One two-syllable punch 

Peter Koch messes with history at MAM

Peter Koch is excited, and the Gallery Talk crowd at the Missoula Art Museum can tell because the artist moves two steps closer and checks his watch and looks around as if to see if anyone else is coming. Then, in a voice that is contained but bursting at the seams, he says, “I want to read you something—it’s the spirit of the whole thing.” Koch reads an excerpt from a book called The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California, written in 1845.

“I cannot believe, that the time is not distant, when those wild forests, trackless plains, untrodden valleys, and the unbounded ocean, will present one grand scene, of continuous improvements, universal enterprise and unparalleled commerce…”

Koch now lives in Berkeley with a view of the Bay Bridge, but he was born and raised in Missoula. He comes from one of Montana’s pioneering families and went to school at Paxson and Hellgate, and then earned a degree in philosophy from the University of Montana. His roots are important because they influence his current exhibit, “Nature Morte.” Koch’s 11 prints are part of the museum’s effort to commemorate the bicentennial of Lewis and Clark’s expedition, and each one jumps from the wall like a sensational billboard grabbing a tired driver on a desert highway.

Koch’s prints are simple at first glance: An historic image, sometimes featuring text from the journals of Lewis and Clark or other literature, punctuated by a common, two-syllable word printed in large letterpress type. The hook of the exhibit is the marriage of word and image: “Stilllife” below photographs of wasted buffalo carcasses; “Roadkill” paired with a locomotive hauling 10 beds of thick lumber; and “Fullhouse” matched with two dozen American Indian children dressed in black uniforms flanked by nuns in front of a lily-white schoolhouse. Koch’s commentary on the exploitation of the West manages to be subtle and open-ended in its uncomplicated approach, and damning in its poignancy and intricate irony.

“…when those vast forests shall have disappeared, before the hardy pioneer…”

Koch’s grandfather was a forester from Missoula. He authored the Corps of Discovery markers that appear along the highway between Missoula and Walla Walla, Wash. He would take Peter on walks and point out certain landmarks and say, “Lewis and Clark were here.” Peter Koch remembers one of the first books he read was a children’s book on the expedition by Richard Neuberger. The great explorers became his heroes. “I’ve been fascinated by them forever,” Koch says. “My family has been surrounded by the history for three, four generations.”

The exhibit would seem to be a harsh criticism of the expedition, indicting Meriwether Lewis and William Clark for ruining a once beautiful and untouched landscape. Peter Koch, however, is not trying to lay blame on those who made the original journey. His work is more focused on those who came after and exploited the newfound land.

“I love Lewis and Clark. I unabashedly admire them,” Koch says. “The land was beautiful when they got there, and it was beautiful when they left. I want to be generous toward them. The people I don’t want to be generous toward are those who are alive today. History is something to learn from, but you don’t have to be nasty about it. I think you have to be nasty and confrontational with the idiots of today, the ones that keep messing things up—like the idiots that want to turn Lolo Peak into a theme park.”

“…those fertile valleys shall groan under the immense weight of their abundant products…”

After graduating from college, Koch began studying the art of bookmaking and fine printing with master artist and craftsman Adrian Wilson. The apprenticeship resulted in Koch opening his own printing studio, where he collaborates with authors such as Toni Morrison to create limited-edition books.

The idea for “Nature Morte” started in 2000. Koch’s research included travels to the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, where he was able to hold the original journals of Lewis and Clark and “smell the pages.” He collected hundreds of historical images of the West, including shots by pioneering photographer L.A. Huffman, and Koch filled two journals with notes and two-syllable words.

“There’s over 200 years of interpretation in this work,” Koch says. “You’ve got Jefferson idealism coming from the words of Meriwether Lewis; nineteenth-century boosterism coming from the photography; and then you have twenty-first century irony coming from what I’ve done with it all.”

“…And to this we may add numerous churches, magnificent edifices, spacious colleges, and stupendous monuments and observatories, all of Grecian architecture…”

When Koch finishes reading the excerpt at the Gallery Talk, members of the audience shake their heads and trade sarcastic comments about the eerie foreshadowing of the modern West. Koch can’t remember where he found the book, but he thinks it communicates the mistakes and missteps his exhibit illuminates.

“Isn’t it amazing? It grabbed me like everything else,” Koch says. “I think of these photographs as beautiful. And the words of Meriwether Lewis are beautiful. It’s all very innocent. I’m the one who has messed with it.”

“Nature Morte” is on display at the Missoula Art Museum’s Temporary Contemporary Gallery in the Florence Hotel through April 16.

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