas bag, the size and shape of a large painting, on the wall of an ongoing exhibition.

Mills seems to have a deep compassion for the quixotic inventiveness of the human animal and a sharp eye for beauty as it plays itself out in various artistic forms. His intention for the Artspace, he says, “is to be a bridge for artists to the wider national and international community of artists and art collectors,” and a means of exhibiting art in Missoula that would otherwise never make it to Montana. Mills emphasizes that it is important to see the actual work of visionary artists. “It makes my experience all the richer,” he says.

In 1990, Mills made a sojourn to discover “the authentic” in his art by “retracing old memories” of his earliest childhood in Arizona. He landed in Taos, N.M. There, he rented the front yard of his house to a wannabe artist who made “obnoxious wood sculptures.”

“He was always in my house,” recalls Mills. “I’d come home and he’d be wearing my clothes.” The man complained bitterly that no one would offer him gallery space to exhibit his work. Mills, who says he has seen the truth in the axiom that “what is resisted persists,” found a tiny 10-foot by 14-foot former barber shop space to rent for $150 a month, and offered it as a venue for the man’s work.

Spurred into creation by an act of generosity, the Barber Shop Gallery earned a reputation as “the gallery you’re most likely to tell your friends about.” The gallery also attracted the attention of Laura Carpenter, the owner of a “blue chip” gallery in Santa Fe, who accepted some of Mills’ own drawings, and displayed them among works by such well-known artists as Bruce Nauman, Agnes Martin and Ellsworth Kelly. During its 2 1/2-year run, The Barber Shop Gallery exhibited some of the most offbeat, progressive and controversial arts “this side of the big city.” The shows included exhibits of Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Beuys, the fanciful carved and wire-wrapped sculpture of modern mountain man Ernie Finger, pre-Mapplethorpe male nude portraits by 1950s photographer Bruce of Los Angeles and Christine Larkin’s frightfully stark, black-and-white photographs of the Ku Klux Klan. In addition, the gallery helped Mills establish lasting relationships with some of today’s most prominent artists and art collectors.

Since returning to Montana several years ago, Mills has kept a relatively low profile, working in a studio on South Avenue, known mostly to collectors and other artists. Farm Artspace is both a vehicle for contacting local artists and a way to pass on the helpful wisdom gleaned from his own successful ventures. “Many galleries get so caught up in their own self-promotion they neglect their responsibilities to the artists they represent,” says Mills. Artists may be gratified to know that Mills says he will never refuse to look at an artist’s work.

In September, Farm Artspace is exhibiting Tibetan and Chinese Buddhist relics in combination with the works of the abstract Spanish painter Manuel Mondejar. Mills says he is interested in respectfully exhibiting ancient and contemporary arts together, highlighting their mutual roots of authenticity. Mondejar’s playful miniature canvases employ various techniques, from evocative incisions and sculpted paint to a raw pointillist technique that recalls Degas’ Water Lilies.

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